I went to a Tea Party protest near my office last night. Overall, a well behaved, reasonably well dressed, normal-looking middle class crowd. Lots of Gadsen Flags. But it was a pretty disorganized affair, with the constant speechifying of a Flat Tax advocate seemingly unaware that a national sales tax would not necessarily cure our ills, which are driven by spending. The tax code is only a symptom. More important, since so many taxes are paid by the wealthy, who consume relatively less than the poor, any consumption tax would have to force the poor and middle classes to pay substantially more in taxes than they do now. This would probably be a good thing, as nearly half of Americans pay no income tax, but it would also be unpopular and hurt many of the middle class people at these protests. And it wouldn’t reduce the tax burden over time. A better system would be a more transparent and deliberately painful tax, perhaps a monthly bill and no withholdings. The current system, with its rebates for the approved classes, conceals how much we pay in taxes and allows various increases to be hidden in relatively small impacts on biweekly paychecks. A national sales tax would have the same problem; a penny raise here and there would not be noticed. We’d be boiling the frog.
I think the Tea Party movement overall is pretty healthy. Unfortunately, it seems already to be under the threat of hijacking by the Sara Palins and GOP establishment figures of the world. The kryptonite of accusations of racism has already been employed to good effect by critics. And the limited focus on government spending ignores the many other ways that Obama is a very bad president, such as his contempt for America’s historic people, limits on the office, and our proper relationship with non-European countries like Iran or China. Ultimately, if the movement is not connected to a more comprehensive political program, one that looks not only to government spending but demographic and moral drivers of national decline, then it is little more than a noisy fringe of the vaguely anti-government Republican Party.