On Tax Pledges and Taxing Vows – Countering Grover Norquist

This paragraph is actually a post-script. On re-reading what follows (starting the next paragraph) I realized that I can be easily misunderstood. I am therefore clarifying my personal view on pledges and vows. I fundamentally dislike pledges and vows, whether they be tax pledges, marital vows, or… . There is nothing (except honoring the act of keeping the pledge or vow) that you can do having made a pledge or a vow, that you cannot do without making the pledge or vow. A legislator can vote to not raise taxes without having pledged that he will not raise taxes. An individual can be faithful in his/her relationship, can have only death do the breaking from his/her spouse without vowing that he/she will be faithful till death do him/her apart. In the language of the liberal economist, a pledge simply shrinks your choice set. The option to act (or not act) is not the same thing as the acting (or not acting). Having clarified my position on pledges and vows, I also want the reader to be clear that I have a clear position on divorce (and for that matter infidelity). It is a matter for the individuals involved, and nobody else’s business. Of course, except in exceptional circumstances, like that outlined below. 

The recent attempted demonization of the tax pledge sponsored by Grover Norquist and his American for Tax Reforms exposes the weakness of the American press. Grover Norquist and the pledge should have been scrutinized, analyzed, and demonized a long time ago. It is by all reasonable logic a dumb thing to sign. Unfortunately Norquist seems to have many in the Republican Party by the proverbial part of the anatomy and a number of them seem to be running scared.

Let me be clear here – the position I take above does not call for or advocate for tax increases. It only calls for not pledging to never increase taxes. To tax increase or not to tax increase is not the question. To pledge or not to pledge, that is the question. Clearly those who signed the pledge have a couple of things that they should be made to answer – why did they sign it in the first place, and why will they not break the pledge now?

I suspect the answer to the first question was that they were earning their credentials as true conservatives. An initiation right, if you will, the way eighteen year olds on college campuses prove their maturity by indulging in over-drinking. But just as eighteen year olds grow up and redefine maturity in more sensible ways, seasoned members of the Republican Party (for example, someone like Gingrich) who have signed the pledge should repudiate the pledge (note I am not calling for them to break it – I THINK WHETHER ONE SHOULD SUPPORT A TAX INCREASE IS A DIFFERENT QUESTION FROM WHETHER ONE SHOULD PLEDGE NEVER TO RAISE TAXES). It is unlikely that the Gingrich’s of the world will follow my advice. Why?

Because it seems that Norquist and the ATR have them cornered and scared. If they displease Almighty Norquist, then their electoral prospects will be seriously harmed. At this point this is simple reality, and so fear and the lack of courage on the part of some Republicans while deplorable is clearly understandable. If asked why they will not break the pledge, they will not tell you that they fear Norquist.  I suspect they will mumble loudly about how we do not have a revenue problem but a spending problem, and they may or may not be right about that. But the issue should not be about taxes. The issue is the pledge. Why will they not repudiate (not break) the pledge (and then not raise taxes)?

To my mind the only reasonable, publicly state able answer is, “Because you do not break a pledge.” And if that be the reason, then it seems to me a completely reasonable question to inquire into how they feel about pledges. There is a convenient subset of Norquist pledgers who can be questioned – those who have been married and have not lived up to the explicit (or implied) sanctity of their marital vows. The question simply is, “Which do you think is more sacred – marital vows or the tax pledge?”

If they answer, “Marital vows,” the follow up question is, “So how come given that you broke those, you will not repudiate the tax pledge?”

If they answer, “The tax pledge,” I think it will tell pro-family primary voters a lot about the candidate which may put them in at least as much trouble in a primary as if they broke the tax pledge.

Is this hitting below the belt? Unfortunately, absolutely! But pledges like the tax pledge hit hard below the social belt. And exposing hypocrisy which may help us dismantle a culture of single issue politics by pledges may be an end well worthy of unfortunate means.

If you know a member of the press who will be willing to use this line of questioning, please pass the suggestion on to him/her

P.S. Lest this be read as a partisan voice from the Left, I hope you will look out for my soon to be appearing piece on the Democratic Party, Teachers’ Unions and School Choice (title will be different, I hope!).

No Chance of Realizing this Hope – A Suggestion to Penn State

The events at State College simply remind us that different dualities lead to tragedies. Two kinds of humans can contribute to tragic outcomes – the good and the bad. Two kinds of actions can lead to tragic outcomes – acts of commission and acts of omission. Two kinds of people can be silent when bad things happen – the powerful and the powerless. Unfortunately this will not be the last time that something terrible happens.

But in the present circumstance, hopefully there will be no more cover-ups and whitewashing. What is still happening in the Catholic Church should not happen in State College, PA. Those in positions of power must do everything they can to see that the appropriate things are done. Clearly the legal authorities must act and the law must prosecute all those responsible. The right thing must not only be done, but must be seen to be done.

What should Penn State do? The Trustees of Penn State University will be meeting shortly. I hope they simply announce that Penn State will not field a football team for the next five years. The logic is simple – irrespective of the details of what actually happened, and who is responsible for the specifics of the tragedy, as an institution Penn State failed. And central to the failure was the importance of football in the identity of the university. This is not unique to Penn State. And it is easily explainable. NCAA Division I Football (among many other College sports) is an institution which delivers money, prestige, and power to its participants. Money, prestige, and power corrupt, and scandal is nothing more than corruption exposed.

Calling a halt to the activity sends a strong message – there are more important things than Football at State College. And Penn State should reflect on those things and begin a serious national dialogue on the role of sports in American colleges. Among the things Penn State should reflect on are – doing the right thing, keeping things in perspective, understanding balance, setting one’s priorities right, defining the appropriate role of sports in the life of a university….. the list is endless. And to do it right we need to reflect on this over the next five years at least. And as an act of repentance and redemption Penn State must take the lead. It is the right thing to do. And for a long time the right thing has not been done at Penn State.

Joining Penn State in starting a national dialogue on the role of sports in American colleges should be the NCAA. It is time for the NCAA to think long and hard about the (possibly unintended) consequences of its existence, organizational structure, and incentive framework. The NCAA takes actions that young eighteen years old may do which are completely legal (like getting goodies from a booster) and makes it against the rules, and does not have rules for things that are blatantly illegal and unethical that fifty year olds may do. Something has got to change – it might as well be the NCAA.

Do I expect my hope will be realized? Absolutely not! Why? Because NCAA Division I Football is an institution which delivers money, prestige, and power to its participants. Money, prestige, and power corrupt, and those who participate in corruption will not stop it.

Unfortunately, I will have the opportunity to reprint this blog with a few changes in the not so distant future. There are many more Penn States out there – this time the one in State College, PA got exposed.

P.S. For readers outside the U.S. who are wondering what this blog is about, please Google ‘Penn State Scandal’ and you will learn all that you need to know. If you are a reader inside the U.S. who is wondering what this blog is about, you may want to come out from under that rock!