‘An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Although this famous quote, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, has never been found verbatim in his works, it accurately reflects his views [i]. Even in the Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 declared, “In a republic where the people are sovereign, the ability of the citizenry to make informed choices among candidates for office is essential.” Unfortunately, the court went on to twist reality in order to legalize bribery.
Does America have an informed electorate today? Is democracy safe? The failure of the Fair Tax Amendment provides a superb test case. This amendment would have enabled Illinois to join the large majority of states that have a graduated income tax. In the immediate future, passage of this amendment would have resulted in higher tax for those with incomes over $250,000 but no change or lower taxes for everyone else. Passage would have benefited 97 percent of the electorate. There are no cogent arguments against it.
How could half of Illinois vote against their own self-interest? The answer is: We do not have an informed electorate.
A few billionaires, in particular Kenneth Griffin (who invested around $50 million in a disinformation campaign), in combination with the owners of the Chicago Tribune, who published editorials and biased columns daily in the weeks before the election, were able to promote a false narrative and hoodwink Illinois voters.
Here are their main arguments:
1) Do not give Illinois lawmakers the power to raise your taxes.
This claim is ludicrous because they already have this power. Illinois tax rates have gone up and down because the legislature could always do this. The Fair Tax Amendment would have given them the power to raise taxes selectively on the rich. In most states and also in most countries of the world, taxing folks based on their ability to pay is considered fair. Those who have massive wealth can afford to pay a slightly higher proportion of their income so the less fortunate can survive.
2) The Fair Tax will not solve our fiscal problems overnight, so let’s do nothing!
The Tribune published a long column written by “economists” who made this remarkable argument. While the authors admitted the Fair Tax Amendment would reduce the deficit by $3.4 billion, this would not quite cover our $5 billion deficit. Their conclusion was, let’s not pay down the deficit; let’s leave it at a huge number! Anyone who has borrowed money and cannot pay it back at all once should realize that paying part of it shows good faith and keeps one’s kneecaps intact.
3) Ad hominem.
The richest man in Illinois, who will benefit mightily from the poor choice of Illinois voters, wrote a column attacking Governor Pritzker’s fiscal dealings (“Billionaire Griffin slams Pritzker push for graduated income tax amendment” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 23). This is a classical ad hominem argument (attack the man). Pritzker’s character or behavior is not on the ballot and are irrelevant. This is also called a “red herring” argument: you drag a dead fish across the path so the dogs (or duped taxpayers) will follow that trail and lose sight of the true villain who escapes.
4) If you raise taxes only on the rich, they will move to other states to avoid paying their share of taxes.
This is the only argument that has even remote credibility, making it a favorite of Tribune editors. However, because most states already have graduated income tax systems, any billionaires who want to flee have a limited set of options. Seven states have no income tax, including such garden spots as Wyoming, Alaska, and South Dakota. However, they may have higher property or sales taxes. Among the 11 states with flat taxes, six have higher rates than Illinois. State governments pay for things like schools, roads, bridges, children’s health care, prisons, and they need money to do so. This can only come from taxpayers. You do not get something for nothing. The top tax rate in 29 states is higher than in Illinois [ii], so a rich person is far better off in Flat Tax Illinois than in most of the United States. If Ken Griffin wants to move to Wyoming and sell his hedge funds to the cowpokes there, he is free to do so.
The truth is that Illinois must raise taxes to cover its deficit. The Fair Tax Amendment gave Illinoisans the opportunity to shift the burden onto the wealthy, who can easily afford it without any loss of quality of life. Now, because they were lied to, Illinoisans have just voted to increase their own taxes.
This example proves beyond doubt that Americans are not adequately informed. Consequently, democracy is at risk. We are lied to during political campaigns, and this continues to happen because our legal system allows it.
Tom DeCoursey is a longtime Oak Park resident.