Tax as you go

It's surprising what really bugs me about public policy. For instance The New York Times trying to whitewash the Muslim Brotherhood just slides off my back. But I'm still fuming about something dopey a politician said about taxes last Monday.

Look: The New York Times embraced Stalin, declared Hitler harmless and welcomed Pol Pot and I can't get excited when they do it again. I'd feel weird if they didn't. But what can explain Ontario Tory leader Tim Hudak's vacuous pirouette last week after his office issued a statement apparently pledging him not to abolish Dalton Mc-Guinty's hated health premium-taxflip-flop thingy?

Pressed by reporters, Hudak refused to confirm the promise, saying instead, "We are considering all tax options and how to give families a break." Amazingly, this statement was at once offensively evasive and transparently false. How do you do that?

The evasiveness is clear and typical, even unimaginative. If he and his team are considering everything no one can have any idea what they might do, not do, say, think or waffle on later. But all tax options are manifestly not on the table under an Ontario Tory government. For instance the gabelle, the hated pre-Revolutionary French salt tax, is not coming back. Nor is Britain's infamous 1696-1851 tax on windows. Nor do we face a poll tax, a doubling of the income tax, its abolition, a Henry George "single tax," a flat tax or dozens of other obvious possibilities.

I don't expect everyone to have strong views on taxation or to hold coherent ones if they do. But think for a moment about our education system, the filtering process within political parties, the role of an informed (now you laugh) press in keeping rubbish out of public debate. And then consider that we face a choice between a man who promised not to raise taxes, raised them and lied about it being a tax, got caught but got re-elected anyway, and a man who portrays himself as not having views on taxes.

In a wealthy province in an advanced industrial democracy, currently slogging through the Way Too Much Information Age, how can a person who has made politics his adult life's work possess, or convincingly pretend to possess, not one single clue about what makes for good tax policy? And become leader of a major party with a good chance of forming the next government?

While I was steaming away about this, The Patriot Post down in Tennessee sent me this quotation from Thomas Jefferson: "It is a wise rule and should be fundamental in a government disposed to cherish its credit, and at the same time to restrain the use of it within the limits of its faculties, never to borrow a dollar without laying a tax in the same instant for paying the interest annually, and the principal within a given term; and to consider that tax as pledged to the creditors on the public faith."

If I said it I might be called simplistic. But no one ever said that about Jefferson. I personally consider him a great villain, prone to daffy enthusiasm for bloody tyrants that might have embarrassed even The New York Times and guilty of appalling personal and intellectual hypocrisy over slavery. But when even such an unbalanced radical sees the folly of unfunded deficits you'd think it would get some attention as we read today's newspapers.

For instance Wednesday's story that Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page thinks the federal government is doing too little to avoid a large structural deficit. It's a complicated subject and hard to be sure but the historical record is not encouraging. Canadian governments have been very wrong in their budgetary projections for decades and only Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, having risked unpopularity by making tough choices, had the luxury of then courting popularity by having deficits lower than they'd predicted. The Harper Tories have not made tough choices and I darkly suspect they are making fatuously rosy projections half-deliberately.

You might disagree. But I'll tell you one thing: If we did it Jefferson's way we'd have no room for an argument because the whole deficit would be funded by current tax plans. With, I might add, the additional virtue of making deficits very politically unattractive even to voters currently duped by promises of free money, directly through handouts or indirectly through "stimulating the economy" by spending money we ain't got on things we don't need for reasons we can't explain. And Jefferson suggested it back in 1813. What, wasn't two centuries enough time to ponder it?

That's why I can't just shrug off budgetary follies as I can "The Grey Lady" embracing one more odious foe of western civilization. With all tax options allegedly on the table, it is infuriating that no one will add to the pile Jefferson's suggestion that our governments pay for things when they buy them.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson