Slim Pickings in This Year's Political Races

Tough times need new ideas, but we've got the same old politics

During the July 12 gubernatorial debate, Zach Wamp said something startling. Defending his 2008 vote to bail out banks with TARP funds, he said he was unsure whether his constituents might wake up the next day and be unable to get their money from the bank and that Congress was basically forced to pony up almost a trillion dollars to stave off a run on the banks and economic chaos.

What was shocking about Wamp's statement was not the stark desperation he described, but the context. Everyone on the stage, including the Democrat, including Wamp, was reciting the same economic bromides we heard in the last gubernatorial election and the one before that and the one before that. Has no one learned a thing from the economy's crash?

We have been sending politicians to Nashville and to D.C. to cut taxes and cut spending for decades, but those easy political slogans are not appropriate for these desperate times. We need leaders with the courage to raise taxes and create new taxes.

It's the decades of cuts in taxes and spending that set the stage for the economic crisis. Our regulatory institutions, cut so often they are skeletal, could not protect us from the bankers' mistakes nor the risks BP took with its deep-sea well. Whatever benefits might have come from decades of deregulation were wiped out with those colossal failures, but the Republican sales pitch has not changed.

Taxes are so low that in 2007 income inequality reached levels not seen since just before the Great Depression. If you think that is a coincidence, consider Col. Adolphus Busch's old bromide: "You can only drink 30 or 40 glasses of beer a day, no matter how rich you are." Consumption gets constrained when wealth becomes concentrated in fewer hands, and that constrains the economy.

America once prided itself on equality, but that's a rhetorical message I rarely hear anymore. Not many people talk about how great it is that Mexicans can come here, work hard, start their own businesses and become successful. The America I grew up in celebrated the idea that anyone, even a black boy, could grow up to be President. The tea parties thrown in honor of President Obama have been a strange sort of celebration.

Politicians tells us what we want to hear; leaders tell us what we need to hear. I don't see much leadership on the ballot in Knox County, especially among Republicans. They have all made the easy promise not to raise taxes, but these are hard times.

Who has the courage to tax wealth? A wealthy man gets only one vote, so this ought to be a viable electoral strategy, though it might make it harder to collect campaign contributions. Our economy was strongest when the highest tax brackets paid 70 percent or more, and we paid for World War II by dropping the threshold on the top bracket from $5,000,000 to $200,000.

Gubernatorial candidates have actually talked about doing the opposite despite the state's dire need for revenue. Democrat Mike McWherter is a millionaire, and his rhetoric on taxation reflects that fact.

Who has the courage to tax pollution? Emissions from TVA fossil plants would make an excellent new source of revenue, with the added benefits of reducing respiratory problems and encouraging renewable power. If the Legislature lacks the courage to end mountaintop removal mining, it should at least tax coal producers for the ridgelines they obliterate and streams they bury.

When I hear mayoral candidate Tim Burchett pledge not to increase taxes, I hear pandering, not leadership. A real leader would not shy away from attending forums and debates. As a politician, and especially as a Republican, pandering and easy promises are his natural behavior.

The only candidates in contested races on the county ballot who've shown the courage we need in these hard times are Amy Broyles, Finbarr Saunders, and Pam Trainor. State and federal candidates need to talk about raising taxes if they are to be taken seriously in November.