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Zombie slave of the tax brainworm

He was infected with the brainworm when he unleashed it on the country. The brainworm infected millions more then. It helped him win the election, but at a terrible cost. Infected Canadians would never again be able to talk rationally about taxes.
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David-RobinsonWEB
David Robinson, Economist, Laurentian University, drobinson@laurentian.ca.

He was infected with the brainworm when he unleashed it on the country. The brainworm infected millions more then. It helped him win the election, but at a terrible cost. Infected Canadians would never again be able to talk rationally about taxes.

Except for the last three words, the first paragraph of this column sounds like the voice-over for an American apocalypse movie.

It is actually a semi-serious introduction to a scary problem in politics and economics. Something is eating people’s brains.

When enough people are infected civilization will collapse. And you heard it first from a professional economist!

Apocalyptic language is all around us, especially in the USA. Under all the bluster, Americans seem convinced that America is doomed. One of the most common signs of their unconscious fear is the “brain-eating-disease” story that shows up in the recent plague of zombie movies.

The movies share a set of themes: people around you get infected. They come after you. You can’t reason with them because their brains have been taken over. All they want to do is kill and destroy. The police are helpless. Bridges fall down. Civilization collapses. The movies reflect reality. Bridges are falling down in the USA. People are falling out of the middle class, losing their homes, their jobs and their medical coverage.

Cutbacks are decimating police forces and schools. Rational debate seems to be impossible. The brainworm that is destroying the USA is a mutant version of the word “tax.” It is like the mutant protein that causes mad cow disease. Once in your brain, it twists every sentence containing the word “tax” into sticky nonsense. It turns you into a political zombie. The word “tax” makes you gnash your teeth and vote for idiots.

Toronto had a brainworm outbreak recently. One of the world’s great cities has one of the world’s worst public transportation systems. Everyone in the region knows they will save billions every year by spending a few billion now on the subway system. But Rob Ford chanted, “Lower taxes, lower taxes,” and progress ground to a halt.

There was a national brainworm outbreak between 2006 and 2008. Economists and environmental scientists had made a powerful case for imposing a carbon tax. Even if we weren’t facing an environmental disaster, a carbon tax would have been more efficient economically than the taxes it would replace. That’s just basic economics.

But in 2006 our prime minister had been taken over by the brainworm. He wasn’t interested in replacing bad taxes with good taxes. Whenever the scientists, the economists or Stéphane Dion said “carbon tax,” he started to froth at the mouth.

“Evil, evil, evil,” he cried. “My opponents will destroy the economy.” Harper might have been ignorant of all economic theory, he might have been a puppet of the Alberta oil industry, or he might have just been a politically motivated liar. New evidence suggests that the brainworm got him.

The brainworm is a threat to our way of life. We often forget that taxes and democracy are intimately connected. Magna Carta, the great leap forward in British democracy, basically said, “We the people get to decide how taxes are used.” The American slogan, “No taxation without representation,” says the same thing. The main feature of our democracy is that people decide how much they want to spend on what. And, believe it or not, research by Andreas Peichl shows that paying taxes makes Germans feel better. Other research shows that countries with higher tax rates are happier. And why shouldn’t they be? They generally have better services and more security.

They feel they can trust other people to pay their taxes. They feel they have some say in how their money is used.

When people can’t see the connection between their taxes and what they get, it could be that the brainworm has got them. Or it could be that the system is too secretive and too indirect. It could be that we haven’t developed a version of democracy that really works in our increasingly complicated modern world. So ask yourself—do have a brainworm? Or are you starting to think we need a more participatory, transparent and modern kind of democracy?




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