By PAUL KRUGMAN
21 August 2006
The New York Times
The New York Times Company
Yesterday The New York Times reported that the Internal Revenue
outsource collection of unpaid back taxes to private debt
collectors, who would
receive a share of the proceeds.
It's an awful idea. Privatizing tax collection will cost far more
additional I.R.S. agents, raise less revenue and pose obvious risks
But what's really amazing is the extent to which this plan is a
modern principles of government. I used to say that conservatives
want to take
us back to the 1920's, but the Bush administration seemingly wants
to go back
to the 16th century.
And privatized tax collection is only part of the great march backward.
In the bad old days, government was a haphazard affair. There was no
bureaucracy to collect taxes, so the king subcontracted the job to
''tax farmers,'' who often engaged in extortion. There was no
regular army, so
the king hired mercenaries, who tended to wander off and pillage the
village. There was no regular system of administration, so the king
the task to favored courtiers, who tended to be corrupt, incompetent
Modern governments solved these problems by creating a professional
department to collect taxes, a professional officer corps to enforce
discipline, and a professional civil service. But President Bush
doesn't like these innovations, preferring to govern as if he were
So the tax farmers are coming back, and the mercenaries already
have. There are
about 20,000 armed ''security contractors'' in Iraq, and they have been
assigned critical tasks, from guarding top officials to training the
Like the mercenaries of old, today's corporate mercenaries have
problems. ''They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the
aftermath,'' declared a U.S. officer last year.
And armed men operating outside the military chain of command have
least one catastrophe. Remember the four Americans hung from a
were security contractors from Blackwater USA who blundered into
bypassing a Marine checkpoint -- while the Marines were trying to
methodical strategy of pacifying the city. The killing of the four,
knee-jerk reaction of the White House -- which ordered an all-out
called it off as casualties mounted -- may have ended the last chance of
containing the insurgency.
Yet Blackwater, whose chief executive is a major contributor to the
Party, continues to thrive. The Department of Homeland Security sent
armed Blackwater employees into New Orleans immediately after Katrina.
To whom are such contractors accountable? Last week a judge threw
out a jury's
$10 million verdict against Custer Battles, a private contractor
hired, among other things, to provide security at Baghdad's airport.
Battles has become a symbol of the mix of cronyism, corruption and sheer
amateurishness that doomed the Iraq adventure -- and the judge
the jury's finding that the company engaged in blatant fraud.
But he ruled that the civil fraud suit against the company lacked a
basis, because as far as he could tell, the Coalition Provisional
which ran Iraq's government from April 2003 to June 2004, wasn't ''an
instrumentality of the U.S. government.'' It wasn't created by an act of
Congress; it wasn't a branch of the State Department or any other
So what was it? Any premodern monarch would have recognized the
effect, the authority was a personal fief run by a viceroy answering
the ruler. And since the fief operated outside all the usual rules of
government, the viceroy was free to hire a staff of political
any relevant qualifications for their jobs, and to hand out duffel
with $100 bills to contractors with the right connections.
Tax farmers, mercenaries and viceroys: why does the Bush
administration want to
run a modern superpower as if it were a 16th-century monarchy? Maybe
who've spent their political careers denouncing government as the
root of all
evil can't grasp the idea of governing well. Or maybe it's cynical
privatization provides both an opportunity to evade accountability
and a vast
source of patronage.
But the price is enormous. This administration has thrown away
lessons about how to make government work. No wonder it has failed at
everything except fearmongering.
*BBC World Service 16 August 2006 Broadcasting: A Bill Clinton Quote: *
Q. How fundamental is the clash of values in war on terror & how long
will it continue?
A. Well, I think the clash of values is more important than the
religious differences. What will they have if they win a war only
because they can force both sides into the killing of civilians? That is
basically what happened in Lebanon . Hezbollah fired all those rockets
and then hid among civilian populations. What kind of world will they be
leaving for their children and grandchildren? Do they really believe
they have the absolute truth and that they cannot accommodate differences?
The central question for our time is not how you worship God, or even
whether you worship God. It's whether you believe in this life you can
be in possession of the absolute truth and you have the right to impose
it on others. We need to remember that too, those of us who are the
targets of terror. Because we are rich, we are strong, we have sometimes
been insensitive to the weak and to the claims of people who couldn't
get high enough on our agenda. So if we want to exhort people and
persuade them as well as prevent them from engaging in terror we have to
act like we believe our common humanity is more important.