Say you’re a certain political party that, for reasons totally beyond your control, suffered an electoral defeat in 2008 so humiliating that it seemed to dictate a wholesale reevaluation of your priorities. Everyone predicted that you would founder for decades, but then—miraculously—your politics experienced a sudden resurgence. According to the national news media, at least, thousands across the country rallied not just around your principles, but around a crazy, exaggerated version of your principles—one so dedicated and extreme that it took even you by surprise. Of course, you jumped on this public groundswell with both feet, chanting along and adopting the rhetoric of your most wild-eyed supporters. It seemed great for a while, but now you’ve got a problem. The engine is losing steam; you’ve gone as far down the track as rhetoric can take you, and it’s only given you a better look at how far you have left to go. Crazy talk has been great for getting you on the news and misinforming the public, but the time for crazy talk is over. Now is the time for crazy action.
That’s apparently the reasoning of South Carolina state representative Mike Pitts, who introduced legislation this month banning federal currency in his home state. The draft of legislation Pitts submitted to the South Carolina House—which is a real legislative body, to which Pitts is a real elected representative—cites “the unconstitutional substitution of Federal Reserve Notes for silver and gold coin.” The word “unconstitutional” is tricky here, since federal and state Supreme Courts, legislatures and generations of scholars have agreed on the constitutionality of paper currency since 1883. As a retired Greenville police officer, Pitts might have some legal angle on the issue of which the past 130 years have remained unaware. Of course, it’s also possible that he threw the word “unconstitutional” in there because it’s a catchword of the Tea Party movement, but that’s probably a coincidence. Can’t a man wake up one morning and realize that paper money is unconstitutional without everyone making a federal case out of it? That’s probably a poor choice of words.
No, wait—this is a poor choice of words. Iowa’s own Representative Steve King, who gets to serve in the big Congress, expressed “empathy” for Andrew Stack, the Texas computer engineer who last week crashed his plane into an Austin IRS building, killing himself and an IRS employee he had never met. The saga of a man who owns a plane and feels that the federal government has made it impossible for him to earn a decent living is perhaps the best metaphor yet for the Tea Party, or it would be if it hadn’t killed somebody. Representative King made his remarks while speaking at Saturday’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which was already a kind of perfect storm of crazy. King’s verbal misstep would hardly be worth noting, were it not for the proposal with which he followed it. And I quote: “Americans looking for an outlet for their frustration should join me in calling on Congress to pass a national sales tax and abolish the current federal tax code and the IRS.”
That is the second most horrifying idea that anyone named Steve King has ever come up with. Rare is the political position that can be fully refuted with basic arithmetic, and when it comes along we’d be fools not to seize it. In 2008, the federal government collected tax revenues totaling $2.5 trillion. The gross domestic product that year was $14.2 trillion—meaning that, in order to cover the shortfall created by Representative King’s abolition of the federal tax code, his sales tax would have to come to 17%. Because of the way GDP is calculated, that means 17% on insurance payouts, on medical treatment, on food, on bank transfers, on welfare benefits, on disaster aid—you name it. Forget the moral implications of charging single moms extra for food so that computer engineers don’t fly their planes into the now-vacant IRS building—the economic impact of a 17% excise tax on all transactions would be devastating. Steve King’s plan, if enacted, would pretty much end both the United States economy and the federal government as we know them.
Fortunately, there’s no danger of King’s legislation being enacted—or Pitts’s, for that matter. Both proposals are show governance, undertaken to prove their respective sponsors’ conservative bona fides to a base that has willfully truncated its understanding of the American experiment at a ninth-grade level. Steve King’s decision to abdicate his responsibilities as a United States Congressman and Mike Pitts’s advocacy of a states’ rights position deemed radical in the nineteenth century would be funnier if they were not the next logical step in an already disturbing trend. I don’t believe for a minute that Steve King actually thinks the federal tax code should be abolished, just as I don’t believe that Mike Pitts thinks paper money is unconstitutional. That these two elected representatives are willing to make a mockery of the act of governing the United States of America in order to curry public favor is depressing. That they have concluded that the best way to do so is by proposing what I am going to charitably call the stupidest fucking ideas in the world is terrifying. Maybe you can run a house of representatives this way, but you can’t run a country.