Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Mehrotra Reviews War and Taxes

Ajay K. Mehrotra, Indiana University-Bloomington, Maurer School of Law, has posted The Price of Conflict: War, Taxes, and the Politics of Fiscal Citizenship, a review essay of War and Taxes: Sacrifice and Self-Indulgence on the American Homefront by Steven A. Bank, Kirk J. Stark, and Joseph J. Thorndike. The essay is forthcoming in Michigan Law Review 108 (April 2010): 1053-1078.
Since 2003 American political leaders and lawmakers have been committed to the simultaneous pursuit of tax cuts and military excursions abroad. Just a few decades ago, when military hawks were also deficit hawks, such a position would have seemed incongruous. This essay reviews, War and Taxes, a provocative and fascinating new book that seeks to explain the apparent dissonance of recent American wartime tax policy. In contrast to conventional wisdom which presumes that wartime patriotism has always and everywhere trumped self-interest, War and Taxes shows that the history of U.S. wartime taxation is not quite such a heroic tale. By chronicling the complex and contested political history of wartime tax policy and its links to fiscal citizenship, the book reminds readers that many previous lawmakers and leaders resisted spreading the price of conflict onto the American people.

In addition to reviewing the main themes of War and Taxes, this essay argues that the authors have provided a judicious, yet ironic, account of the long history of American wartime opposition to tax increases. In their careful efforts to provide a balanced and measured history, the authors inevitably, and perhaps inadvertently, draw attention to the ultimately unprecedented fiscal policies recently pursued by American leaders. Although War and Taxes provides a valuable and necessary corrective to the overly romanticized history of wartime sacrifice, its attempts to bracket the highly partisan and ideological aspects of tax cuts during moments of national crisis can be seen as a damning indictment of recent wartime tax policy.
I’m a big fan of Mehrotra’s “Lawyers, Guns, and Public Moneys: The U.S. Treasury, World War I, and the Administration of the Modern Fiscal State,” just out as a forum with comments by Christopher Capozzzola and Michael A. Bernstein, in volume 28, number 1, of Law and History Review.