The Tug of History

February 3, 2019

by Steve Stofka

As we receive our income tax forms, we can be reminded of the reach of history into our daily lives. Over a hundred years ago, the 16th Amendment was passed as a way of paying Civil War debts and pensions. We are paying income taxes because of a horrific war that occurred 150 years ago (Note #1).

Since the recession, politicians on both sides of the political aisle have proposed some version of a universal basic income (UBI) that would replace many individual federal assistance programs. New idea? No. Fifty years ago, President Nixon and more than a thousand economists proposed an income plan to replace the existing welfare plan (Note #2). Democrats opposed the idea because they feared that the proposal would divert some aid from black families in the North, who were Democratic constituents, to white families in the South. Many southern Democrats switched parties in reaction to the “imposition” of civil rights legislation passed by northern Democrats in the 1960s (Note #3). The North and South have traded political parties since the Civil War but the animosities of that war guide current legislation and the fortunes of American families.

The recent government shutdown halted paychecks for many thousands of federal employees. The legislation that enables Congress or the President to shut down government was a budget act passed in 1974 by a Democratic Congress. Following President Nixon’s refusal to spend money allocated by a Democratic Congress, Democrats wanted more control of the budget process. Nixon was afraid that the additional spending would further fuel inflation (Note #4).

Two years later, Jimmy Carter was elected President and had to fight with his own Democratic party for budget control. The government was shut down five times during Carter’s four-year tenure, the most of any President. The legislation that emerged from a battle between a Republican President and a Democratic Congress 45 years ago laid the groundwork for today’s battle between a Republican President and a Democratic House. As the families of some Federal workers waited in line at food pantries last month, they might not have appreciated being victims of a historical political feud.

Prompted by the prejudices, concerns and animosities of past generations, we walk through our lives with a legal leash tied around our necks. According to the utopian rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, our leashes should all be same length. Political and economic realities contradict those sentiments, and underlie the long history of housing, job, voting and regulatory discrimination in this country.

If my family or group enjoys a longer leash, another group must endure a shorter leash. Any equality we reach is a temporary balance in the tug of war for a longer leash. Equality is a happenstance, not a permanent right we have. “But it shouldn’t be that way!” an idealist might protest. It is that way. That’s history.

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Notes:
1. A history of 19th century income tax legislation following the Civil War, and the court decisions which nullified them.
2. Family Assistance Program proposed by Nixon. He and other economists like Milton Friedman called it a “negative income tax”
3. A timeline of the Presidential electoral map
4. A short account of the political impetus behind the act . A summary of the 1974 Budget Act.

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