Anti-Tax Rhetoric: Another Greenhouse Gas

Anti-tax rhetoric: Another greenhouse gas

Mercifully, the primary campaign has washed over the state where I live, and with the end of the inundation we no longer have to put up with the television ads arising out of a local Congressional district. You know the district I’m talking about, the place where three candidates, all current legislators, had been accusing each other – incessantly – of voting to raise taxes, as if funding our government were self-evidently not merely a bad, but a nearly unspeakable, act. The catchphrases that accompanied these accusations included “wasteful spending” (the existence of any other kind of spending not being hinted at) and “big government” (the calamity wasteful spending enables).

Unfortunately, the rules stipulated that they couldn’t all lose. One of them had to win. The victor was or at least pretended to be an ignoramus: his ads showed him commenting scornfully that “big government never created a job.” Apparently his high-school history books had omitted the Works Progress Administration and the Job Corps; apparently he’d overlooked a rather large military facility just outside his district at which thousands of his constituents are reportedly gainfully employed; apparently he’d forgotten the official government line we’ve been living with since Reagan to the effect that when the government transfers wealth from the poorest taxpayers to the richest, the effect is job creation, albeit via the proxy of private entrepreneurship.

I’d submit that his kind of talk (and that of his primary election adversaries) is the equivalent of the CO2 filling up our atmosphere: a poison that accumulates and makes our world hotter and more dangerous. Indeed, the real CO2 in our atmosphere is the single most urgent reason why such talk is perilous, and we need to get it out of our discourse.

We face difficulties of Biblical proportions, far more destructive than any likely presented by Muslim extremists. The seas are going to rise and drown places where multitudes of us live, large portions of our agricultural resources will die from excessive heat, fisheries will collapse, energy sources will disappear, killer storms will multiply. This is already well under way, and life is about to get uglier fast. As our ecosphere degrades and energy becomes scarcer and costlier, we as individuals and as a country shall face immense problems, far beyond the ability of the private sector to address. Only governmental planning, only widespread sacrifice of a nature only government can direct, only international accords that governments alone can make and enforce, can possibly promise any path to eventual salvation.

Hence rhetoric that mocks and vilifies government, while glorifying private enterprise and the goods and the lifestyle it can produce, are deadlier than a terrorist’s bomb at this point in our history. The private sector is geared toward the individual gain of the workers, investors and entrepreneurs who staff it, and the professionals who serve it. This is partly a good thing; the “invisible hand” of the market also produces common benefits for us all, like the enormous prosperity most of us in this land have long enjoyed.


But economists have also long recognized the existence of “negative externalities.” These are bad effects external to the benefits and incentives of the commercial marketplace, of which the marketplace takes but a limited account. And it turns out, in light of incontrovertible science, that the potential death of our planet is one of those little negative externalities. It turns out that the very prosperity virtually all of our politicians of both parties praise with that deadly phrase “the American dream” – that prosperity we are repeatedly told it is particularly American for us to want for our kids – that prosperity is the curse of the world.

In pursuit of “the American dream” we gravitate toward houses that gorge on farmland and forest, sapping the greenery that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. In consequence, just to go to work and to shop, we must drive vast distances in huge vehicles that increase both CO2 and other poisons, while they incidentally hasten the day when no one has any oil. We work and play consuming power the generation of which almost inevitably heats the atmosphere and emits chemicals that destroy the pH balance of the seas, wrecking coral reefs and the ecosystems that depend on them. We eat lots of meat, the raising of which is water-intensive in destructive ways, and lots of overfished seafood. We take our food home in disposable plastic bags that consume irreplaceable petroleum, our vital chemical feedstock, and pollute the environment when they escape into it. That – and a myriad of other offenses against the welfare of our race and our planet – is what is generally involved in pursuing the American dream.

We all do this, including you and I, dear reader. Most of us know that this American dream, rapidly becoming the standard that other countries are achieving as well, is killing our futures and those of our children. But individually, we are almost powerless to stop pursuing it. That is the hard truth. Even collectively, as private members of the economic marketplace, we cannot do much, as there is not, or at least not yet, a sufficient profit motive for the private sector to change our course. A well-funded government is the only possible brake on our deadly momentum.

And we do not need a brake on that brake. Hence when politicians romanticize business profits and demonize government, when they encourage, nay, idealize, the pursuit of a lifestyle of intense consumption, when they give rhetorical legitimacy to efforts to starve government of taxes, they attack our very survival.

Instead of educating voters about the need to curb consumption, instead of directing the development of our infrastructure to discourage wasteful building, driving and eating, politicians glorify the wrong-headed course we have been pursuing, hastening the downfall we are careening towards. Instead of reinforcing that we are all going to have to sacrifice and tax ourselves and pull together, they bless a rugged individualism and distrust of the very elites – the government scientists, economists, engineers, regulators and diplomats – who are inevitably going to have to direct the enterprise of common salvation.

So in the upcoming elections, I’d urge that we listen carefully to the rhetoric. If we hear politicians blast taxes, extol small government, and limn the American dream, we shall know that those are the politicians to vote against. Government on the cheap is far too expensive for us. Too much personal prosperity will bankrupt us, in fact it will probably kill us. We need to wake up now, and recognize these realities. And politicians who fail to acknowledge the truth of them need to go, along with their dangerous talk.

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