Via the Wall Street Journal:
Barack Obama owes his presidency in no small part to the power of rhetoric. It’s too bad he doesn’t appreciate the damage that loose talk can do to America’s tax system, even as exploding federal deficits make revenues more important than ever.
At his Arizona State University commencement speech last Wednesday, Mr. Obama noted that ASU had refused to grant him an honorary degree, citing his lack of experience, and the controversy this had caused. He then demonstrated ASU’s point by remarking, “I really thought this was much ado about nothing, but I do think we all learned an important lesson. I learned never again to pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA brackets. . . . President [Michael] Crowe and the Board of Regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS.”
Just a joke about the power of the presidency. Made by Jay Leno it might have been funny. But as told by Mr. Obama, the actual president of the United States, it’s hard to see the humor. Surely he’s aware that other presidents, most notably Richard Nixon, have abused the power of the Internal Revenue Service to harass their political opponents. But that abuse generated a powerful backlash and with good reason. Should the IRS come to be seen as just a bunch of enforcers for whoever is in political power, the result would be an enormous loss of legitimacy for the tax system.
Our income-tax system is based on voluntary compliance and honest reporting by citizens. It couldn’t possibly function if most people decided to cheat. Sure, the system is backed up by the dreaded IRS audit. But the threat is, while not exactly hollow, limited: The IRS can’t audit more than a tiny fraction of taxpayers. If Americans started acting like Italians, who famously see tax evasion as a national pastime, the system would collapse.
One reason why Americans don’t act like Italians is that they see the income-tax system as basically fair in execution. A tax audit or a tax-fraud prosecution is still seen, usually, as evidence that someone has done something wrong. If it comes instead to be seen as “just politics” then the moral component of the system will be gone. For the system to work, people have to believe that it is fundamentally fair.
This is why the IRS is so strict with its own employees. Paul Caron, a professor at the University of Cincinnati who writes the TaxProf blog, noted in response to Mr. Obama’s remarks that the law calls for the termination of IRS employees who make audit threats for illegitimate reasons. He suggested that Mr. Obama’s “joke” might be grounds for firing if he were an IRS employee.
He’s not, of course, but as the president his words carry much more weight and he should be much more careful. That’s particularly true given that people still haven’t forgotten about the Obama administration’s other tax issues — the appointment of Tim Geithner as Treasury secretary despite an inexcusable failure to pay $34,000 in Social Security and Medicare taxes while working for the International Monetary Fund, and the scandals involving Tom Daschle and others whose appointments failed. (When the Geithner issue came up, news reports indicated that IRS employees were very upset. They can be fired over a simple late filing or a failure to report a mere $500 in income, making Mr. Geithner’s “pass” on much more serious questions quite demoralizing.)
The notion that people who are audited are probably just “enemies of the regime,” coupled with the idea that big shots get a pass — that, as Leona Helmsley is reputed to have said, “taxes are for the little people” — is a recipe for widespread tax evasion. That’s how things work in Italy, and in many other countries around the world. But do we want things to work that way here?
Mr. Obama has been accused of not appreciating the importance of financial capital to the proper functioning of the economy. But ill-chosen remarks like his ASU audit threat suggest that he also doesn’t appreciate the role of moral capital. That, too, is essential to the proper functioning of a modern economy. As he looks for ways to pay for the spending campaign he’s already embarked upon, he’d be well-advised to avoid comments that undercut the very tax system he’ll be depending on.