Booknotes – January 2002

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A Fool and His Tax Dollars by T. E. Ruppenthal

The Sixteen-Trillion Dollar Mistake: How the U.S. Bungled Its National Priorities from the New Deal to the Present, by Bruce S. Jansson (Columbia University Press, 2001) presents a brief history of the past 70 years of American, politics and features all the famous people, programs, and lots of very large numbers. The $16 trillion in the title is the portion of the $56 trillion in federal spending that Jansson believes the federal government has wasted since the New Deal.

Immediately I suspected Jansson’s scholarship. How could anyone conclude that the feds only wasted 28% of our money?

The book clearly demonstrated to me that, at least since the reign of Truman, the two political parties have been nearly identical. Both agree on an ever-expanding federal government and the rightness of crippling levels of taxation. They disagree only on how the loot should be divvied up. For half a century, it’s been a matter of “you fund our shameful scheme and we’ll fund yours.” Rare has been any political concern that citizens should have first call upon their income and their lives.

Jansson, however, sees it differently. He sees Republicans as pro-business, pro-military heavies who are “unlikely to channel money to the people in American society who need it most.” For him, Democrats are caring politicians. He excuses their ignominies as forced reactions; their support of wasteful military and corporate expenditures stems from a fear of being attacked politically. Jansson doesn’t seem to realize the implication of this: Democrats would rather keep their cushy jobs than “serve the needy citizenry” as he would have them.

Even the $16 trillion that Jansson believes was wasted is merely a “mistake,” not criminal malfeasance. He believes the taxpayers’ money was misspent, not misappropriated; had it been disbursed differently, all would be right with the world.

He found a mere $37 billion in excessive pork-barrel spending and found no money wasted on public housing, education, and health care. Bay area media regularly report on millions each year wasted or stolen in this area alone. You don’t find what you refuse to see.

He decries corporate contributions and their connection to corporate welfare, while ignoring contributions from labor unions and governmental employees who also gain at taxpayer expense. Not surprisingly, he never refers to the Constitution’s enumerated powers. He’s too busy advocating an increase in federal spending for child care, health-care clinics, entitlements, education, employment, and training programs, environmental regulations, a myriad of social services, and much more. He defends every federal social program, even the most obvious failures; to him, they simply need more time, more associated programs, and most of all, more money.

Somehow he manages to totally ignore the billions lavished on the never-ending War on Drugs and the increase in federal prison spending. Perhaps he feared being attacked politically.

Numbers endlessly stream across the pages, millions and billions and trillions of dollars. Impressive figures to those who fail to notice that the numeric deluge is a confused jumble.

Jansson also makes numerous non- numeric errors. He claims, for example, that the recent Serb-Albanian conflict was over Kosovo, where “Serbs had vanquished Moslem invaders centuries earlier,” when in fact, Kosovo is the Serbs’ homeland that had only recently been invaded by Albanian Muslims.

The book does contain interesting bits of history; tales of political shenanigans, deceptions, and deceits down the decades, and the inexorable, cancerous growth of the federal government since FDR. It also reminds us that in 1932 fewer than five percent of the working population paid federal income tax and fewer than 300,000 people paid over 90% of this tax, which totaled $2 billion.

Most amazing of all, under taxation alone accounts for more than a quarter of the total funds wasted by the federal government. “When a nation fails to tax private wealth sufficiently, it lacks resources to meet its foreign and domestic obligations.”

You’d think the man must be a resident of a lunatic asylum. But no. Jansson is a resident of a university, where he spends his days as a professor of social work. He isn’t mad; he’s merely mercenary. And he, like the politicians he rebukes, simply wants more in his trough.

The Age of Isms by Orson Olson

In the 1950s, a political science textbook titled Todays Isms: Socialism, Capitalism, Fascism, and Communism made its debut. Forty years and ten editions later, the text has been re-released with an additional author – Alan o. Ebenstein, son of one of the original authors – and an addition to the list of “isms”: Libertarianism.

The original Today’s Isms treats the ideologies of socialism, capitalism, fascism, and communism in succession, detailing actual political histories. But the 11th edition by William Ebenstein, Alan Ebenstein, and Edwin Fogelman (Prentice-Hall, 1999) reflects the revival of classical liberalism (under the label “libertarianism”) since the 1970s – in effect, revivifying a classic textbook for use in academic classes in modern comparative government and political ideology.

Capitalism and fascism are covered in 40 and 30 pages, respectively; communism in a suitably hefty 90-some pages, while socialism and libertarianism are both surveyed in around 20. The last two constitute the text’s beginning and concluding chapters. In each, historical and theoretical approaches are applied to the interaction between the theory and practice of the five major ideological value systems that have shaped the 20th century.

Most of the chapter on libertarianism is devoted to political philosophy. At the outset, Ebenstein states that anyone who denies that libertarianism is fundamentally about the rule of law doesn’t grasp libertarianism. The text covers seminal thinkers like Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and, as one would expect of the author of Friedrich Hayek: A Biography, Hayek himself. The influence of libertarianism on British and u.s. politics during the past two decades is discussed as well.

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