Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 24, 2011
POLITICS: Greg Sargent's Imaginary Conflict
The Washington Post's in-house left-wing activist, Greg Sargent, thinks he can convince you that he has a "gotcha" moment with Rick Perry's recent book "Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington":
Rick Perry's campaign is now distancing him from another controversial claim in his book: That we should repeal the 16th Amendment and replace it with a "Fair Tax," a radical idea that's still rattling around in some precincts on the right.
Here's the problem: the book doesn't say that.
Perry, who has spent his career as governor of a state with no income tax, argues as a historical matter - and he's on solid ground here - that the federal-state balance was decisively altered by the Progressive Era enactment of the 16th and 17th Amendments, which (respectively) created a federal income tax that vastly expanded federal revenues relative to state revenues and made Senators popularly elected rather than representatives of their states' legislatures. By giving the federal government a large revenue base independent of the states and removing the representation of state governments in Washington, those two amendments were foundational in creating the modern national administrative state and expanding Washington's power and influence at the expense of state and local authority closer to the people. Perry, as an ardent exponent of federalism, thinks this was in many ways more trouble than it's been worth. There's a lot of pros and cons to an argument of this nature, but it's a serious question. None other than Sargent's ideological comrade at the Post, Ezra Klein, who agrees with Perry on almost nothing, wrote in his positive review of Perry's book back in April:
This is not a boring book. More to the point, it's not even a book about Rick Perry. It's a book about Rick Perry's ideas. And his big idea is that most everything the federal government does is unconstitutional... Perry's federalism is radical in scope, but it's not thoughtless. He believes, and repeatedly argues, that states are simply more capable than the federal government. "Most problems get better solutions when they're solved at the local level," he writes. He believes that the variations in state policy allow Americans to "vote with their feet."
That's the history. But making a historical argument of How We Got Into This Mess is not the same as arguing that the entire last century should be unwound to get us out of it. I myself have argued that, whatever its original merits, it would be a terrible idea to try to get rid of the 17th Amendment. (And frankly, I'm not a fan of the Fair Tax either.)
But let's look at Perry's actual argument. Perry does, in the conclusion of his book, argue in the book for restructuring the way the federal government collects revenue, with the goal of both tax simplification and reducing the ultimate size of the federal government. And he does suggest the Fair Tax and the repeal of the 16th Amendment as one of the possible ways to go about doing that, a suggestion that undoubtedly makes the Fair Tax faction more receptive to his overall point. But Perry does not argue for that as his proposed solution, but simply one of the potential options along with something closer to a flat tax:
Second, we should restrict the unlimited source of revenue that the federal government has used to grow beyond its constitutionally prescribed powers.
A flat tax is a controversial idea too, but one that has had bipartisan support over the years (both Jerry Brown in 1992 and Steve Forbes in 1996 ran on flat-tax platforms). And Perry's campaign, in responding to Sargent, is open about the fact that a presidential campaign has to deal with the immediate practical reality of how to implement political ideas in ways that a book does not, even a book by the same man written at the same time:
The 16th Amendment instituting a federal income tax starting at one percent has exploded into onerous, complex and confusing tax rates and rules for American workers over the last century. The need for job creation in the wake of the explosion of federal debt and costly entitlement programs, mean the best course of action in the near future is a simpler, flatter and broader tax system that unleashes production, creates jobs, and creates more taxpayers. We can't undo more than 70 years of progressive taxation and worsening debt obligations overnight.
If you read that paragraph next to the complete excerpt from the book, there's no conflict. One says there's a historically-rooted problem and a couple of ways to reach the goal of fixing it, the other repeats the assessment of the problem and declares the same goal of fixing it, and simply adds the acknowledgement that this won't happen overnight. In neither event does Perry wed himself to the Fair Tax, nor does he rule it out. Not being naive or inexperienced at practical politics, Perry undoubtedly understands that whatever his preferences, it's a lot easier to pass a new tax code through Congress than to repeal an Amendment to the Constitution, and that itself is all the difference in the world between writing books and running for President.
My guess is that Perry, like most presidential candidates, will eventually produce a tax plan, as well as various other plans. Sargent is trying for a "gotcha" moment here because he wants to nail Perry down before Perry has time to roll out anything that deliberate. But Sargent is a web writer, not a print writer - as I just did here, he could have given his readers the context of Perry's actual quote so they could judge for themselves what Perry's argument was in the book, instead of leaving the false implication that Perry positively endorsed the Fair Tax and repeal of the 16th Amendment and was now backing away from a proposal he'd made just a few months ago.