Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Unwritten Constitutional Modification
It is so difficult to amend the Constitution, we mostly don't do it. Our system is to have the Supreme Court migrate slowly through several small adjustments, watching the country respond. Occasionally we have imported new principles, sometimes not entirely wise ones, adopted without the same seasoning.

Right Angle Club: 2016
In progress.

Tax Legislation--Just A Condominium Squabble

Congress meets every year and, almost every year, most Americans are more interested in athletic games. People who make politics their profession may be more involved more of the time, but eventually it is taxes which supply the force to involve the public. Occasionally it is the Constitution, but the Constitution mainly establishes structure, and people are generally satisfied with the present structure. There is limited time for debate, and to tell the truth, limited patience for it so the party leadership is left with the power to manipulate timing around holidays And the leaders organise the limited "floor" time carefully to preserve their control of it. Right now is one of those corners of our time, when an important issue gets crowded next to a holiday recess, the issue gets explained to the public, and public opinion is closely divided at first. It all sounds familiar, but there are important particularities.

Everybody is affected, everybody thinks he knows what George Washington thought. We had once just finished the Revolutionary War, almost losing that war because we had so much trouble agreeing to tax ourselves, to defend and govern ourselves thereby. When the Continental Congress abandoned Philadelphia to the British in 1779, only Robert Morris stayed behind as acting President, and never forgot the dreadful experience of governing without a government. In fact, about five future Constitutional delegates were trapped by an angry mob in the upper floors of James Wilson's house at the so-called Battle of "Fort Wilson". There was no need for these patriots to debate later about the need for taxes, law or order. This experience settled the tax issue for them, permanently.

A whole host of tax issues are vitally important to someone somewhere, but the tax issue dominates almost all three hundred million citizens of every age and occupation. lowering by how much is desirable for corporate taxes, and lowering by how much is ideal for federal taxes shared with state and local governments. Corporations were then a new and unanticipated way to run a business, and generally a more efficient way, although not a perfect one. About half the country half-believes it is urgent to go in opposite directions on details, and divide in opposite directions on a subject, but the other half is suspicious of some hidden agenda. There probably isn't enough slack in the systems to do split the difference. If we try to change, we dispute how much to change. In this case, we have the example of southern Ireland, which went too far in lowering corporate taxes to 12.5% in a single step. It seems simple enough, but we dispute who gets the credit, and most of the leadership is fearful of getting too far ahead of the public. The Civil War is the only time in our history when compromise wasn't sufficient, and in retrospect it probably might have been handled without a war.

The result needs improvement because of repeated patching, so simplification is desirable but not paramount. It would be nice to stop gerrymandering, but no one proposes a feasible way, as is true of the narrow balance between the two parties. It is clear that the Congressional power of the purse is weakened by overspending the budget and then demanding that we avoid a default by funding an unauthorized deficit. Since it is unclear how to accomplish these three structural approaches peacefully, we probably can't do them. So we will probably resort to half-measures, with fuller measures after we can see what happens. The risk is that the North Koreans, or the Saudi princes, or the defeated Russians, or some other foreign power will solve the problem for us in the meantime. This approach amounts to buying some time by surrendering some control, and we may be sorry we did it. But we keep on building more condominiums, so it must have some utility.

 

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