Friday, June 4, 2010

Political Reality Bites Political Scientist, Part 2

By happenstance, I gradually shifted my interest from comparative and ethnic politics to public policy, with foci on aging, housing, and the elderly. The change took place through my participation in several projects for a Washington, D.C. consulting firm (a “beltway bandit,” TransCentury Corporation), that did evaluations of government programs. The projects addressed problems confronting elderly homeowners, public housing, and aging Americans. Each of these were subsequently published: Old Folks at Home, The Urban Elderly Poor, How Tenants See Public Housing.

Although most government contracts are open to bidding, I learned that many government contracts were “wired,” that is, given to individuals and firms with connections to an administration or member(s) of Congress, rather than to authors of the best research proposal.

Having spent a year as a visiting fellow (1971-72) at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, I secured a permanent appointment in 1976. Then a small group of about a dozen resident senior fellows (senior fellows are equivalent to the rank of full professor) thought, wrote, and promoted domestic and foreign policy issues addressed at the federal government in Washington, D.C. The nomination of Ronald Reagan thrust me front and center into the tax policy debate; I was writing a book on the causes and consequences of Proposition 13 (adopted June 6, 1978). I participated in a task force with other distinguished tax experts charged with composing a tax-cutting and reform agenda for Reagan.

The proposal we crafted, in my opinion, did not go far enough. Through another happenstance, I teamed up with Robert E. Hall (a truly distinguished economist) to rewrite the U.S. income tax code. We published a synopsis, the Hall-Rabushka flat tax, in the December 10, 1981, issue of the Wall Street Journal. Eight months later, on July 27, 1982 (Congressional Record link), Bruce Bartlett, congressional aide to the Joint Economic Committee, scheduled the first Congressional hearing on the flat tax.

Bob and I carefully prepared our testimony, with a giant replica of our postcard-sized flat-tax form. We made our presentation to members of the JEC, which included prominent professional basketball star, Bill Bradley of new Jersey. After we completed our testimony, Bradley entered the room and took his seat on the dais. He railed into the flat tax with well-lit media cameras recording his inquisition. Many of his statements were downright wrong while others distorted the flat tax.

It was our turn to reply. As we began to speak, the floodlights were turned off and Senator Bradley left the room. He had not come to the hearing to discuss the pros and cons of the flat tax. Rather, he came to state his opposition to the cameras and charge its authors with “crimes” against taxpayers. I regarded his behavior as unforgivable, insensitive, and boorish. Disillusionment squared.

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