Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The $140,000 Tax Question

Unlike some people I know, I feel very badly about Tom Daschle stepping down from becoming Secretary of Health and Human Services. I'm not saying he doesn't have to, I'm just saying it feels bad. On the one hand, his case shows just how much thoughtless hand-washing goes on in Washington and among the rich and powerful, and it's extremely distasteful. On the other, I think Daschle would do a good job. Besides, to me, the trickier moral question is his wife's job as a prominent lobbyist, not his tax problem.

But then there's this -- if everyone has tax problem, is the problem that everyone is corrupt or that the tax system is so convoluted that (almost) everyone pushes the envelope to get the best deal they can, even those who should know -- or simply do -- better. I'm not letting Daschle off the hook, I'm just wondering if the hook is getting in the way of the work. Which means it's now time to take a look, a long hard look, not only at how business as usual gets done in Washington, but on how the tax code itself is written.

We need better standards and clearer rules for sure, and we need people who are willing to live up to those standards no matter what everyone else is doing (if everyone else was jumping off a bridge, my mother would say to any of these folks who didn't pay their taxes because everyone doesn't). But until we get all that, we still desperately need serious people to attend to the crises we now face. Should failure to adhere to a code written to be broken exclude everyone who breaks it from public service, no matter how they broke it? Are all tax breaches equally egregious? For much more sophisticated and nuanced thinking on this, I recommend this selection of opinions over at The New York Times.

PS.: And yet, the Daschle thing does smell of politics/taxes as usual...when does real reform start, and who starts it?

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