- - Wednesday, October 5, 2016


David Brooks of The New York Times isn’t really a conservative, although he writes a column that The Times bills as its primary conservative op-ed offering. But then, he isn’t exactly a liberal, either. If one had to put a label on his editorial musings, perhaps a good one would be “mushy-head,” which isn’t found on the left-right spectrum and is a product of intellectual temperament more than any conviction. For Mr. Brooks, this often seems to translate into column admonitions that can be summed up as, “Do good. Be good. And can’t we all just get along?”

Consider Mr. Brooks‘ most recent entry, an effort to parse the conundrum of how we should regard the complex legal maze of our tax system, with all of its multitudinous preferences, incentives, escape hatches and loopholes. The column was inspired, of course, by news that Donald Trump had taken a $915 million loss on his income taxes in 1995, with the likelihood that he carried it forward to shelter nearly a billion bucks of future income.

That’s a big loss and a very big tax shelter. And it was entirely predictable that the elite left, intent on thwarting this nettlesome threat to the next Clinton presidency, would seek to extract every ounce of outrage that could be squeezed from the body politic over the spectacle of rich people behaving like rich people, even if within legal limits. All part of the game.

But Mr. Brooks isn’t interested in the game. He’s too busy searching sanctimoniously for goodness in politics, for just the right way of defining sanitized civic behavior in what he so sincerely wants to be a “healthy nation.”

And so he comes up with the choice facing us all in our national quest for civic virtue. And here it is: You can be a taxpayer or you can be a citizen.

Of course, for those content to be mere taxpayers, that’s “perfectly fine,” says Mr. Brooks, even for Donald Trump when he leverages legal tax preferences to avoid taxes on a huge scale. After all, that’s no different, except in degree, from the rest of us taking the home-mortgage deduction. Thus, says the columnist, “There is no wrong here.”

But the problem with the taxpayer mentality, says Mr. Brooks, is that “you end up serving your individual interest short term but soiling the nest you need to be happy in over the long term.” Strong words: “soiling the nest.” It’s like saying “polluting the polity.” That can only be viewed as evil, or at least sinister. Speaking in the dialectic of a Christian missionary in China circa 1900, Mr. Brooks crafts a concept of “giving and receiving” — in the workplace, in the community, in citizens’ relationships with their government.

In this view, citizens, as opposed to mere taxpayers, enjoy “a sweet reverence” for all the gifts received and “a generous piety about country.” He heralds a society characterized by a “sweet parfait of emotions,” generating a “sense of common beauty that transcends individual beauty.” He seeks to summon “a lovely society” in which “everybody practices a kind of social hygiene.” Did he say everybody? Did he say hygiene?

For Mr. Brooks, things can be legal and still unhygienic — or, as he puts it, “distasteful and corrupt.” The tax code, for instance, is “a breeding ground for corruption.” Thus, people who practice social hygiene wouldn’t take advantage of its preferences. And it’s particularly distasteful, in Mr. Brooks’s view, when a rich guy — say, a billionaire — takes advantage of legal tax provisions. After all, the rich should “feel a special privilege.” And if some billionaire exploits the system, and you accept it, you are assaulting “a piece of your heart, and most of your moral sentiments.” And, besides, that kind of thinking will “lead away from happiness.”

So we can have a nation of “common beauty” and a “sweet parfait of emotions,” where “everybody” shuns legal tax breaks in the spirit of social hygiene. Oh, happy land. Or, on the dark side, people can continue to take the tax breaks their government has sanctioned, and we can all watch our country turn putrid and our citizens embrace the kind of phony citizenship (mere taxpayers, actually) that breeds civic and individual unhappiness. Oh, unhappy land.

But what does Mr. Brooks have to say about the fact that nearly half of tax filers in America pay no income tax at all? How would he assess their social hygiene? And, if he thinks those taking entirely legal tax breaks are debasing America, why doesn’t he advocate changing the tax code — which, after all, would seem to place faith in the democratic promise of that “lovely society” about which he so earnestly rhapsodizes?

Perhaps Mr. Brooks should consider the words of Judge Learned Hand, one of the greatest jurists of our heritage, who said: “[T]here is nothing sinister in so arranging one’s affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible . Everybody does so, rich and poor; and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands; taxes are enforced exactions, not voluntary contributions. To demand more in the name of morals is mere cant.”

Having contemplated Judge Hand’s definition of cant, Mr. Brooks may want to note the words of the famous Dr. Johnson when he said, “Clear your mind of cant.”

Good advice if Mr. Brooks can heed it. Perhaps he can’t.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.

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