Late this month, as Congress reconvenes, Representative Wilbur Mills will announce that tax reform season is with us again. A year or two later, after debates, studies, vetoes, and compromises, a Tax Reform Act of 1973 or 1974 will emerge, advertised no doubt as a significant step toward tax justice, a boon to the average man, and the only way to cover the rising federal deficit. More likely, it will be yet another touch-up job for our corroded tax system, painting over areas where the acid has seeped out without doing anything serious about what’s wrong inside.

The last time we went through this cycle, in the months leading to the Tax Reform Act of 1969, there were the same big promises and the same small deliveries. If there was ever a time when the federal tax system was ripe for overhauling, 1969 was it. The fiscal dream-world of Lyndon Johnson’s last few years—when he wishfully imagined he could buy both guns and butter without raising taxes to pay for either—had come apart, spawning the inflation we now know as a permanent part of life. When the tax rise finally came, as a 10-percent surcharge slapped on in 1968, it was both clumsy—because it tried to squeeze more money from a tax system whose basic flaws had been known for years—and too late. This could have been the occasion for a new Republican President to take a swipe at Johnson by closing up the old loopholes or for Congress to insist that the surcharge be replaced with some real reform.

Instead, what touched off the “taxpayer revolt” and led to its product, the 1969 Act, was not so much a concern for the ills of the system as two immediate irritants. One was the result, simply, of the government’s shortsightedness. When the surcharge was imposed, the income tax withholding rates stayed at their old, lower level. That meant that at the end of the year, families accustomed to a comfortable rebate from the Treasury found themselves owing hundreds of dollars in extra taxes.

At just this unsettling time, Treasury Undersecretary Joseph Barr added a second bit of fuel. When testifying before the Joint Economic Committee in early 1969, he noted offhandedly that 155 people making more than $200,000 had not paid any income tax in 1967-21 of them with incomes of over $1 million. Barr wound up with warnings of a “taxpayer revolt if we do not soon make major reforms in our income taxes,” and to be sure, there was a lot of talk about both revolution and reform in the following months. But, if revolutions are limited by the vision of their supporters, this taxpayer revolt was quickly stymied by the skin-deep perspective of most of its advocates. It was as if the French mobs had called off the guillotines and uprisings once they got a few crusts of the bread they had originally asked for.

The crust tossed out by Congress was a tax reform bill that removed the gaudier, more flagrant abuses—examples muckrakers could use in their stories, the no-tax illustrations that could drive a man mad when he looked at his own depleted paycheck—without tampering with the basic mechanism. To take care of the high-income tax dodgers, Congress invented a “minimum tax” of 10 per cent to be imposed on those who would otherwise owe nothing. Even more than other bits of congressional fence-mending, this contrivance set economists wondering whether congressmen ever thought about what they were voting for.

The minimum tax is a perfect example of cosmetic legislation, which admits by its existence that tax preferences sheltering the rich are not fair, but still refuses to change the preferences. The closest the Act came to tampering with the preferences was a dainty adjustment in the oil depletion allowance (lowered from 27.5 per cent to 22 per cent) and an equally mild rise in the tax rates on capital gains (increasing the maximum rate for gains over $50,000 from 25 per cent to 35 per cent).

Buying Off the Revolution

Then it was over, the energy of the taxpayer revolt spent almost before the bill passed both houses of Congress. To what end? Thomas Field, a former Treasury lawyer who recently resigned to set up Taxation With Representation, a public-interest lobbying firm, wrote shortly after the bill’s passage that it “may actually have entrenched existing tax abuses more firmly, by reducing the outrageous excesses that scandalized the public, while failing to eliminate the basic abuses themselves.”

In the years since, the old familiar loopholes have been joined, and perhaps overwhelmed, by a host of new ones, most of them the result of President Nixon’s New Economic Policy. These corporate tax breaks, like the Asset Depreciation Range (ADR) system and the Domestic International Sales Corporations (DISC), will take billions from the Treasury—an estimated $80 billion in in the next decade. In an administration that uses an axe on the federal budget, lopping off whatever it can, these giveaways show how far a faith in the trickle-down theory of business and government can take politicians.

Unfortunately, the latest taxpayer revolt has not come much nearer to the fundamental problems than the earlier one did, having been diverted instead to a few of the gaudier excesses. To many tax reformers, the “real” issues seem to be either unconnected questions, like property tax relief, or isolated cases of men or companies who have beaten the system. Unless this general tone changes dramatically, it is a safe bet that much of this year’s tax debate will glide over the frozen surface of the tax system without looking at what lies beneath.

The tragedy is that now, even more than in 1969, the whole tax system needs the kind of change a taxpayer revolt implies. The federal tax code is not a leaking vessel in need of a few patches; it is a ship steaming in the wrong direction that must be turned around or sunk. Completely apart from issues of wealth and equality— that the distribution of income has not changed in 15 years; the richest fifth of the population earns eight times more than the poorest fifth; two per cent of the people controls 43 per cent of the wealth—the problem is one of waste. The tax system has turned into the biggest and most profligate program of government subsidies, piping $55 billion out of the Treasury each year, most of it to the rich.

Don’t Fence Me In

When the income tax was first introduced some 60 years ago, the idea was simply to tax all income—without fancy distinctions between factory wages, profits from the stock exchange, real estate windfalls, or earnings from the farm. The tax rates have gone up and down over the years, but they still reflect the idea that those who can afford to pay more, should. In recent years, another reason for progressive tax rates has emerged: if the rich get the largest share of government subsidies and bask in the sun of government spending, then it’s only fair that they pay for what they get.

After the earlier, common-sense definitions of taxable income, the lawyers and accountants ganged up to make the system complicated. Part of the tax system’s story has been that of a closing frontier: larger and larger chunks of the income range have been tucked behind tax-free fences, safe from the government rustlers. Meanwhile, the remaining parcels are trampled on all the more heavily.

Behind this erosion of the tax base lies an essential difference in political faith. While liberals have acted as if government programs could solve any problem (taking more money in through taxes, then spending it), conservatives have placed equally boundless faith in tax incentives (not taking the money in the first place, then not spending it). However satisfying it may be to think of trimming back some government programs, tax incentives don’t look like the solution to the problems. On the surface, tax incentives follow the logic handed down from Coolidge to Ayn Rand and on to Nixon that a dollar not run through the government mill is a dollar ennobled. In practice, they amount to income redistribution toward the rich.

The point easily overlooked is that tax breaks are really no different from government spending. From the Treasury’s point of view, a preference that cuts tax receipts by $1 million is just the same as a new $1-million spending program. The money that doesn’t come in from one group of taxpayers must be wrung out of the rest, or else taken from other government programs. This “tax expenditure” approach to the revenue system means, most importantly, that tax expenditures should be judged by the same standards of economy and efficiency that budget-cutters apply to other federal expenditures.

The New Budget

Until fairly late in the Johnson Administration, no one bothered to take the dimensions of the tax expenditure programs. Then Stanley Surrey—the Treasury’s assistant secretary for tax policy, who now teaches law at Harvard—drew up the first “Tax Expenditure Budget.” His figures have attracted surprisingly little attention in the press, although they are as revealing as the regular federal budget, and far more outrageous.

The 1971 version of the tax budget shows a total of $51.5 billion in tax expenditures—more than the budget for any government agency except Defense or Health, Education and Welfare, dozens of times greater than anti-pollution programs, enough to give McGovern’s much-loathed $1,000 grant to a quarter of the people in the country. The biggest single item in the budget is the revenue lost through special capital gains tax rates. This is estimated at between $6 and $9 billion, all nominally going as an incentive to investors. Another $2.6 billion is lost from the tax-free interest on state and local bonds, $2.7 billion from property taxes paid to local governments, and $2.4 billion from the clause that lets homeowners deduct the interest on their mortgages. The oil-depletion allowance gives the corporations a $1-billion break, and the investment tax credit provides about $1.5 billion.

To those receiving them, the tax payments have special appeal. Other government subsidies have finite time limits. When they run out they must be dragged through Congress again, past the perils of committee chairmen, eagle-eyed Office of Management and Budget auditors, and finally a tightfisted Executive branch, quick with the veto. But a tax break, once enacted, quietly does its work forever, becoming more valuable as tax rates rise. Until a few years ago, when Surrey’s expenditure budget was first prepared, no one need have known about the tax breaks at all. No committees could hold hearings to find out whether the program was worthwhile; no General Accounting Office could appear to check where the money was going.

Now that these programs are out in the open, they make for amusing comparisons with the normal federal budget. Government spending for low-income rent subsidies, for example, has shrunk in recent years from the $100 million Johnson requested in 1968, to the $50 million Nixon asked in 1969, to the $23 million Congress finally approved. Meanwhile, about 30 times as much federal money, $750 million, has been flowing out each year as rent subsidies for the rich, in the form of real estate tax breaks. This accommodating system not only guarantees the country an adequate supply of resort motels and luxury apartments, but also allows the rich taxpayer (through a device too complicated to explain) to save several times as much in taxes than he invests in real estate.

Slick Operators

It is not always clear that tax subsidies are the best or most effective way to use government money. The various tax breaks given the oil industry, for example, were intended to compensate the rugged drillers for their unusually risky trade, and to make sure that America always had enough oil in the ground to face with confidence a future of energy crises and angry Middle East governments. But, as shown by the report prepared for the government in 1969 by the CONSAD consulting firm, the tax-break approach to the energy crisis was less than effective. Forty per cent of the tax breaks went either to foreign operators or to “nonoperators”—people who happened to own oil-bearing land but who hadn’t done much to advance oil exploration. In all, the report concluded, the oil industry’s tax breaks cost $1.4 billion but generated only $150 million in extra oil reserves. A simpler, cheaper solution might be to end the depletion allowance and pay a $150-million subsidy for the reserves.* This does not seem to be part of the Administration’s plans for cutting bureaucratic fat. As Nixon indicated last summer to oilmen gathered at a barbecue in Texas: “I strongly favor not only the present depreciation rate, but going even further than that, so we can get our plants and equipment to be more effective.. . . Let us look at the fact that all the evidence shows we are going to have a major energy crisis. To avoid that, we have to provide incentives rather than disincentives for people to go out and explore for oil. That is why you have depletion, and the people have got to understand it.”

Nixon’s host at the barbecue, John Connally, has waxed equally rhapsodic about the value of the capital gains tax preference, claiming that to end it would not only plunge the Dow Jones average below 500, but also permanently maim U. S. industry as it prepares for the economic battle with the Germans and Japanese. Both dangers were avoided when, earlier in the century, capital gains rates were the same as ordinary rates. Even if the profit on IBM stock were cut by higher capital gains taxes, few potential investors would be likely to sulk and put their money in a sock, especially if other tax shelters were also dismantled. And, assuming the worst— that brokers all over the country go out of business and no one plays the market—the effect on industry would be less than crippling. As Philip Stern points out in his new book, The Rape of the Taxpayer, only five per cent of industrial capital comes from the stock market; the rest comes from industry’s retained earnings. Those who would bleed on the altar of capital gains taxation are not the financiers of a stronger industrial America, but the speculators who buy and sell stock issued years ago. Perhaps worst of all, the present capital gains system gives an incentive to early death: for those who can cling to their stock all the way to the grave, all the capital gains that took place during their recently-ended lifetime are declared tax-free. Whoever inherits the material only pays tax on gains from then on.

*Similar studies show that the exemption for state and local bonds, designed to help the poor municipalities finance their projects, costs the federal government about twice as much as it saves the cities and states. The difference ends up with those who buy the bonds, 80 per cent of them in the $50,000-plus income bracket.

Guaranteed Income

The moral of the capital gains story turns up again in the corporate taxes, only with bigger numbers. During the sixties, tax breaks like the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) helped drop the share of corporate taxes from 35 per cent of total federal taxes in 1960, to 27 per cent in 1969. Since then, corporate taxes have fallen by another 10 per cent, mainly because of the bag of treats Nixon passed out as part of his 1971 economic policies.

The longest-running of the major preferences, the ITC, shows that the welfare ethic can destroy initiative and fiber among the rich as well as the poor. Since 1962, the ITC has proven its benefit to companies, giving General Motors an average of $40 million each year and the rest of American industry another $2.1 billion. Its success in encouraging them to create new jobs and boost the economy is harder to detect. As originally written by the Kennedy Administration, the ITC would give benefits depending on performance: the companies that tried hardest to invest more than before, to hire more men, would get the biggest breaks. But an obliging Congress changed that clause, so that any investment qualifies for the ITC—even if the company invests less than the year before, or uses its investment to automate a few more men out of work.

The ITC also has a knack of delivering its benefits where they’re not needed and tugging them away from those who need them most. Few companies needed new investment as much as the Penn Central did, with its yards full of cruddy old machinery and its miles of rusty track. But because the Penn Central was losing money and paying no taxes, the ITC gave it no help at all.

The corporate tax measures Nixon announced in 1971—aimed at a booming economy, a foreign trade surplus, and a fully employed electorate—show the same combination of high cost and uncertain results. One of the proposals would have cost $6 billion in lost taxes, in exchange for the possible creation of 500,000 to one million new jobs. This works out to $6-12,000 per job, with no guarantee that the companies will use the money to hire more men.

Another innovation, the Domestic International Sales Corporations (DISC), was supposed to encourage exports. But, like the unfortunate ITC, the DISC gives benefits without demanding performance—companies get tax breaks even if their exports are falling.* The star of Nixon’s group, the Asset Depreciation Range system, which will cost an estimated $30 billion in the next decade, was aimed at expanding industrial capacity at a time when 25 per cent of the factories were idle.

*The enterprising Continental Grain Company has even tried to get DISC tax breaks for its government-subsidized grain sales to Russia. So far it has failed, thanks mainly to publicity generated by a group called Tax Analysts and Advocates.

Friendly Persuasion

The choice of these uses for public money—rather than public-works projects, or education investment—may be explained by the groups buzzing around Nixon’s ear at the time. As reported by Stern, the Presidential Task Force on Business Taxation, which was appointed in 1969 and eventually thought up the ADR, was made up of:

■ four lawyers from corporate law firms (including former partners of both Nixon and Connally);
■ two New York investment bankers;
■ three representatives of corporate accounting firms;
■ two top officials of large industrial corporations;
■ three business-oriented economists.

As with other tax preferences, most of the corporate honey gets scooped out by those with the biggest paws. Eighty per cent of the ADR’s billions will go to the top .002 per cent of the nation’s corporations. Even before the 1971 tax breaks, the 100 biggest corporations paid only 27 per cent of their profits in taxes (compared with a nominal rate of 48 per cent), while smaller corporations paid 44 per cent. Several enormous companies have been able to pay respectable dividends to their shareholders without paying anything to the government.

Alcoa Aluminum, Allied Chemical, Standard Oil of Ohio, and a quartet of steelmakers— Bethlehem, National, Republic, and United States Steel—all paid dividends of between $33 and $78 million in 1970 or 1971, without paying any federal income taxes.

Perversion in the IRS

One reason for the grotesquely high cost of the tax-incentive program is the perverse logic of tax preferences. Reversing normal bidding procedure, the government buys services from whoever offers them and lets him set his own price. The tax deductions naturally cost the government more when a rich person rather than a poor person uses them: a $100 tax write-off, whether for oil-well drilling or buying state bonds, costs $70 in lost taxes if the taxpayer is rich, but only $14 or $20 for people in the lower tax brackets. There is an economist’s logic buried here, in the idea that rich people need a greater incentive to perform a task, but it makes sense for the government only if the rich person’s oil well is five times as good as the poor person’s.

The catch, of course, is that poor people don’t have oil wells. Neither do they have capital gains or much property tax to write off. So, because most of the tax preferences are open only to the rich, and because each preference is worth more when you’re in the 70-percent tax bracket, a healthy portion of the tax-expenditure budget goes to supporting our upper class.

A Modern P.T. Barnum

It may not always appear that way, especially if you look at the Administration’s figures. Treasury Undersecretary Edward Cohen went to Congress last year to show who was getting the tax-expenditure money. There were the charts, broken down by income group. Sure enough, Mr. and Mrs. Middle America came out in front. Property tax exemptions, for example, spared families in the $10-15,000 income bracket $642 million in taxes, while giving only $240 million to those in the $50-100,000 bracket and $137 million to the $100,000-plus bracket. Even preferences aimed at the rich, like capital gains, seemed to avoid any gross imbalance.

The trick is that there are more people making $10,000 than $100,000, so the money goes further at the upper levels. Tom Stanton, a lawyer with Ralph Nader’s Tax Reform Research Group, pointed out this ruse to the Senate Finance Committee last October. When the preferences are broken down on a money per-taxpayer basis, they look a little different, more like feudal dues than anything else. The benefit from capital gains taxes, for example, are roughly these:

■ if your adjusted gross income is less than $3,000, you save an average of $1.66 in taxes each year.
■ if your income is between $5,000 and $7,000 (more than half the taxpayers make this much or less), you save an average of $7.44.
■ if your income is between $10,000 and $15,000, you save an average of $16.31.
■ if your income is between $50,000 and $100,000, you save an average of $2,616.10.
■ if you make more than $100,000, you save an average of $38,126.29.

The oil depletion allowance gives an average of 85 cents to the median taxpayer; an average of $847.24 to those in the $100,000-plus bracket. Deductions for charitable contributions are worth an average of 28 cents at the lowest brackets and $11,373.56 at the highest. In all, the system gives an average of $54.06 worth of tax relief to each taxpayer in the lowest bracket, $245.79 to those at the median level, and $76,042.86 to those making more than $100,000.

These preferences, loopholes, and rebates make the official tax rates less than reliable guides to who actually bears the tax burden. According to a report by Joseph Pechman and Benjamin Okner of the Brookings Institution, taxes actually take only 32 per cent of income at the upper levels, rather than the 70 per cent of narrowly-restricted income the charts show. If the tax base were widened—to include capital gains, bond income,
and all other categories of tax-free income—it would be 35 per cent larger than it is now. This would mean either that current tax rates would produce $77 billion more in revenue—several times more than will be needed to cover the expected budget deficit next year—or that the entire rate schedule would be reduced. Pechman and Okner offer several alternate schedules, most of which would cut taxes in the lower brackets while imposing rates no higher than 50 per cent at the top. The secret is getting a wide tax base, so that the government takes 50 per cent of something, rather than 70 per cent of very little.

Faites Vos Jeux

But until the tax base is widened, we are left with a system more like a roulette game than a dependable tithe of income. Its effect on taxpayers is like that of a court which imposes harsh sentences but only convicts half the defendants. The taxpayer’s only rational behavior is to try to beat the rap, to hide portions of his income in the preference safety zones rather than paying at the official rates. Anyone who pays all his taxes is a fool or a sucker. By turning taxes into a penalty and rewarding those who find the escape clauses, the tax system encourages a pernicious social irresponsibility. More worry goes into devising each family’s own tax shelters than in working to make the whole system more fair. If much of the backlash against government spending and high taxes comes from those who see the tax withheld from their paycheck each month, it may be because they are the only people who know for sure they will have to pay their full share of the government’s expenses.

Al Capp As Philosopher

As its contribution to cleaning up the tax system, the Administration is relying on a classic one-two approach: cover up the little problems and pretend the big ones aren’t there. The cover-up operation centers on encouraging the public to look at the bright side of the tax system, emphasizing the positive and keeping the reformers’ complaints in perspective. Since an overt rise in tax rates—as opposed to camouflaged rises, in the form of Value Added Tax or otherwise—might undermine the public’s faith, Nixon has tried hard to sell the unbelievable idea that taxes will not go up. So far, his psychology has worked well. As The New York Times reported in late November, Nixon has decided that the heat is off on tax reform because “the public is simply not as stirred up now about the alleged unfairness of the tax laws as it was earlier this year.”

To handle the public resentment that won’t go away, Nixon has applied several of his other proven political tactics. One useful method is to deflect attention from a serious question to a minor side issue—as the whole public discussion of civil rights has been focused on busing. The sideshow this time is property tax relief—a serious enough business, but not enough to steal all the attention from income tax reform.

Another ploy has been to breed fear of change among those who should welcome change. This was the message in Edward Cohen’s tax-preference charts. “Look at those figures,” Mr. Average was supposed to say to his wife. “We can’t afford to have that mortgage-deduction taken away.” Thus everyone starts to consider the reformers a menace, and each group of taxpayers clings to its own loopholes and blocks those who try to blow the whistle.

This philosophy was expressed with rare precision by cartoonist Al Capp, writing in a recent issue of Saturday Review—Society as a “distinguished economic and social thinker.” “What this country wants,” Capp said, “is more tax loopholes, not less. Americans today don’t want so much to soak the rich as to be rich.” With every man looking out for his own special piece of the action, no one has a stake in cleaning out all the special deals. “Tax reform” becomes a code word for “cutting my taxes,” and the “tax reform” bills are little more than a clumsy package of favors, designed to make everyone think he’s coming out ahead.

But in this as in few other things, the President doesn’t have the last or the most influential word. The important maneuvers will go on in Congress, most of them in the chambers of Wilbur Mills’ House Ways and Means Committee.

Punching Holes

Last year’s congressional skirmishes provide mixed omens for tax reform in 1972. This year was not the right time for a tax reform bill to get through, and so it may not mean anything that so many reform bills died at the end of the session. The fights that went on were on the other side of the field—trying to prevent new loopholes from being punched through the tax code. Hole-punching long ago became a ritual in Congress, institutionalized in something known as “Members’ Day.” At this roughly annual event, members of the Ways and Means Committee sit around a table and take turns suggesting special interest tax bills. Usually these bills sail through the House without trouble, but last year, for the first time in memory, they were stopped. The battle was prolonged, beginning with the Members’ Day session in October, 1971, and winding up a year later when, almost by a quirk, conservative Congressman John Rousselot objected to one of Mills’ attempts to get the bills through the House.

If Rousselot had not been seized at that moment by whatever purely parliamentary objection he had to Mills’ bill, those who had been trying to block the bill—Wright Patman and Les Aspin in the House, William Proxmire in the Senate, Tom Stanton of the Tax Reform Research Group, lobbyist Ray Denison of the AFL-CIO and Richard Worden of the United Auto Workers—would certainly have managed to kill it themselves. Time was on their side, and Mills’ heart was not with the bill. Getting a genuine reform bill through Congress will be harder.

Just how much harder depends greatly on Mills. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, he will decide when to hold hearings, what measures to bring up when, and how firm a push he’ll give the bill in the House. If there were some reliable guide to Mills’ beliefs or ideas, it might be possible to predict what kind of bill will get passed. But reading Mills’ mind is like reading a weathervane: his homing instinct is toward whatever everyone else is likely to vote for.

The Amazing Rubber Man

Mills gave an impressive display of flexibility early last year when he suddenly decided that tax reform was a hot issue. Two veteran tax reformers—Congressmen Henry Reuss and Charles Vanik—felt frustrated by Mills’ refusal to push a reform bill through his committee, and so they proposed their own reform measure as an amendment to the debt-ceiling bill. Not about to be outsmarted—especially when still running his quaint race for the presidency—Mills managed to block Reuss and Vanik by introducing a “reform” bill of his own. Called the “Tax Policy Review” bill (or later, the Mills-Mansfield bill, since Mike Mansfield co-sponsored it in the Senate), it would have phased out 54 of the major tax preferences over a three-year period, 18 at a time.

Phasing out the preferences wouldn’t kill them for good, but at least it would make Congress review each preference before re-enacting it. That much in Mills’ bill was encouraging, but its main value to him was as a stalling device. Such extensive changes, Wilbur pleaded, would take months and months of hearings, even though he had held hearings on essentially the same questions before, and was presumably familiar with the topic. The maneuver served its purpose well: Mills seemed to be on the side of tax reform, but he didn’t have to support any specific reform, and he was able to squash the Reuss-Vanik bill.

Lost Crusade

Reuss will be back this year, with a “quick-yield” bill designed to close a few loopholes and get a fast $9 billion in extra revenue. More thorough reform bills are also ready, including one from California’s James Corman that would wipe out most of the major tax preferences and replace tax exemptions with “tax credits.” But because of the oddities of committee procedures, none of these bills will be debated on the floor as such. Instead, the Ways and Means Committee will start from scratch, looking over each item on the tax preference list and deciding what sort of reform package to offer.

The resistance that Mills puts up this year may be more serious than last year’s procedural bluff. For him, the weathervane is swinging. Like Nixon, Mills has sensed a slackening in the taxpayer revolt. The public is losing interest and so is Wilbur Mills. In May, Mills sponsored a tax reform bill; in October, he said tax reform would be his committee’s first order of business in 1973; but in November, he told The New York Times that tax laws weren’t really so bad: “If the income tax law is not unfair, and I know it is not, to the extent that some people have indicated it is, I want the American people to know that.”

The one certain benefit of the next few months is the series of studies now being finished by the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation. Working from the 54-item list in the Mills-Mansfield bill, the committee plans to make thorough legal and economic analyses of the preferences—what they’re supposed to do, how well they do it, and how much they cost.

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James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.