Why Tax Policy Isn’t Easy

I remember a day in the late 2000’s that crystallized the challenge with tax policy. One of the students who worked in my office came in upset by the tax structure in the United States. He stated that it was an unfair redistribution of wealth and he asked for my opinion. I don’t remember my exact words, but they went something like this:

Any tax is a redistribution of resources, so it really isn’t as simple as taxes are good or bad. There are two questions that need to be discussed: is the revenue side right (i.e. how the taxes are assessed and collected) and is the expense side right (i.e. how the spending priorities are determined and spent). I guarantee you, everyone has an opinion about both rights.

From his reaction, I got the impression that my answer was unsatisfying. So, I picked a single example and shared my point of view. I observed that although there are places in the world that can produce food more inexpensively than the United States, there is a strategic need to ensure sufficient cultivated and cultivatable land within our borders to feed our populace. So, there has been a long standing practice of farm subsidies and tariffs to ensure that the agricultural industry survives — not every farmer, but the industry. I shared that I was sure some of my federal income tax went to that, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell him how much.

He paused and looked at me. I could tell he was still looking for an answer, a simple answer, about whether I thought taxes were unfair. I shook my head. “My dad always said that fair was a term in baseball describing the area between the first and third baselines. Taxes aren’t fair or unfair. I’m more than willing to talk tax policy, but it’s going to be deeper than fairness.” We didn’t talk about taxes again.

And that is why tax policy is hard. For every person that feels like investing in a strong military is a strategic imperative I can show you someone who feels that we would be safe enough spending less. For every person who feels that public higher education is necessary for a well-educated populace, there’s someone else who feels that a pay-to-play system works fine. Healthcare. Stadium subsidies. Parks. Roads. Public safety. Fire services. Retirement safety nets. Libraries. Disaster relief. The mortgage deduction. I guarantee you that there is something that is part of the current system that you value or benefit from — something you would see as a ‘right’ expense. And there is probably some revenue generating mechanism that you also feel is ‘right’ or closest to right.

The problem — as I see it — is that there is just too much data. We can’t really consume it or discuss it to get past generalities. And I am speaking about my own capabilities, too. I heard a podcast today about the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal — >6,000 pages of resource redistribution. Could I possibly understand it well enough to have an informed opinion? No. Some industries and products are given protection from competition, some are not. Why? Because someone deemed them strategically important. Is that right? Depends on your perspective, I guess. They interviewed a guy whose company manufacturers waders (for fishing) and he was going to enjoy another 8 years protected by 35% import duties. He thought that was right even though if you buy waders you might pay more.

All I know is that I recognize that no one gets something for nothing. And, I want my kids (and yours, and the stranger in some town I’ve never heard of) to be educated — because like Jefferson I believe that a well-educated populace is needed for a strong democracy. I want to know that I can trust a bridge when I  drive across it and that I can rely on safe and clean drinking water coming out of my tap. I want the elderly and veterans whose contributions I have benefited from to have at least the basics of shelter, food and care. It that right? To me it is, or right enough when you’re trying to build a system for 325 million people.

So, I will try to avoid being baited into either sound byte extreme, no matter how much I love you or value your opinion of me. I will listen to your ‘rights’ and I will share my ‘rights’. I will be excited to learn about your reasons and how your life experiences have formed your rationale. Really, I can’t wait.

Just don’t ask me if taxes are fair — not unless you want to talk baseball.

What Newton Taught Me about Living: Inertia

My senior year in college I found myself in an unusual place. After three years focused on classes in literature, history, philosophy and theatre, I was sitting in a science class. And not just any science class, but lab physics. My lab partner, a brilliant woman who would later attend Johns Hopkins medical school and go on to become a pediatric surgeon at the University of Michigan, didn’t quite know what to expect. Truthfully, neither did I. It was my first science class since high school.

I did fine in the class, but my mind was always miles away thinking about what was next in my life — planning for marriage and starting grad school. Strangely, it was the fact that I was focused on other things that helped me get the most out of the class. Because even though I couldn’t do a physics equation today, I still think about what I learned that year from Newton and how it translates into life:

  • Newton’s First Law: Inertia. A body at rest stays at rest. A body in motion stays in motion.
  • Newton’s Second Law: Force. Force is equal to mass times acceleration.
  • Newton’s Third Law: Action & Reaction. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.


I don’t know about you, but my most productive days start with a fast morning. Up, showered and out the door with a plan and a mission. On those days I am damn near unstoppable, running from one task or obstacle to another. I am a ‘go hard’, ‘go fast’ machine, regardless of what I should or could do to slow down and take time to recharge.

The days when I struggle to gain traction are the ones where I have a slow start. I wake with my iPad, leisurely reading posts in bed while the minutes slip away and turn into hours. Sometimes, I am avoiding a hard task, but mostly I am just stuck. Stuck in the comfort of a warm bed or a sedentary state of mind. I am a two-ton statue that is unable to shift off its base, much less climb big mountains, regardless of the important work that needs doing.

For me, it is a constant fight against inertia: 

  • I just can’t slow down when in Mack Truck mode. 
  • I just can’t start up when stuck in park.

It’s easy to feel that my challenge in dealing with inertia is a personal failing. But physics taught me it’s not. Inertia is just a part of the world, as simple and predictable as a sunrise. Newton taught me it takes energy and force to influence a body at rest or a body at motion — some outside effort is needed.

Knowing that gives me the ability to ask for help and to build systems and mechanisms to deal with the inherent inertia everywhere. It caused me to create ‘no cook Fridays’ as a commitment to slow heading into the weekend and guarantee a meal with my family. It made me appreciate my first year in grad school when I had the ‘worst’ schedule (8am-12pm Monday-Friday) because the structure of class got me going and inertia gave me the focus to study long into the night.

Maybe I would have found a way to understand being stuck — and getting out of it — without learning Newton’s first law. After all, people dealt with inertia before Newton had even written the word down. People have leaned in and pushed hard and heave hoed not thinking much about it, just doing what was necessary. Formulas explain the world, the don’t make it.

But like Newton, I just like knowing why it works.