Reading about the 17th century in Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis really helps one understand our current challenges. Parker’s thesis is that the extreme weather conditions across the world in the 17th century tipped what would otherwise be normal political disruptions into rapid social, economic and political decay. The Fronde revolt in France, the 30 Years War in Germany, the Great Revolution that led to the temporarily overthrow of royalty in England, the Time of Trouble in Russia, the violent end of the Ming Dynasty and establishment of the Qing in China—these are just some of the major revolutions and wars that seemed to cluster around the middle of the 17th century, leading to serious population losses virtually everywhere.
Parker makes a compelling but not airtight case that the famines and extreme weather caused by what historians call “The Little Ice Age” did affect human societies enough to worsen all social and economic tensions and push many situations beyond the point of cataclysmic upheaval.
But even if we discount or reject Parker’s climate change theses, we can still learn a great deal from Global Crisis that applies to today’s world.
Take the topic of taxes, for example. Parker shows that throughout the world in the 17th century rulers and their administrators collected and raised taxes for two purposes:
- To fund the extravagant lifestyles of royalty
- To fight wars of territorial conquest
No wonder there were literally hundreds of major and minor tax revolts throughout the entire world, and especially in Europe, during the middle war-torn decades of the 17th century! Who would want to pay for useless wars and the high life of the nobility?
Tax revolts have a storied and honorable history during the long and bloody era of royalty, including our own revolt against the British. Keep in mind though, that the American colonies were not opposed to taxes, merely to be being taxed without representation.
Fast forward to today and our far more complex post-industrial society. In light of the strong historical connection between anti-tax revolts and warfare, isn’t it truly bizarre that the only budget item that none of our advocates for lowering tax rates want to cut is the military? In fact, virtually everyone who wants to lower taxes is also in favor of increased military spending. They will gladly cut back spending on education, unemployment insurance, the space program, medical research, safety inspections, IRS audits and everything else the government does, but not on guns, bombs and ammo.
In the 17th century, tax protestors and rioters were mostly outsiders—peasants, merchants and minor nobles who objected to paying for foreign wars. By contrast, since the ascent of Reaganism and the politics of selfishness, most of those in favor of lowering taxes and against raising them to meet pressing needs are members of the establishment—rich folk like Pete Peterson, the Koch brothers and executives of large corporations plus their congressional factotums. And while they talk about lowering taxes as a general mantra, when you take a look at their tax proposals, they always only call for lowering taxes on two groups: the wealthy and corporations.
The rich control the news media, the multitude of think tanks that advise elected officials and the political process, which explains that the idea that taxes are bad is now so engrained in the public consciousness. Anti-tax fever has gotten so bad that Congress cannot even pass an adequate law to fund the repair and upkeep of our highways. Members of Congress either are afraid to pass a higher gas tax or are so adamantly against any tax that they just don’t care how much our roads deteriorate.
No one likes driving through potholes or over bridges that need structural work. Providing adequate permanent funding for our highways creates jobs and will lead to faster and more energy-efficient travel. To the degree that the tax would discourage driving, it may also help clean up the atmosphere.
Yet no one—not even President Obama—will come out in favor of raising the gas tax or raising other taxes to fund highway repair and maintenance. Every elected official is as afraid of anti-tax frenzy as they are of the National Rifle Association.
Some may point out that a gas tax assesses everyone and goes against my basic premise that anti-taxers are really just interested in lowering taxes for the wealthy. Let me explain: the incessant call to lower taxes, which has dominated economic discussions since about 1980, has created an atmosphere in which the default position is to hate all taxes—new, old, general or earmarked. The debate in the marketplace is about all taxes, but the bills that are passed to typically give all or a large part of the tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations. We could make a new gas tax progressive by giving poor people gas rebates on income taxes, of course, but first we have to pass a new gas tax. And that’s nearly impossible in the current anti-tax environment. Meanwhile, we keep funding our senseless, goalless wars by borrowing money from the wealthy.
Let me close with a sarcastic shout-out to the New York Time which found room in its shrinking print pages for an extensive story on a scientist who denies that climate change is occurring. I’m guessing that it’s part of a series of personality pieces on climatologists and that the series will reflect current scientific opinion, so that in each of the next 200 editions, the Times will do in-depth studies of scientists who support the reality of global warming. 200 for and 1 against will just about represent the true balance of opinion among scientists.
Or maybe today’s article is the first in a series on scientists who speak against the overwhelming flood of facts on issues that were decided years ago: Next week, the Times might feature someone who doesn’t thinks the sun revolves around the Earth; and then move on to someone who believes in spontaneous regeneration, someone who still thinks phlogiston causes things to burn, someone who believes that vaccines cause autism and someone who thinks that only gays can get AIDS.
I’m fairly confident though that today’s feature about one of the small number of anti-climate change scientists is not the start off a special series but rather a continuation of the Times and the mass media’s decades long pandering to those advertisers who gain by postponing the changes we as a society will have to make to steer a peaceful and bloodless transition to the much warmer world of the future.