Opinion

And Now a Few Words About How Power Makes You Weird

Gail Collins: Bret, I promise not to hold you accountable for everything the House Republicans try to do during the 118th Congress, but I do want to ask you about money.

Bret Stephens: Uh oh.

Gail: One of their priorities seems to be undermining spending for the Internal Revenue Service. The I.R.S. really needs more funding to function efficiently, and Democrats want to increase the I.R.S. budget — a move they say would actually bring in a lot more money than it costs in the long run. But of course the Republicans hate everything related to taxes, and they just want to let the I.R.S. starve.

What’s your opinion?

Bret: I’m a Hamiltonian at heart, which means I believe in effective government — not overweening, abusive, cheap or wasteful, but capable of accomplishing the tasks it has been given. Right now the I.R.S. has reached a point where agents are picking up just 10 percent of taxpayer phone calls. Anecdotally, I hear of people getting I.R.S. letters saying they owe back taxes — but being unable to get an agent on the phone to explain why. To adapt a slogan from the founding fathers, there should be no taxation without explanation.

Gail: Yipes, we agree again.

Bret: So I’m all for additional funding to make the I.R.S. more responsive. It’s when it comes to audits that people start getting worried. Inflation has already eaten into a lot of people’s incomes that are north of the $400,000-per-household threshold that Janet Yellen has suggested is the baseline for higher scrutiny. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Your thoughts?

Gail: Ah, dissension returns.

Bret, do you truly think most Americans would regard the people who live in households making $400,000 a year as helpless victims when it comes to having their tax returns scrutinized? That’s more than quintuple what the I.R.S. agent doing the scrutiny probably gets for a living.

Bret: Gail, I hope I won’t get audited by the I.R.S. for saying this, but here goes: If you think of a middle-aged professional couple living in, say, New York City or San Francisco, each making about $200,000 a year, filing a joint tax return, already in a high bracket, paying through the nose for rent or maintenance or a mortgage, you’re probably not going to describe their lifestyle as “rich.” They’re scrimping to send their kids to college, driving a Camry, if they have a car at all, and wondering why eggs have gotten so damned expensive.

Gail: Granted, although a middle-aged couple living in, say, Toledo, might have a different outlook. As much as I adore Manhattan, I don’t think its housing costs should be a template for national tax policy.

But about the I.R.S.: For moderate income, or at least not-extremely-rich taxpayers, the increased staffing is mainly to have folks available to answer questions and process paperwork efficiently. The regular staff is currently way down from its norm, as you pointed out.

And for the people on top: making sure they pay what they truly owe will save the government an estimated $100 billion or more over the next 10 years. Which could, hey, cut the deficit.

Bret: My advice to the Biden administration, if it really wants to squeeze more money out of the very rich, is to forget the audits and change the tax code. For instance, stop allowing rich families to lock up generational wealth in complex trusts devised by expensive lawyers. If ever there was an undeserving group of people, tax code-wise, it’s those trust-fund babies whose main contribution to civilization is that their great-great-granddaddy owned a copper mine.

Gail: Great! Let’s make it a crusade. You begin by getting the Republican-led House Ways and Means Committee to take up the cause.

Bret: Hahaha. An even better system would be a low universal flat tax that radically simplifies the job of doing, collecting and checking taxes. Eventually we might even replace most of the I.R.S. with a fully automated system. But I know that’s just wishful conservative thinking.

Switching subjects, Gail, we now have two special counsels investigating two presidents for potentially mishandling classified documents. Remember how I told you last year that going after Donald Trump on this issue was a bad idea?

Gail: Bret, once again you saw the future and how it didn’t work. By the way, can I congratulate you for the great conversation you had with my former sparring partner David Brooks on Republicanism in 2023?

Bret: Regrets, we have a few. For what it’s worth, David and I both agree that you’re much more fun to talk to than either of us.

Gail: About the secret document thing: In the real world, President Biden’s mishandling was in a different stratosphere from Trump’s. Stupid sloppiness versus a deliberate attempt to pile up mountains of secret official papers and hide them away from government investigators.

But yeah, it does ruin the issue for the Democrats. I sigh a sigh of sorrow.

Bret: I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the two special counsels discover and determine. But the real issue here isn’t the legal one. It’s politics. Republicans justifiably will demand to know why this wasn’t publicly disclosed before the midterms, when Biden’s lawyers first discovered the stash of documents. Trump will continue to allege that he’s the victim of a deep-state plot, and wavering Republican voters will feel this vindicates him. And many Americans will ignore the fine-grained distinctions between the two cases and chalk it up to the corruption of the overall system.

All of which could have been avoided if Merrick Garland had simply taken a patient and low-key approach to the retrieval of those documents in Mar-a-Lago!

Gail: Any other advice for Biden I should be paying better attention to?

Bret: Overclassification is a serious government problem — the point of a terrific guest essay in The Times over the weekend by the Columbia historian Matthew Connelly. Most government material stamped “secret” or “classified” probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if you read about it in tomorrow’s Times. Biden might want to order the declassification of the documents he had at his office and home so that people can know what was in them. I’d do the same for the Trump documents, assuming there are no serious state secrets there. And I’d propose a bipartisan government commission that ends the practice of overclassification. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, as the saying goes.

How about you?

Gail: I’m always good for more sunshine. Meanwhile, want to talk about something tawdry and meaningless?

Bret: Always!

Gail: How about Prince Harry? Haven’t read “Spare” but it’s one of those books I trust the media to tell me every single bit I need to know about.

Bret: A nauseating character. He seems to think it’s OK to denounce invasions of his privacy while he invades the privacy of his whole family for the purpose of making a buck. Or that it’s fair to whine about the chilly reception he got from them at his grandparents’ funerals, after he’d spent the better part of a year airing the palace’s dirty laundry. Or that he can sell himself as a man hard-done-by from his stunning digs in Montecito. He achieves the impossible of making me feel sorry for his father. And he embodies the worst characteristics of his former and current home countries: the unmerited entitlement of a secondary British royal and the self-pitying exhibitionism of a grifting California arriviste.

Gail: Smash!

Bret: Of course, what’s really disturbing is that people — and this includes me — pay attention. Harry and his wife are basically two trivial people who hold a mirror to the triviality of the societies they inhabit.

Gail: The first time I ever got really interested in the royal family was pre-rupture, when Harry’s wife, the former actress Meghan Markle, gave an interview complaining about her official duties — wandering from one ribbon-cutting to another, attending events where her only real job was to shake hands with people who wanted to be able to say they’d shaken hands with a member of the royal family.

Haven’t devoted a whole lot of my life to contemplating the burdens of royalty, but it did sound like the most godawful boring, meaningless job.

Bret: She might have thought a little harder about those duties before marrying into the family.

Gail: If I’m having a bad day I can always remind myself that things could be worse — I could be a member of the British royal family.

Bret: Gail, let’s close on a more uplifting note. The single best piece in The Times last week was Joseph Berger’s moving obituary for Adolfo Kaminsky, who, as a Jewish teenager in Nazi-occupied France, saved thousands of lives by using his chemistry skills to produce forged identity papers for those at risk of being deported to concentration camps. On one occasion, he worked two days straight to deliver 900 birth and baptismal certificates and ration cards for 300 Jewish children, giving them crucial time to escape to neutral Switzerland or Spain. The piece is a powerful reminder of Rabbi Hillel’s declaration in the Mishna that, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”

May his memory be for a blessing.

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