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State of the Union: Not So Good

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               THE CONSERVATIVE REVIEW   
                   February 1, 2008
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State of the Union: Not So Good
By William F. Buckley

President Bush didn't give Congress, in his State of the 
Union address, quite what was expected, especially in the 
area of taxation. Several high critics of Bush, most of 
them running for president, spoke vociferously about the 
need to cut the privileges that flow to the rich through 
the tax laws. One critic said that the time had finally 
come when the tax burden should move against the wealthy. 

President Bush gave them little satisfaction, in part 
because there is little satisfaction to be had. 

Many listeners were reminded of what they had already 
numbly discovered for themselves, namely that the tax 
laws are ambiguous, not to say inscrutable. The layman 
has no alternative than to read proposed laws impression-
istically, particularly if he is interested in the 
political implications. ("It favors the rich!" "It takes 
no realistic notice of the need to retool.") 

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As to practicalities, an enterprising researcher many 
years ago tried phoning six different IRS offices to ask 
how to handle a particular line on the income-tax return. 
He received six different answers. If professionals cannot 
come to the same conclusion as to what the code says, it 
is not surprising that calls for tax reforms have attracted 
adherents, reaching back to 1972 and the days of George 
McGovern, who made reforms a staple of his program; and 
carried forward ingeniously on the conservative side of 
the aisle by such as Phil Gramm, Dick Armey and Steve 
Forbes, with various proposals for a flat income tax or 
a consumption tax. 

The top marginal tax rate aside, there is the sheer 
complexity of it for those millions who must file federal 
income-tax returns. Many of them choose, prayerfully, 
tearfully, to fill out the short form. Others take the 
choice of hunting for all available exemptions, deductions 
and depreciations, and then suffering the torment of 
wondering whether they took full advantage of every 
possibility. The exhausted, and the semi-exhausted, are 
asking the question: Why should it be so complicated? 

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The reason why tax reform is so complicated is that 
reformers seek out jungle leaves writhing for the sunlight, 
toward such rays of justice and equity as are discernible 
at any given moment in American politics -- the moment 
when the action freezes, as for a photographer, for just 
long enough to permit one set of claimants to overshadow 
another. Thus a tax reform is born, and for that brief 
moment we have a new law that is taken as expressive of 
social policy. It is an assertion of justice understood 
as a blend of considerations: the necessities of the 
state, the toleration of the body politic, the relation-
ships of power among the affected interests. 

Some critics fault President Bush for not pushing harder 
to raise corporate taxes. At present, corporate taxes 
account for between 7 percent and 11 percent of all the 
revenues taken in by the federal government. This is down 
drastically from the 1950s, when corporate taxes brought 
in 30 percent of federal revenues. It is, however, not 
the tax one wants immediately to contemplate raising 
when we are running the largest trade deficits in history. 

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Bush attacked directly the so-called earmarks, and he did 
so persuasively. But earmarks, while the least defensible 
federal spending, do not account for a large proportion 
of the federal budget. 

George W. Bush tried -- flirted with -- doing something 
about Social Security. Ronald Reagan tried --flirted with 
-- doing something about Social Security. But real reform 
ran up against political walls, and so the underlying 
problem remains, getting worse every year. President Bush 
is framed by these realities -- with 1 1/2 wars going on. 
Some of us dare to say that his sheer decency shines 
through even the tangle he has to account for, and for 
which he bears a substantial share of responsibility. 

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