A weak leader

The 1960 presidential debates make for interesting listening 50 years after they happened. For instance:

John Kennedy: “If it ever becomes necessary, and is wise economically and essential to our security, I would have no hesitancy in suggesting a tax increase or any other policy which would defend the United States.”

Richard Nixon: “I think it may be necessary that we have more taxes. I hope not. I hope we can economize elsewhere so that we don’t have to. But I would have no hesitation to ask the American people to pay the taxes even in 1961 if necessary to maintain a sound economy and also to maintain a sound dollar. Because when you do not tax, and tax enough to pay for your outgo, you pay it many times over in higher prices and inflation; and I simply will not do that.”

Neither candidate felt it was responsible to bind himself in advance or to remove options from the table.

Contrast their devotion to the public good with that of Nevada’s Gov. Jim Gibbons, who through his veto refuses to even allow consideration of tax changes. While demanding that legislators be flexible and surrender some of their positions, he refuses to do the same, taking a negotiating stance that was once characterized as “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.”

Under this governor, the state has become less competitive for new industry, there is a very real danger that prison inmates will have to be released prematurely, the education system has been set back decades, and skilled workers are leaving the state, all because he prefers to pander rather than make hard decisions. When, at any time in his entire sorry career, has this politician made an unpopular but responsible decision?

Nevada’s working poor, who with few complaints paid more than their share of taxes in good times now find that in bad times their governor wants to shut down the services they paid for now that those services are needed.

The winner of that 1960 Nixon/Kennedy election, incidentally, became known for “a tax cut for the affluent,” cutting the top tax rate in half, that set off an endless chain of giveaways to the rich as Congress and presidents kept returning to that well. As Pulitzer economic journalists James Steele and Donald Barlett later wrote, “The importance of the Kennedy tax law change would be little noticed at the time. But it was basically a new way of manipulating the system. Once the lawmakers, policymakers and lobbyists had seen the possibilities, they were more than eager to use it again and again … over the next 20 years, Congress would enact tax law after tax law that gutted the progressive structure of American taxes while throwing the doors of the U.S. Treasury open to those who could pay for access.” The gap between rich and poor accelerated with a roar.

In other words, tax policy is more complicated than an easy slogan like “No new taxes” would suggest. By substituting it for good judgment, Gibbons locks in the regressive nature of Nevada’s tax structure with its soak-the-poor features. The issue is not just whether taxes are high or low. Far more important is whether they are fair, and Gibbons by his actions makes clear that he prefers an unfair system.