Uncle Sam as Santa Claus

Why We Vote
[Note: This essay is one in a continuing series by ICCFA executive director Bob Fells focusing on various issues in our federal government. Although the subjects are political in nature, the approach is bipartisan in outlook, at least so far as that is humanly possible. The goal of each essay is not to persuade the reader to adopt a particular political viewpoint or party, but to illustrate why a knowledge of the system is important to protect our businesses, our homes, and our families.]

Uncle Sam as Santa Claus

‘Tis the season that songwriters say is “the most wonderful time of the year.” In many respects it is, but this essay is focused on government and there seems to be no wonderful time for it. We don’t even see very much anymore the patriarchal image of our government as personified by Uncle Sam, a vigorous elderly gent who resembles a slim and barbered Santa Claus. I should read up on the origins of Uncle Sam but I have a feeling that making him look like a relative of Santa was no coincidence. And as we take stock of our federal government in reaching the midpoint of the second decade of the 21st century, it becomes apparent that the metaphor of Santa Claus is far more relevant these days – if such a vast and soulless entity as the federal government can be personified at all.

Metaphors are useful because they can expose the most complicated issues, e.g., the emperor’s new clothes are really the emperor has no clothes.  If we can indulge ourselves with the impression of the federal government as Santa Claus, then where do we go from there? As noted in previous essays, our government changed gears with the advent of The Great Society programs beginning in the mid-1960s. The historic three-fold mission of the feds – secure the borders, maintain internal law and order, and get out of the way – morphed into an attitude of “what has the government done for me lately?” This new thinking made a mockery of JFK’s noble call of “Ask not what can my country do for me….” and turned the inquiry into “How much has my country done for me – and how recently?” Thus Uncle Sam jabbing his finger in our faces demanding to know if we have volunteered yet for service has been replaced by Santa asking for our wish lists.

Of course, Santa needs helpers and in Washington they aren’t called elves, they are called members of Congress. These helpers are pretty bipartisan too, promising that if we vote for them on Election Day they will make sure that Santa reads our wish list. Best of all, if we are stumped for things we want from the feds, our Congressional representatives will helpfully recommend items for us that they will lobby for. Naturally, it’s considered bad form to discuss how the government is supposed to pay for all these goodies, any more than we are likely to see a Visa or Mastercard commercial where the vacationers open the bill and faint at seeing how much they owe. We are told in so many words that we are guests at a party so enjoy. We are not told that we’re responsible for paying the tab. Santa never brings up such a crass subject.

Do you remember when Congress was abuzz with talk of tax reform in 2011? They had earlier collectively asked for a pass on this controversy for the 2010 elections but as 2011 moved along we were informed that they needed to get past the distractions of the 2012 national elections before they could really start the reform work. Now we’re past even the 2013 elections and we still haven’t heard much on tax reform from anybody. I’d like to blame one party or the other but this inertia is truly bipartisan. The problem is that too many vested interests prosper from just the way the tax system exists. Hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, earn a comfortable living due to the complexity of the federal tax code. We know that it is possible to reduce personal income tax regulations so that we could file our tax return on a postcard but then the unemployment rate would explode with all the unemployed accountants, CPAs, and tax lawyers. We need the cooperation of the very people who would be threatened and perhaps harmed by tax reform. 

I use tax reform as a handy and relatively non-partisan example of the myriad of programs and operations that benefit so many people – recipients, civil servants, private sector contractors, consultants – that the only folks who want reform are those not getting a slice of the pie and their numbers have dwindled. As a sign of the times, can you recall the last time you heard JFK’s “Ask not” statement quoted? I used to hear it all the time until about twenty years ago. Soon I expect it to be reduced to a question in Trivial Pursuit: Who said…… uh, Harry Truman?

The point to these observations is this: we can join the Christmas Club that is known as Congress or we, as ICCFA members, can continue to behave as independent entrepreneurs seeking no largesse from Santa aka Uncle Sam. Everybody knows that a reckoning is coming and the most optimistic among us hope that they are retired by then.  Our party-goers will be handed the tab at the end of the festivities but hopefully those who never attended the party won’t owe anything. In practical terms, this means that an effective Government Relations program in 21st century America is one that seeks to protect ICCFA members from the onslaught of mounting laws and regulations that maintain an unsustainable status quo while squeezing out new taxes, fees, fines and penalties to fund the unsustainable. Most people with addictions are incapable of treating themselves, and they require outside intervention to recover. Where is the outside intervention to stem growing deficits? Perhaps it’s Santa Claus.