Last week, Maine’s bombastic governor, Paul LePage, backed off his statement equating the IRS to the Gestapo, Hitler’s jack-booted secret police. “It was not my intent to insult anyone, especially the Jewish community,” he said. But LePage did intend to demonize government with the vilest epithet he could think of, and he isn’t apologizing for that.
It’s open season on government, as the political rhetoric gets hotter than a tar beach in mid-July. Republican governors boast that they will refuse millions in federal Medicaid money despite the budget crises in their states. Communities are shutting off streetlights to save money, and teachers and public health workers get the blame. The House appropriations committee this week voted to eliminate funding for VISTA and National Public Radio. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 62 percent of Americans agree that “the government controls too much of our daily lives” — not an all-time high, but close.
The blame-government refrain has become so automatic that many people can’t even hear themselves. “Government hands off my Medicare” is just the start.
The same people whose kids get Pell grants, or who drop their toddlers at the branch library story hour, or whose parents need home health aides, complain bitterly about their taxes. Everyone finger-points the “undeserving poor,” but the US Census shows that nearly half of all American households are now receiving public assistance of some kind.
What are the consequences of all this government slashing and bashing? A stroll through the headlines is enlightening.
In Alabama, a 31-year-old woman was repeatedly jailed because she didn’t have the money to pay a traffic fine. Her bureaucratic nightmare was worthy of Kafka, except her tormentor wasn’t a totalitarian government — it was a private probation company hired by her cash-starved town to run the local justice system. The company wanted to make a profit, and had contracted to provide revenue to the town, so it kept piling on the fines and fees, turning petty offenses into jailable crimes. Last week an Alabama county judge temporarily halted the practice, calling it “a judicially sanctioned extortion racket.” But other privatized justice systems just like it operate elsewhere in the country.
In Kentucky and West Virginia, incidence of deadly black lung disease has doubled in the last decade, despite government regulations to protect the health of coal miners. A report by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR (natch!) found that coal companies routinely deceived regulators with false reports of coal and silica dust in their mines. The companies — which are allowed to track their own compliance by collecting dust samples — sometimes directed workers to keep their dust monitors locked in their lunch boxes or hung in open mine shafts to minimize the readings.
It’s gotten so bad that even some in the industry have called for more federal oversight, but there is no money for government inspectors. The director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration himself told the researchers that inspecting mines is “an enormous task’’ that his agency isn’t equipped to handle.
But back to the IRS. Although universally reviled, the IRS is the collection agency that makes all the rest of government possible, from Social Security to the national parks. Last year Congress cut its budget by $300 million, even as the tax code grows more complex and creative fraud schemes are on the rise. The agency offered buyouts to 9,500 employees, including auditors.
Before you cheer, consider the National Taxpayer Advocate, an independent office that monitors the IRS. It reported in January that the cuts are forcing the IRS to use “shortcuts that undermine fundamental taxpayer rights and harm taxpayers.” No taxpayer is served by long delays getting answers to questions — or refunds — because of staff shortages.
For anti-government forces it’s a benevolent cycle: Tax cuts starve the public sector so that its operations become slower and less efficient, reinforcing the view that government services aren’t worth paying for. But IRS commissioner Doug Shulman warned Congress in March of “a long-term trend of degrading compliance” — that is, more tax-dodging by the savvy or powerful, and more honest taxpayers getting the shaft.
Even Governor LePage wouldn’t want that. Would he?Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.