Cobalt Thorium GOP: The Republican tax scam will blow up civil society in America
America runs on taxation.
This is something that bears repeating in a country where taxes — the money that each of us puts into the “Keep America’s Lights On” jar — are a casually reviled concept. In America, there is an entire industry built on helping people avoid giving money to Uncle Sam. The most recent United States presidents have cut taxes in some way. The Republican Party, which accounts for more than one quarter of the American electorate, has fashioned itself into an extremist organization that believes in “starving” the government by relieving taxpaying oligarchs of their civic burden.
And yet, in spite of all this, we’ve never experienced a moment when America’s lights have gone off — when tax revenues plummet to such a low point that the government has no choice but to shut down programs and services that are integral to everyday American life.
This is not to suggest that America isn’t already suffering from fiscal austerity. We are, and it’s getting worse. But even as wages stagnate, living costs soar, and services like Medicaid and S.N.A.P face budget crises, we have to recognize that these services still exist. Each day, millions of people living on the fringes of our economy manage to find their way through the red tape and utilize welfare programs that their tax dollars pay for. Even those of us who have the privilege of buying our groceries from Whole Foods and enrolling in a PPO plan benefit from taxpayer-subsidized utilities like emergency services and local environmental protection agencies.
It is assumed that these utilities will always be there for us when we need them. And that is what allows civil society to sustain itself in America. Public utilities are the fence between a relatively peaceful society and a Hobbesian wilderness where starvation, violence, disease, and desperation are defining features of the landscape. This is why no American president or Congress has torn down the fence that our taxes built. To fantasize about bleeding the government dry is quite a bit different from actually doing it. The societal consequences would be unimaginable. So we don’t imagine them. We dream about never having to file a tax return again, and how great it would feel.
That’s it. America’s tax resentment runs no deeper.
It was this kind of thinking that gave George W. Bush and Republican lawmakers the confidence and political capital to cut taxes in 2002, with most of the cuts going to corporations and the wealthy. (They were later extended by Barack Obama.) These cuts were tough on America’s public programs, but not a death sentence. For most Americans, this was a good thing. For Republican Party leaders and their most powerful donors, it was a missed opportunity to claw back even more cash from the public coffers.
This would become the party’s governing mission for the next eight years.
Today, nearly a decade after W hung up his dinner jacket and returned to Texas to paint dogs and veterans for the rest of his life, the Republican Senate has passed its master plan to expand the Bush tax cuts that went to America’s highest earners. Of course, they have sold the bill as a tax cut for all. It is a breathtaking piece of legislation. Reckless. . Completely devoid of empathy for the billions of people whose lives will be negatively impacted.
Here is what you — an ordinary American — can expect if the Republican tax scam bill that the Senate just passed is signed into law by Donald Trump.
The only tax cut you will receive as a middle or working class citizen will be temporary. When it expires, your tax rates will go back up and you’ll be left alone to shoulder that burden. The tax reform will not spark a hiring boom in the private sector — this has never happened in the wake of tax cuts, despite Republicans’ insistence that it would — so if you’re jobless or if you get laid off, you’ll have to take your chances in the same shitty labor market we now face. Actually, the market will probably get worse because the tax plan will be brutal for small businesses and force a lot of them to downsize or shutter.
Worse yet, the taxes of ordinary working Americans alone won’t be enough to sustain the public resources that make life less miserable for those who are struggling. There will be virtually no food or housing assistance to fall back on if your job applications go nowhere or if your savings run out. Medicare and Medicaid will be defunded and your insurance options will become more expensive because the Republican tax reform also kills the Affordable Care Act mandate that requires everyone to have health insurance. The money that you paid into Social Security will be used to offset the cost of making sure that the wealthy and their progeny don’t have to pay a penny more in taxes.
If you decide to improve your income prospects by going to school, you’d better have a lot of money saved because nothing will be done to stem the insane cost of undergraduate tuition, and any tuition assistance you receive for a graduate program will be taxed as income. Get used to news like this because under the GOP tax bill, if you’re not rich, you’ll cough up more cash for nearly everything: including things that your taxes subsidize right now. Even if you hit rock bottom and decide that your best option is to drive to the nearest national park and begin a new life as a wilderness hermit, living off the land and forsaking what’s left of society, you should know in advance that you will have to pay a significantly heftier price just to be allowed into the park, and of course, you’ll have to pay the fee again every time you re-enter.
Never forget—you will endure all of this so that wealthy people and corporations will be relieved of paying higher taxes. Permanently.
If there’s any single piece of this misanthropic and nihilistic bill that we should pay extra attention to, it’s the temporary tax cut for the middle and working classes, which the Republicans are shamelessly spotlighting to persuade regular people that tax reform will be good for them. Several economists and pundits have compared this fleeting tax cut to the carrot that a wagon driver would dangle in front of a horse. In fact, it’s much worse. The carrot was dangled just out of reach from the horse — creating an eternal chase for something that the horse can covet but never have. But the Republican tax scam strategy amounts to letting the horse eat the carrot immediately. Once the carrot is gone, that’s it. The horse is stuck pulling the wagon indefinitely, left with nothing but the bitter memory of how sweet that one carrot tasted.
The cruelty of this strategy defies comprehension. But what’s just as important to recognize as the Republicans send their tax reform bill back to the House is how incredibly dangerous it would be to do something like this to an entire country of people who are already very anxious about their economic prospects. It is well established in the field of psychology that having a good thing ripped away from you without warning is far more traumatic and damaging than never having the thing at all. The Republican tax bill would offer billions of cash-strapped working people a glimmer of hope that would suddenly vanish, along with most of the public utilities that keep folks from sinking into the abyss. When that happens, America will become a very dark place. The question that most will be left wondering as the country rips itself apart is, “What the fuck just happened?!?” Meanwhile, the few permanent beneficiaries of the tax reform bill will weather the storm in their gated communities and mountaintop bug-out bunkers. And when the smoke finally clears, America will cease to be the sort of nation that inspires.
Instead, it will be a cautionary tale of what happens when a society gives up on the idea of common good.
This fate is almost too terrifying to consider, and that’s the problem. People don’t like to spend time thinking about the worst that could happen. We saw this in the years that preceded entirely predictable disasters like the 2007 housing market crash, or the election of Donald Trump. There was smoke on the horizon and most of us ignored it. But even when disaster arrives at your doorstep, accepting its presence can be too much for the average person. Just a few days after Trump won the presidency, the great Russian journalist and Putin expert Masha Gessen wrote a viral article called “Rules For Autocracy” that contained an important yet overlooked point for Americans reeling from the 2016 election. When your world and way of life are suddenly in danger, talking about the scale of that danger honestly and openly with your friends can put you at risk of sounding like the crazy person in the room. That’s a deeply embarrassing position to be in, at best, and it can leave you feeling isolated, powerless, and skeptical of your own sanity — even if there’s ample evidence to corroborate your hunch that things are about to get very bad.
But there are exceptions.
Earlier this year, millions of Americans rose up and defeated the Republican Party’s effort to take affordable healthcare away from people with modest income and pre-existing conditions. The folks who led this grassroots push-back reckoned with the most nightmarish consequences of cutting healthcare. They absorbed the reality it would kill people. They fought back furiously, calling their Senators and assailing them at town halls, and they won.
So where are these folks now? Is America too emotionally fatigued to stop the Republican Party’s apocalyptic tax reform bill? Is the basic concept of tax reform too wonky to catch fire and inspire grassroots resistance like healthcare repeal did? Or is the scorched earth devastation of the tax scam too detached from our relatively stable present? Even in their ugliest form, neither of the Republicans’ healthcare repeal bills ever threatened to defund America’s public infrastructure like the tax scam would. And even on our most contempt-ridden days of tax season, most of us have never truly tinkered with the Pandora’s Box of questions that are unique to this chapter of US history.
What would happen if we just stopped investing in civil society?
Or believing in it?
We no longer have the luxury of flirting with this question. We must engage with it today, as though our lives depended on it. (Because they do.) Until then, we will remain caught in vicious war between slashing taxes and keeping America’s lights on. It is a war that the Republican Party and its donors are now within reach of winning, and there might not be any coming back from that resolution. If they win, most of us will feel the impact. Many will swear that they never saw it coming. But those of us who did recognize this tax reform bill as a nuclear time bomb will be forever haunted by what might have happened if more people had cared — if we had been given just a little more time to raise the alarm and stop the bomb from going off. And that is the single scariest thing that every one of us needs to understand right now.
We don’t have much time.