Wednesday, September 30, 2015
The Tangled Web We Weave
You know what this is, right?
It’s a straight line graph, where an increase in the independent variable is matched by an equal increase in the variable that depends on it. In this case, where the dependency formula is y = x, it’s like you get a year older every year you live. With a different dependency formula, say y = 250x, it could show that every week you hide $250 under your mattress, the total you have hidden increases by $250. The line would be steeper, but it would still be straight (everything else being equal).
We tend to think of life being linear, like every day we live we’re a day older, or every dollar we put under our mattress increases the total by one, but some important parts of life don’t behave that way. For example, is adding a second wife the same as getting married for the first time? From the man’s point of view, the first wife would be all the difference in the world. The second wife would be one more body, but as far as sex and housecleaning and probably some other things, it would simply mean more of what he already has. (There is also good reason to believe the man’s problems would increase parabolically, but let’s leave that aside for now.) The change would not be as dramatic as it was for his first marriage. A third would be one more body, but less of a change than the second marriage, and so on to Solomon’s seven hundred wives.
This can be represented by a logarithmic graph. You can see that the numbers on the y axis are multiples of ten, not of one, as on the previous chart.
The steepest difference is between x = 1 (unmarried) and x = 2 (one wife). The second wife (x = 3) increases y, but by less than the first wife did. By the time our Solomon adds his fifteenth wife, the difference is perceptible, but pretty much negligible.
From his first wife’s point of view, of course, that second wife would be an increase from 0 to 1, all the difference in the world. The third wife would add insult to injury, as would the fourth, et cetera, but no one addition would effect as big a change as that between 0 and 1.
A phrase that I think has come into English from computer programming is “[something] is the new [something, usually smaller].” It comes from algorithms like this:
1 x = 0
2 do until x = 6
3 x = x + 1
5 print x
That is, “Start with an x equal to 0 and add 1 to it until you get to 6. Then output x [which by then will be 6] and quit.” Line 3 is where our phrase comes from: first “1 is the new 0,” then “2 is the new 1,” then “3 is the new 2,” et cetera, until x = 5 and the program ends.
The Overton Window plays on this idea. If we think of x as the range of allowable opinion (i.e., ideas that are considered sane or decent or reasonable), then one reasonably asks “If x is OK, how about x + 1?” Jon Stewart did a pretty good parody of Glenn Beck’s version of the idea, but the point of his parody was that if it works to support the point Beck was making, it could be used to support points Beck wouldn’t want to admit to making. Stewart never got around to denying that Beck was right.
If life is logarithmic, we should find that bringing new ideas into the Overton Window becomes easier over time. We are familiar with how this applies to lying.
As the old saw goes, “What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” When we decide to tell a lie, we do so thinking that one little lie won’t hurt anything. But eventually we have to tell another lie to cover the first, and on and on until we can’t keep the facts and lies straight and the truth comes out.
We see this in tax-funded programs as well. Let’s take for an example something reasonable, like schools. Everyone wants kids to be educated, right? And what better way to fund schools than taxes?
So we have, say, a 1% tax to pay for the school. Soon we find that kids have different needs, so we need more facilities. But we don’t have the money, so now we need a 2% tax. But some people are cheating on their taxes, so now we need an enforcement agency, and not only that, we’re not teaching an important subject, so we need another teacher. Now we’re up to a 3% tax. Then we decide that the Hatfields and the McCoys aren’t getting along, so we need to have separate schools. Now we’re up to 4%. Then we decide that the McCoys’ school isn’t as good as the Hatfields’ school, so now we have to put the students back together, but we need staff to keep peace between them. Now we’re up to 5%. But all the while this is going on, the people who run the system are taking home paychecks, and the longer they work, the more they expect to be paid; after all, their competence has increased. So now we’re up to 6%, and we’re nowhere near finished.
There might be considerable resistance to the increase from 1% to 2%. Those opposed will say – or, as the mainstream media are wont to say, howl – “Our taxes are doubling!” But by the time the item on the ballot is to raise the rate from 5% to 6%, it’s only a 20% increase, and once the taxes are up to 20%, an increase to 21% is only an increase of 5% and will garner hardly a shrug.
I can’t give physics-lab proof that tax projects always grow more expensive, but every case I can think of has, if not each line item than the aggregate. School budgets and other prototypical welfare, as well as military spending and other forms of crony capitalism, always seems to increase. When the dollar amount of one item actually does go down, the money gets moved to another item.
If one tax expenditure always breeds another, the logic would dictate that that would still be the case once the tax rate reaches 100%. By then, the percentage increase of every additional x will be so small that there will be no barrier to implementing it but lack of money. So then we simply put the new item on credit, since after all it’s just a little bit of debt, and a little debt never hurt anyone. You see where this is going.
If one tax expenditure always breeds another, then the only cure to the problem is to get rid of that first tax expenditure. And if there is no tax expenditure, there is no need for taxes. It is taxation that is the second wife that ruins the marriage for the first wife. It is taxation that is like the first lie that precipitates a life of deceit.
We always want more than we have. That’s because we are made in the image of God, who wants more than he has as well. This is why he said, “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it [= increase its value].” This is why Jesus told parables of rich men entrusting their property to stewards who were expected to increase that property’s value. Whenever a group of Christians starts a school or hospital or church or day care center or soup kitchen, with every advance comes a problem that will require additional resources. God calls us to find ways to serve our neighbors so they will give us the resources we need to solve those problems. For too long, evangelicals have looked to the tax man for financial help, and we are poorer than ever, or at least than at any time in my life, and the church is withering.
It’s time to cut off that first, most important transgression. It’s time to kiss the tax man goodbye and build the kingdom without him. “God’s work done God’s way will never lack God’s support.”