Robin Hood, Willly Sutton and Tax Policy

Back in the 1950s, there was a concerted effort to keep schoolchildren from reading “Robin Hood,” because the story exalted a communist–Robin Hood, after all, took from the rich to give to the poor. (We are not the only generation to live with widespread paranoia.)

The notion that taxes are robbery has a long and inglorious history in this country. Rather than thinking about taxes as the dues we pay for civilization, taxes have been framed as extortion. Progressive taxation, especially, is characterized (in Ayn Rand fashion) as robbing the deserving, productive rich to feed the unproductive mobs of poor. This myth has endured despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence supporting the notion that lower taxes on the rich spur job creation, and in the face of the truly obscene paychecks going to the “titans of finance” whose credit default swaps and other financial chicanery produced nothing of value and threw the country into recession.

This morning, we awoke to see that the Congressional Republicans are proposing dramatic cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. As my husband observed, the GOP evidently has no problem taxing the poor. He’s right–taking medical care from the elderly, poor and disabled is simply a tax of another name.

The proponents of this “reverse Robin Hood” taxation are both heartless and stupid. They are heartless because they are attacking the most vulnerable in order to protect the pocketbooks of the most affluent, who are currently paying the lowest percentage of their incomes in taxes in more than 50 years. They are stupid because there is no way to balance the budget on the backs of those who have little or nothing.

When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied “Because that’s where the money is.” Any genuine effort to reduce the deficit would take a lesson from Willie.


The Bottom Line

“Keep your eye on the bottom line” is good advice. But it is also a good idea to consider the definition of “bottom line.” In business, the term refers to profitability; too much red ink and the enterprise fails. In government, however, the “bottom line” is generally defined as doing the people’s business while at least balancing the books.

Indiana—like other states—is just emerging from a very challenging fiscal period. When resources are scarce, citizens can learn a lot about the priorities of our lawmakers. What will they protect, and what will they consider expendable? Will they play fast and loose—robbing Peter to pay Paul, as my grandmother used to put it? Will they use the crisis as an excuse to starve out political opponents?

What, in other words, is their political bottom line?

In Indianapolis, the Ballard Administration has chosen the Peter/Paul option: they structured the sale of the Water Company, for example, so that they could cash out up front. That allowed them to pay for street and sidewalk repairs without using property tax dollars—an upfront windfall to be paid for (with interest) by future ratepayers. Ballard also traded a significant percentage of parking meter income and control over the next fifty years for some immediate cash.

At least Indianapolis streets are getting paved. The Republicans who now control both houses of the legislature have chosen a different bottom line, elevating ideology over both fiscal and social common sense. This has been a truly shameful session.  (One of my students who is interning with the legislature told me he calls it the “hate-house” rather than the statehouse.)

Are Indiana citizens struggling to find jobs? Add a ban on same-sex marriage to the state’s Constitution. Do we have corporations trying to compete globally? Send a message that we don’t like immigrants, especially those who don’t look like us.

Many Indiana citizens have been hit hard by the recession, and the General Assembly has reacted by kicking them while they’re down.  During what one friend of mine has dubbed “this reverse-Robin Hood session,” our lawmakers have consistently favored the haves over the have-nots. Although people who can afford to make contributions and pay lobbyists have always had an edge, this year the favoritism has been nothing less than brazen.

At the beginning of the session, there was a good deal of talk about “shared sacrifice.” Now we know what that meant: when lawmakers reduced corporate tax rates, they proceeded to make up the difference by requiring “shared sacrifices” from the most vulnerable Hoosiers.

The legislature has eliminated dental coverage for disabled Medicaid recipients. It has cut the number of children who will be eligible for CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (despite the fact that 75% of that money comes from the federal government). It has increased co-pays for infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities. It has deprived poor, largely rural women of desperately-needed healthcare by de-funding Planned Parenthood.

The attack on Planned Parenthood was a particularly egregious bit of theater. The current GOP is virulently anti-choice. Planned Parenthood does offer abortion and does defend reproductive choice. But it does not use a single cent of tax money to do either—such use of public dollars is forbidden by law. The majority was willing to deny poor women pap smears and breast cancer screenings to make an empty statement.

This was going to be a rough budget year, even with a legislature determined to work in the interests of all Hoosiers. Unfortunately, our legislature’s “bottom line” was all about ideology, politics and partisanship. Charlie White, anyone?