Washington Diarist: Going Postal

by Jonathan Chait | November 3, 1997

Judging by TNR's letters to the editor, the two issues that rile our readers the most are the capital gains tax and capital punishment. The former makes sense to me. Our readers, many of them stockholders, have a personal interest in the fate of the capital gains tax. Yet personal interest alone can't explain this preoccupation; our demographic profiles suggest that very few of you face the prospect of imminent execution. In any case, whenever this magazine publishes something in favor of the capital gains tax--it's been weeks now--we face a torrent of hostile letters. We have always argued that capital gains income should be taxed exactly the same as ordinary income. The other side has always argued that capital gains shouldn't be taxed at all. At present we have a compromise: capital gains are taxed at half the rate of ordinary income. The next time the issue is debated, our side is going to be arguing to keep the capital gains tax as it is, and the other side is going to argue for eliminating it. If we keep splitting the difference, the capital gains tax will eventually approach zero. Our only chance of winning is to argue from a position of strength: people who earn profits from capital should have their assets confiscated. No, wait, that's not strong enough. They should get the death penalty.

The above paragraph was designed to provoke an angry response from Daniel Mitchell, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation whose sole apparent function is to monitor the print media for insufficiently obsequious references to the sanctity of capital gains and to respond angrily, always taking care to end his letters with a ringing endorsement of the flat tax. (Capital gains nuts are always flat tax nuts, too, since the flat tax doesn't tax income from capital gains.) Since Mitchell has no doubt already dropped his copy of this magazine and sprinted off to the nearest word processor, this is a good opportunity to warn any readers who might ever put their views in print that provocations far less direct than this will set off Mitchell's trip wire. Last summer he wrote to Slate, protesting an essay on feminism by Karen Lehrman. Lehrman's crime? She mentioned in passing that "feminism--like liberalism--requires equality of opportunity." Mitchell retorted that "it is ludicrous to apply that description to liberalism." Liberalism, he insisted, "props up our loophole-ridden tax system by opposing reforms such as"--yes--"the flat tax, that are based on treating all Americans equally." So, as Mitchell sees it, Lehrman should instead have written: "feminism--like liberalism, except for its maddening insistence on propping up our loophole-ridden tax system by opposing reforms, such as the flat tax, that are based on treating all Americans equally--requires equality of opportunity...." Now that the debate is going Mitchell's way--Congress has cut the capital gains tax and is considering a flat tax--he is upping his ideological demands. Mere lack of disagreement will not satisfy him. We must actively affirm his position, even while discussing totally unrelated topics.

Mitchell, I'm afraid, is not my only faithful correspondent. In addition to his missives, I continue to receive letters from an auto repair shop that once tried to swindle me. This shop replaced my transmission, but also changed all the FM settings on my car radio and overcharged me by several hundred dollars. Fortunately, I noticed the new radio settings and my insurance company noticed the overcharge. You would think that an auto shop caught in the act of gouging would at least face up to the fact that it had lost a customer. But no. It regularly sends me letters warning that its "records indicate" my car needs several repairs. I don't understand how records could possibly indicate this, as the state of my car could only be ascertained by inspecting it.

This ordeal began when my car fell into a pothole while creeping to a stop along a backstreet in Washington, D.C., cracking its transmission case. My insurance company's policy is to make the customer pay part of the cost of moving accidents (a highway crash) but not of nonmoving accidents (getting hit while waiting at a traffic light). My insurance agent insisted that the incident qualified as a moving accident, since the car was moving when it hit the pothole. She didn't seem to care that the only direction the car was moving was down. I asked if I would be forced to pay the deductible if, while my car sat in a garage, the ground opened up beneath it and it fell into the earth's crust. She confirmed that I would. I found this reassuring, in a way; I wasn't worried so much about the deductible as I was about the company possibly classifying the damage as a traffic accident, thus raising my premiums. The agent assured me that l'affaire pothole would not be considered a traffic accident. But in a few weeks, the insurance questionnaire arrived, and, sure enough, I had been lumped in with every other moving accident. For all the insurance company knew, I had attained a speed of 120 miles per hour before mowing down a troop of Girl Scouts. The questions all replicated the tone of a sneering bureaucrat, employing superficial deference to cover a presumption of guilt: How fast was the other party moving at the time of the accident? Well, zero miles an hour. Did the other party make a statement about the accident? No, potholes can't talk. Who, in your opinion, is responsible? I dunno. Mayor Barry?

This Diarist is creeping down its last column, and still no mention of the Greeks. It has been months since I last devoted this space to flattering the political sensibilities of Greece, and almost as long since the Greek embassy invited me to one of its lavish soirees. This is not a coincidence. In the intervening months, I have failed to reciprocate the taxpayers of Greece for a delicious breakfast--fluffy pancakes, pure maple syrup, fresh fruit--with their minister of culture. When I met with the minister of culture--a heavy-set man with a Greek-sounding name--he explained his purpose in inviting me: he wanted to build world opinion to force Britain to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. The British, it seems, snatched the marbles from Greece during the Ottoman occupation. The gist of it, anyway, is that they've lost their marbles. The other journalists remained quiet throughout this speech--journalists like nothing better than free food, and we were concentrating on it--until at last somebody asked the minister how he liked his pancakes. Suddenly everyone spoke up, excitedly sharing stories of pancakes around the world. I could tell what the minister was thinking: he had flown across the world to impress upon a gathering of American opinion leaders the importance of his country's cultural treasures, and all they would remember was that he liked pancakes. Not me, though. What I remember is that the discussion conspicuously and awkwardly avoided any mention of the flat tax.

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