Sunday Hot Takes, March 21st, 2021

We’re taxing your toothbrush. Please pass the PRO Act. Hold the history humor.

Taxation is Theft and That’s Fine — Elias Khoury, University of Michigan

Tax season is coming up. The worst time of the year. I hate seeing Uncle Sam take a large part of my income. I worked hard for that money!

This is how many Americans feel about taxation. Some even take issue with the practice on moral grounds. “Taxation is theft!” yells the self-righteous conservative while recording a car rant which he will later upload to Twitter for his 19 followers to see. Like it or not, his reasoning is simple and straightforward:

  1. Theft is the involuntary seizure of someone’s property.
  2. When the government taxes, it forces people to give a certain amount of money. 
  3. Therefore taxation is a form of theft.

At first glance, this argument seems bulletproof. Defenders of taxation start to get nervous. Am I supporting an immoral act? Allow me to assuage your fears: no.

Sure, taxation is theft. Arrest is kidnapping; war is murder. We could do this all day. Law itself is just a set of rules backed up by the threat of state violence. Yet most of us do not believe that individuals have the right to violently threaten others.

The state plays by its own rules. And this arrangement can be justified if it produces sufficiently large social benefits. True, my utopia doesn’t involve me paying a sizable portion of my income to a government that so often squanders that money. But, in this world, I like having roads to drive on and clean water to drink. It’s a relief to go to the grocery store and not fear purchasing tainted food. These are the basic functions of a state and, when carried out properly, they make life so much easier. Taxes are a small price to pay for these essential services. 

Imagine the alternative: there is no taxation and the government is perpetually starved for resources. As a result, there exists little to no sanitation infrastructure. We know what comes next because it happens across the world: mass death from cholera, malaria, dengue, etc. due to people having no choice but to drink contaminated water. Isn’t that preventable tragedy a bigger moral affront than filing your W-2?

Siding with Skocpol Griffin Mahon, University of Virginia

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a union-friendly overhaul of U.S. labor law, passed the House two weeks ago. It would make it much easier for workers to form unions and strike (details here). For socialists, that’s not a good thing, that’s the good thing.

DSA is campaigning to help pass the PRO Act (sign up here). However, I think it’s very unlikely that it’ll pass and that the theory of social change the campaign potentially represents is a bit backwards. DSA members can get fired up about lots of things, so we should try to pick ones that make sense.

Luckily, some academics debated what affects the passage of landmark labor legislation. The textbook progressive case is the 1935 Wagner Act, which established the National Labor Relations Board, banned company unions, guaranteed the right to organize, and formalized the unionization process. The entries I’m familiar with are:

  1. “Political Response to Capitalist Crisis: Neo-Marxist Theories of the State and the Case of the New Deal,” Skocpol (1980)
  2. “Worker insurgency, radical organization, and New Deal labor legislation,” Goldfield (1989)
  3. “Explaining New Deal Labor Policy,” Skocpol, Finegold, and Goldfield (1990)

I really recommend reading them. They’re an example of debating different qualitative variables and — crucial to Marxist analysis — trying to establish causal factors in history. To crudely summarize, Skocpol credits the need for economic recovery and the election of liberal Democrats for the Wagner Act and Goldfield argues that it was radical organizers and a militant protest climate. 

The answer’s likely somewhere in between, similar to our own moment. The Left is growing stronger, but, more critically, elites’ views are changing. Important from our perspective, the Communist Party didn’t control Cabinet members but they did control communists. The difference in our approach matters. Why do we like Bernie more than Warren?

Not to be too economistic, but we don’t yet have a platoon of Congressional socialists, just a squad. So instead, we should expect that big labor law change will require big strikes. When Party activists died in the ‘30s, tens of thousands attended funeral marches under Lenin portraits. Is that level of class struggle going on right now?

Simply asking some of the most powerful people on Earth to pass laws weakening their power will not work, especially when they’re split half-and-half between the blue and red teams. Perhaps the past year’s suffering has pressed their passions. Or they’ll attempt to get out ahead of the socialist movement’s momentum, tripping us up on new terrain. Alternatively, vaccination may be a shot in the arm for the working class, more willing to fight after COVID now that we know what we’re owed.

The question: Is agitating around labor law reform — as opposed to, say, Medicare for All — the way to get workers to take the action that’s needed to get that law passed? It’s true that the Biden presidency could mark the end of neoliberalism. If so, I’ll happily eat my pink hat.

A Review of Just Around the Corner Andrew Pfannkuche, Illinois State University

I cannot express to you how many times I needed to put down Just Around the Corner: A Highly Selective History of the Thirties because I could not stop laughing. Robert Bendiner has a wit that is unmatched in historical writing and I doubt we will see anyone nearly as funny in the coming years. Having “spent my twenties in the Thirties” Bendiner tells something that is not quite a history and not quite an autobiography but reflections on the decade as it appears to him, a left-wing writer and editor. His politics do not prevent him from pulling punches, be it the rich Republicans who could not stand “That Man” (their endearing term for FDR since respectable circles would not dare to reference him by name) or the fantastically inconsistent Communist Party of Earl Browder, and everyone in between. The book has a dry sarcasm that just makes you laugh; every snide remark feels like it was thought up by a crack team of all time great comedians. 

It is clear Bendiner has one central hero of the thirties, FDR, and it is not hard to wonder why. He directly benefited from New Deal policies like the Works Progress Administration and saw his friends and countrymen lifted out of poverty while the Republican Party under Hoover had refused to lift a finger. Bendiner came of age in the decade, he saw the failures of capitalism first hand and it is clear he still holds a grudge over 30 years later for the Republican party that refused to help the working class.

But the book is a real piece of history that sheds light on the Thirties from a perspective in a way that a traditional historian simply cannot. It is witty, absolutely hilarious – have I emphasized that enough? It is the funniest book I have ever read – and honest in a way that I cannot explain except to say that Bendiner put his heart and soul into this book.

To every reader, please read this book as soon as you can, it is only 240 pages and they fly – I read it over the course of a single day. Just Around the Corner: A Highly Selective History of the Thirties by Robert Bediner is the forgotten masterpiece of the twentieth-century.

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