Wendy Bradley – Tax Collection

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Wendy Bradley is a retired tax inspector who is a member of the Women in Tax Community. She asked me to think about Heinlein's attitude to taxes and a tax based society.


Q: How seriously should I take Heinlein's "don't drink: you might shoot at tax collectors and miss"? Several Heinlein characters seem to argue paying tax is either voluntary or a sign of degeneracy - did that carry over into real life?


A: Heinlein had some strong beliefs about taxation but they did not emerge fully formed. His earliest novel, Beyond this Horizon envisages what we would now call a Basic Income, paid for by societal profits, so I suppose no taxes because it’s all going into the same pot anyway. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress uses a pay for services model at the basic level, and the world pays “taxes” Earth in the form of export duties. Then it all goes quiet for a while and we get the clearest (in the sense of a muddled mess) statement in The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, where orphan Billy thinks “the government should pay for things” and if not those with money, and Richard thinks everyone should pay their own way, and Billy doesn’t understand the role of the contributor and Richard doesn’t seem to understand that the government is providing through taxation.

All of this I think simply reflects the muddle and resentment that Americans as a whole seem to have around taxation, one that really puzzles most Europeans but can be traced to a whole bunch of things: first that outside the cities it can be really hard to see what your taxes do pay for, because there aren’t that many services provided for, and there really isn’t a lot of redistribution going on, because to do so is expensive and outside of major conurbations, not that practical. Conditions vary so much across the country that it is questionable really if it is even one country, and bits of it never really made it into the twentieth century in terms of the tax = services structures Europeans take for granted. Second though is the sheer awfulness of US tax forms: I have had to fill them in I think three times, and it’s as if they are designed to make you resent every penny you have to hand over, they go on for reams; and third is that America is a very divided country and far too much of its politics has been structured around they idea that I am an honest farmer who deserves a tax break  vs they are lazy workers who should just find better paying jobs if they want to eat with added racial resentment thrown in.

So Heinlein, who is on one level an egalitarian, moves in his later life into areas that have poor services (Colorado) and distances that make such services impractical, and thus he really resents paying taxes which he sees predominantly as supporting the bureaucrats who collect the taxes. He sees the circle of input but not output. Do I think he is serious about this? Yes. Heinlein paid his taxes because he was not the kind of person not to, but his resentment was typical of his generational profile and one of the factors in his move over to vote Republican later in life.

 

Q: Heinlein seems to me to have some interesting ideas about the colonisation of space and its parallels with 19th Century colonialism. How far do you think his financial analysis of the parallels was thought through as opposed to handwaved?

 

A: This varies enormously. Often with Heinlein he thinks through things very well but without the right set of facts. This is a conclusion I’ve often come to with Heinlein. In many ways he is a very nineteenth century writer. He still believes in Malthusian population relationships well into the late twentieth century for example because he has not really absorbed the affect of either the green revolution or the impact of both contraception and women’s education on birth rates (the latter was not yet really studied).  So most of his colonies depend on rapid birth expansion but assume that they will be self sustaining very rapidly and be able to export quickly. The reality is very different with most colonies having to be supported from home and from indigenous resources (willing and unwilling) for quite some time. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Farmer in the Sky are the most oft cited stories of this kind but both are rather unrealistic. The Moon is not really a colony, it’s a prison camp: huge levels of resources are expended on it from “home” and the exports probably barely cover that. The novel fudges all of this. The Moon cannot ever be completely independent because of entropy, eventually they would run out of resources. The Earth could, if it wanted, just starve the Loonies out. Farmer in the Sky is a version of Little House on the Prairie but it’s noticeable that Heinlein reduces the level of individualism to individuals co-operating, and shows the dire shortage of labour, and even here company assistance is needed. The most convincing story is actually a short story, “Logic of Empire” in which ruthless corporations use indentured labour to clear land and run industry without worrying too much about how many die. It does depend however on transport to Venus being cheap and plenty of people wanting to sign on. And even then there are problems keeping hold of the population which runs away when it gets the opportunity.

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