“We dance around in a ring and suppose, but the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” ~ Robert Frost
President Barack Obama and the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, are locked in an election year struggle. With the selection of Paul Ryan as the vice presidential candidate, the rhetoric is going to heat up even more. Both Democrats and Republicans endeavor to claim the moral ground in the argument regarding taxes – who, how much, why, and how.
But how much do we really know about this debate? Perhaps a better question, how much do we really know about the tax code?
Author David Foster Wallace believes that the real reason the general public is so poorly informed about the modern tax policy is because it is massively and spectacularly dull. He argues that the bureaucrats have rendered the issue boring by design. Remember Watergate? Government corruption that takes place in secret is fascinating! Instead, the IRS operates in broad day light. Anyone can read the archives of the Joint Committee on Taxation. The problem, however, is that they use words like “strategic utilization template” and “revenue vector” to mean “plan” and “tax.” Using such language, it literally takes a committee days to decide on the agenda of the meeting. Wallace believes that the IRS is the prime example of the most terrible discovery in modern democracy: if sensitive issues of governance can be made dull and arcane, no one will pay attention.
What do we know about the tax code, other than the basic caricatures of Democrats and Republicans about the other side?
This is the background of Wallace’s The Pale King, which is a tour de force of creative expression. In the pages, Wallace deftly weaves together gripping fictional narratives of ordinary people, from trailer park inhabitants to IRS executives. He puts skin and bones on tax policy and, as a result, transforms dullness into entertainment. More poignantly, he also shines light on our current political discussion.
In essence, leaders on both sides of the aisle assume that taxes are odious, even evil. Through his fiction, Wallace shows that the idea of taxation is a matter of social justice. A government by the people, for the people, is one that taxes in order to bring about a better society. Only a writer like Wallace could make a story about the intricate tax code of the Internal Revenue Service a page turner. Most likely, taxes will never be exciting to the rest of us; but maybe we, as American citizens, have the duty to understand exactly what is at stake.