Let me try to put some things in perspective. I spent a decade in the Legal Service Program which provides lawyers for the poor, first as a store-front lawyer, then in the management of programs or running a clinic. One of the recurring issues we used to debate was whether to focus on what we called “Band-Aids” or systemic change.
Band-Aids were individual relief for individual clients, generally much easier to get, but taking quite a lot of time for the few people we could help. It was important work, very satisfying and very frustrating at the same time because we could never make a dent in the needs most of our clients had that way.
Systematic change meant getting relief for lots of people at once, sometimes in a ground breaking suit, sometimes in a class action, sometimes by lobbying. I handled a case in St. Louis that established a tenant’s right to be free of lead paint in her apartment. Research shows a substantial relationship between getting lead in ones veins and one’s I.Q., success in school, propensity for violence and crime and life chances in general.[i] That was an effort to make systemic change. That too can be very frustrating – I’m not sure how many people were able to take advantage of our “victory.” But evidence backs up the significance of that decision, the importance of switching off leaded gas and the cleanup we still have to do.[ii]
Congress did not like systemic change. And for decades it tightened the screws on what Legal Services lawyers could do for their clients. A classmate of mine ran what we called a backup center in the Legal Services Program but he eventually took his Center out of the program and got private support to keep it going so that it would not have to live within those restrictions. I took my students to see the argument in one case in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, that Congress had turned the screws too far.[iii]
But outside of the tax code, everything is a Band-Aid. The tax code determines where the money is and what it’s available for. We could tackle lead paint the way we tackle clean water but “there’s no money.” We could provide everyone with a useful education, but “there’s no money.” We could invest in the kind of fundamental research that made this country so successful in the twentieth century, and we could take care of the unemployed but “there’s no money.” We could take care of the environment to protect ourselves, our children and our grandchildren but “there’s no money.”
Of course that’s a trope. There used to be enough to do the things we need. But politicians, following Reagan, started to claim that government was the problem and whatever it touched was bad. Another generation, following the two Bushes, insisted that we could solve all problems by cutting taxes. Now that we didn’t “have the money,” public policy became a battle among the ordinary people fighting for the crumbs, a game of let’s you and him fight. But of course the big winners were in the audience, those with the hugest fortunes who could just laugh at everyone else’s pain. And lest we complain, they met that with another trope, that they were “job creators,” when in fact they did everything else with their increasingly useless wealth but create jobs.[iv]
Let me be clear that sensible tax policy is much more difficult at the state and local level, than nationally. But we must tackle it or we’ll all drown together.
[i] See Deborah Denno, Biology and Violence: From Birth to Adulthood (Cambridge Univ. Press 1990).
[ii] Kevin Drum, America's Real Criminal Element: Lead – New research finds Pb is the hidden villain behind violent crime, lower IQs, and even the ADHD epidemic. And fixing the problem is a lot cheaper than doing nothing, Mother Jones, January/February 2013 Issue, available at http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/01/lead-crime-link-gasoline.
[iii] Legal Servs. Corp. v. Velazquez, 531 U.S. 533 (2001).
[iv] See, e.g., Henry Blodget, Sorry, Folks, Rich People Actually Don't 'Create The Jobs,' Business Insider, Nov. 29, 2013, http://www.businessinsider.com/rich-people-create-jobs-2013-11.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
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