What I Learned at a Conservative Think Tank: Propaganda Now, Facts Later!
US federal tax forms are distributed by the Internal Revenue Service. The fiscal cliff comprises a poison-pill law agreed by Republicans and Democrats in August 2011 that forces harsh budget cuts from January 1, and the expiration of a wide range of tax c
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The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., has always had a special place in my heart. In the late 1980s, during the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush, the right-wing think tank provided me with my first job as a young conservative intellectual. My first assignment was to write a policy brief about presidential war powers. I was removed from the project after I wrote a draft that began with the observation that the U.S. constitution divides war powers between Congress and the president, and gives the most important war powers — the power to declare war and to fund it — to Congress. The higher-ups at Heritage reassigned the paper to a Wall Street Journal staffer, who provided them with what they wanted: a brief arguing that the president has absolute, uncontrollable power in foreign affairs.
One of my next assignments was to write a policy paper justifying a forthcoming bill from the late Sen. Jesse Helms, a belligerent reactionary from North Carolina. When I met with the senator’s staff, I was told to wait because Helms wasn’t sure what he was going to put in the bill. After I failed to turn in the policy brief on time, I received an official reprimand from my supervisor, which I treasured until I lost it during a move. The reprimand said, in effect, that at Heritage we write policy papers first and add the facts later.
Things went downhill. I soon left Heritage and, a few years later, the conservative movement altogether. When several colleagues and I founded the New America Foundation in the late 1990s, I held up Heritage as a model of what a genuine think tank ought not to be.
I am amused to report that my former colleagues at the Heritage Foundation have lost none of their willingness to sacrifice truth to propaganda. The Heritage Foundation has published an “ Index of Dependence on Government” by William W. Beach and Patrick Tyrrell which seeks to bolster Mitt Romney’s theme that at least 47 percent of Americans are parasitic, government-dependent “takers” rather than “makers” (hat tip to Thomas B. Edsall):
Today, more people than ever before depend on the federal government for housing, food, income, student aid, or other assistance once considered to be the responsibility of individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches, and other civil society institutions. The United States reached another milestone in 2010: For the first time in history, half the population pays no federal income taxes. It is the conjunction of these two trends — higher spending on dependence-creating programs, and an ever-shrinking number of taxpayers who pay for these programs — that concerns those interested in the fate of the American form of government.
What caught me eye in this latest piece of Heritage agitprop was this sentence: The United States reached a milestone in 2012: For the first time in history, half the population pays no federal income taxes.
This is not just wrong. It is an error embarrassing enough to shame even a shameless propaganda mill like the Heritage Foundation.
Heritage implies that a majority of Americans paid federal income taxes throughout American history, presumably back to the 1790s. Nothing could be further from the truth. For much of American history, one hundred percent of the population paid no federal income taxes, because there were none. And the federal income tax began to fall on the middle-class masses, not just the upper classes, only in the 1940s.
The first federal income tax in the U.S. was enacted in 1861 to help pay for the Civil War. It was abolished afterward, but recreated in 1894. After the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional, because it was not “apportioned among the states” the constitution was amended by the 16th Amendment to give Congress the power to levy income taxation.