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Grover Norquist and the metaphysics of taxes

[ 48 ] July 22, 2011 |

When I first read this passage from Norquist’s NYT Op-Ed this morning regarding what counts as a violation of the no new taxes pledge he authored 25 years ago, I hadn’t had any coffee yet and it made no sense whatsoever:

Finally, there has been much confusion — some of it my fault — over whether the ending of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts or the A.M.T. “patches,” scheduled for Dec. 31, 2012, should count as a tax hike. If they are ended, the government will take in nearly $4 trillion more over the next decade than if they remain.

My position, and the implications of the pledge regarding such “temporary” tax cuts, is clear. If there were no vote in Congress and taxes rose automatically, then no politicians would have voted for higher taxes and no elected official would have broken his or her pledge.

But that is different from supporting a plan by some Democrats that would end some [!] or all of these lower tax rates, higher per-child tax credits and the A.M.T. patches
— policies that, by the way, Congress has extended repeatedly with bipartisan support. It is difficult to see how such a package would fail to violate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Contrary to the hopes of some that I am somehow softening the pledge, it is stronger and more important than ever: it has made it easier for members of Congress to credibly commit to voters that they will refuse to increase taxes and instead focus on reducing the cost of government.

Did you follow that? If all these lower tax rates expire without further legislative action then members of Congress who allow this to happen will not have raised taxes. But if members vote for a bill that (among other things I suppose) “ends some or all of these lower tax rates” then that does count as raising taxes.

What’s going on here? Theories:

(1) Norquist is all twisted up in some devious game where he wants to kill any “grand bargain” in the works.

(2) He adheres to some very strange act/omission distinction in regard to the politics of taxes.

The second possibility is more interesting. It would track with what to me has always been one of the weirdest quirks of the anti-tax theology of the contemporary GOP, which is its otherwise inexplicable objections to “wealth redistribution.” The “logic” of the position seems to be something like this: It’s OK for government to collect taxes to pay for government services, but it’s not OK to take money people have earned and give it to other people who haven’t earned it. This view requires maintaining various distinctions that collapse under the slightest intellectual pressure, which is one reason great care is taken to never exert any (the anti-intellectualism celebrated on the right is among other things a pragmatic strategy).

Norquist’s otherwise strange act/omission distinction makes a certain degree of sense in this broader context. The basic underlying metaphysical assumption appears to be something like, “There’s a natural economic order. Interference with that order is bad. Legislative action interferes with that order. Legislative inaction does not. Therefore higher taxes that result from legislative inaction are not tax hikes, while precisely the same tax rates — or even tax rates that are lower overall than the present baseline; note the “some” in the quoted passage — resulting from legislative action are tax hikes.

If Norquist and his ilk really do adhere to this kind of distinction, then it becomes more obvious than ever that there’s no reason to compromise on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

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Comments (48)

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  1. actor212 says:

    It was precisely this pledge I had in mind when I queruied yesterday if the current deal including a sidebar between Obama and Boener with respect to letting the Bush tax cuts die.

    The double-jointedness involved in Norquist’s Op-Ed would make a fakir jealous

  2. DK says:

    This action-omission distinction / don’t upset the natural order thing is the same as the idea of status-quo neutrality which supported Lochner era, pre-New Deal conservative thinking. It has a long pedigree, so I suppose we should not be surprised to see Norquist using it. (That said, I am, in fact, surprised).

  3. NonyNony says:

    Look I think it’s simple – Norquist isn’t coming right out and saying it, but his group builds a score for legislators by scoring how they vote on various bills. If there’s no bill, there’s no score and it doesn’t count. If there’s a bill and they vote on it one way or another then their vote counts and it’s factored into the score.

    He’s trying to make his arbitrary scoring system sound more principled than it is. That’s all this is – he came up with this scoring system in the 90s, it’s served him well for 2 decades and now he’s mistaken the scorecard for the game. People do it all the time, and it’s no surprise that a noted shit-for-brains like Norquist would fall into this trap too.

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      I don’t see a lack of principle.

      I see bog-standard Pigovian tax theory.

      If you want less of something, tax it.
      Tax poor people.
      Fewer poor people.

      QED.

      Grover’s just fighting poverty, like LBJ.

  4. Hanspeter says:

    (3) Very Strong Word came via back channels stating that a default or any of the current Tea Party proposals would cause massive economical damage and that he better find a way to create a loophole in the Iron Clad Pledge.

    As to all that action/inaction thing, I’m sure a more enterprising mind could rephrase that using the Laws of Robotics as a starting point.

  5. srm says:

    I think Conor Friedersdorf said it best in this article: Grover Norquist’s pledge is a colossal failure. I can’t disagree with the reasoning laid out and wish more people would say it.

    • DrDick says:

      Norquist’s pledge is grossly anti-American, anti-democratic, and frankly treasonous.

      • ajay says:

        Anti-American? Doing dangerous, stupid, treasonous things to avoid having to pay taxes is what being an American is all about!

        • Geoff says:

          Possible referring to anti-American here in a more literal sense of the term, as in “to the detriment of the United States Government as a whole.”

      • NonyNony says:

        I dunno if you can call it treasonous – treasonous usually means “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”, and as far as I can tell even our “enemies” these days are worried that we’re going to plunge the world economy into Armageddon.

        It’s definitely legislative malpractice though.

        • actor212 says:

          Depends on the enemy. You have to believe that Osama bin Laden had great sport during the economic collapse of 2008 and the subsequent national panic, which was predicated in large part on our war spending.

      • srm says:

        Not sure how you could call it anti-American or treasonous as it appears to be neither in my book. Why not just leave it at monumentally stupid and a complete and utter failure? Those are appropriate enough adjectives to get the point across without using the hyperbole in your comment.

      • David Hunt says:

        Treasonous? Politicians make crazy campaign promises all the time to get elected. The only differences I see here are
        a) The promise is in writing.
        b) Norquist is more capable than most interest groups regarding enforcement of said promise.
        c) Perhaps this is part of b, but the pledge has more longevity both in how long politicians have been signing it and how long they can be held to it after they’ve signed it.

        But the pledge is still just a campaign promise. Is it Anti-American or Anti-democratic? You can make strong arguments that it is either or both, but I have a strong reaction to people calling Treason. The prior Maladministration were far to free about hinting that their political opponents were acting in a treasonous manner, often using terms like “aid and comfort to the enemy.”

        IIRC, Treason is the only crime that is specifically defined within the Constitution. I’ve read that this is because the Framers had lived through times when the British Crown would label any opposition as treason. To quote John Rogers, they knew the first one to call Treason was a bastard. We shouldn’t fall into that trap.

        Now, I’d be open to the idea of calling Norquist’s anti-tax pledge economic terrorism…

        • NonyNony says:

          I still think economic terrorism is the wrong thing to call it because they aren’t doing this to destroy the economy. They’re doing it because they seriously think that it will lead to lower taxes for rich people and a smaller government.

          That’s not really economic terrorism – that’s legislative malpractice. It’s like your doctor thinking he can cure you of high cholesterol by preventing you from eating.

          • DocAmazing says:

            If your doctor could be shown to ignore serious and life-threatening effects of your not eating and continue to force the issue, your doctor could be subject to criminal penalties, not just civil (malpractice) ones. That’s what’s up here: if the Rs are so deliberately ignoring the damage that they are doing, they leave the realm of malpractice and start getting into things like depraved indifference and battery. (If we continue to use your medical analogy, that is.)

            • NonyNony says:

              I’d agree with that. Although I’d still hesitate to call it “terrorism”. It might move from legislative malpractice to economic battery. Though frankly I’d say that the GOP has been engaging in economic battery against the US economy for decades, so the line isn’t clear-cut.

          • David Hunt says:

            Nony Nony,

            I conceded that calling Norquist’s tax pledge economic terrorism is extreme and (worse) falling into the same kind of hyperbole that I was railing against in my “Treason” rant. Mia culpa.

            I was confusing the pledge with the whole debt-ceiling hostage crisis drama in my head. I have no problem calling the Republicans holding the world economy hostage for their own political end economic terrorism.

            Remember, the goal of most terrorism, isn’t to destroy your target but to effect some change in policy on the part of your victim. This is because most terrorist are home-grown and trying to change their home country. Thus we usually get things like that fellow that crashed his plane into an IRS building. These people don’t want to destroy the U.S. They want to change/”restore” it to a better or “perfect” place.

            The debt crisis shenannegans fit that to a tee.

    • Njorl says:

      I think Friedersdorf has it right. At a time of high debt, all spending is taxation. Cutting taxes just changes when you pay, not how much. Or rather, it increases total taxation, to cover the interest.

      Republicans are fools in this regard. Trading spending cuts for tax increases really means that they are getting tax cuts and spending cuts.

      • mpowell says:

        This is only sort of true. It’s not the absolute level of debt that matters, it’s the interest rate or inflation rate that it is causing that matters. And right now both are basically zero.

        But Norquist’s pledge is still stupid and getting in the way of decent policy-making. For example, maybe Republicans should think about actually developing policy that will make healthcare less expensive in the future instead of believing they can just refuse to pay?

        I think the problem is that the Republican political culture that has been bred in this country is only interested in acquiring political power. They don’t really care about long term policy anymore. Their financial supporters are kind of getting shafted, but they are too short-sighted and greedy to actually realize it.

  6. The action/inaction distinction disappears further when somebody files a bill to prevent a tax hike that is scheduled to happen from happening, and members of Congress must decided to vote for or against it. Do you think Grover Norquist won’t consider a Nay vote to be breaking the pledge?

  7. seeker6079 says:

    The “logic” of the position seems to be something like this: It’s OK for government to collect taxes to pay for government services, but it’s not OK to take money people have earned and give it to other people who haven’t earned it.

    And this is why progressives so often have their asses handed to them come election time.

    I’d wager that if you polled 100% of eligible voters and asked them if they agreed with that statement at least nine out of ten of them would. Now, the devil is in the details and the application, of course, (the most stunningly obvious being where one draws the line on a government service as opposed to haven’t earned, naturally … hello welfare) but taxpayers accept that underlying rationale as stated as their moral and usually voting starting point. Putting smug little quotes around “logic” isn’t going to win you any votes because the folks paying the taxes are going to reasonably assume that you are in favour of giving their hard-earned cash to people who haven’t earned it, and the voters’ response will usually be F* You Hard With A GOP Stick.

    • actor212 says:

      Which is why the issue has to be reframed from “robbing the poor to give to the poor” to “asking the rich to give back to the people that made them rich in the first place”.

      We can call it a “gratuity” instead of a tax

      • seeker6079 says:

        This. It used to drive me nuts when I dealt with my fellow Canadian progressives about how little interested they were in convincing the poor and the lower- and entrepreneurial-middle and middle-classes that they weren’t after theirmoney. Given that most of them were either tenured, or in some form of secure student life or government or quasi-government employment or unkillable union job this was perhaps not surprising. It’s only very recently that the NDP has awoken to the electoral virtues of a platform that isn’t by promise or inference “let’s tax the shit out of you to make the world a better place”.

        • Paul Campos says:

          I’m assuming that LGM readers don’t need to have it explained to them why the government service/wealth transfer distinction makes no sense. Obviously it does need to be explained, with considerable tact, to a polity that has had 40 years of Reagan-style nonsense about taxes crammed down its throat.

          • seeker6079 says:

            Exactly my point, thank you, with only the caveat there is some merit to the distinction. I’d note, for example, the “unearned” concept is vital to blocking corporate /developmental welfare (rather than the societal damage control that is individual welfare). Otherwise you have bassackward notions like subsidizing billion-dollar sports teams, or building cucumber greenhouses in Newfoundland.

      • seeker6079 says:

        Which is why the issue has to be reframed from “robbing the poor to give to the poor”

        , or, more accurately, “to those poor that you hate”.

        to “asking the rich to give back to the people that made them rich in the first place”.

        . Nah, I wouldn’t even use the word “give” which implies altruism; I lean towards the notion of “paying their fair share” “no free rides” and such like.

        • actor212 says:

          I was kinda letting loose on the fly. The construct I was grappling with was to reimburse the people who make it possible for the rich to make gobs of money.

          You know, like the night watchman at the office or the cleaning person supporting four kids and trying to stay awake long enough on their third job of the day, that sort of payback.

  8. owlbear1 says:

    GOP tax philosophy: “Eat your cake and we’ll take your poor neighbor’s cake instead.”

  9. upyernoz says:

    i think norquist’s embrace of the action/inaction distinction is more practical than philosophical. he wants to preserve the possibility of temporary tax cuts as a fallback position in the event that congress can’t get permanent cuts through. if letting a temporary tax sunset violates his pledge, then the pledge takers would be deterred from voting for a temporary cut in the first place, which would make temporary cuts harder to pass.

  10. dr says:

    Re: the act/omission distinction — this distinction looms large in other areas of conservative thought, especially insofar as it is influenced by Catholic doctrines about life. It may be that the importance of the distinction there (where it is marginally more defensible) acts as an intuition pump here…

    • somethingblue says:

      I’ve long thought that modern American “conservatism” is best viewed as a religion rather than an ideology, but this really brings it home. Grover sounds exactly like a Catholic theologian discussing the rhythm method.

  11. [...] ADDITION If you perceive a religious zeal in Norquist’s disquisitions on what is and is not a tax, Paul Campos at LGM offers a further elucidation on the “metaphysics of taxes.” Share [...]

  12. xxx says:

    If you’re a minority senator and the majority does not bring a bill to the floor to extend the tax cuts, then you did not violate your pledge, despite the fact that taxes increased.

  13. Quaker in a Basement says:

    C’mon folks. Grover said it just plain as day. It’s only bad if Democrats do it

  14. octopus says:

    Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned (U.S. Constitution, 14th Amendment).

    Inasmuch as all Congress Critters … including the Republican leadership, their TeaHoo colleagues (but not their proto-fascist corporate benefactors) … have a constitutional obligation to honor the nation’s debts, the very idea of holding the nation hostage is in itself a violation of the U.S. Constitution. So who or what holds more authority in this instance: The U.S. Constitution or Grover Norquist’s hostage-taking No Tax Pledge?

    Years ago, at least there were former Republican presidents who understood their Constitutional obligations. Under former President Reagan, the debt ceiling was raised 20 times … without conditions or exceptions or partisan hostage-taking. Under former President Bush, the debt ceiling was raised 7 times … without conditions or exceptions or partisan hostage-taking. What makes this Republican legislature different from others?

    The Republicans now refuse to govern alongside Democrats and have lost all ability to participate in a democracy comprising diverse constituents and stakeholders.

    • Anonymous says:

      What makes this Republican legislature different from others?

      A fair question.

      We’ve been spending at 18% – 22% for the last 60years or so. Now, the spending level is at 25%.

      That’s the difference. There is no reason why we can’t go back to what it was just 5 years ago, a level that has served us pretty well for the last half-century.

  15. Jado says:

    How about, “Norquist will make up any contorted reasoning he wants, at any time, to justify whichever opinion he most recently held. The point of power is power. And inexplicably, he has it. And he will do whatever he needs to do in order to retain it.”

    Apparently, someone drowned his patriotism in a bathtub. Traitorous scum.

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