Getting Richer, Not Poorer

Posted: Mar 24, 2011 9:17 AM

On an ancient episode of The Simpsons, Lisa sets out to write an essay about what made America great. “What would Ben Franklin say if he were alive today?” she writes. “He’d say … find a better opening.”

Lisa’s edited effort did win the regional essay contest, but maybe she missed an opportunity. In a new book, “Poorer Richard’s America: What Would Ben Say” author Tom Blair channels Franklin and imagines the eldest Founding Father observing and commenting on our world.

The book is written as a series of essays, interspersed with actual quotes from Franklin’s 18th Century editions of Poor Richard’s Almanac. Suffice to say that Blair believes the man who coined the phrase “A penny saved is a penny earned” and “he that goes a-borrowin’ goes a-sorrowin’” would be displeased at the state of our federal government today.

Politicians from both political parties have managed to run up some $14 trillion in debt, making the United States the “brokest country in the history of the planet,” as columnist Mark Steyn memorably puts it. Yet our leaders are bickering over whether to trim $6 billion or $60 billion in spending this year, amounts that are really a drop in the bucket of federal debt.

Blair’s Franklin admits that he and his fellow Founders couldn’t have envisioned our world, and couldn’t have envisioned the size and scope of our government. In their day, it was easy for an American to live a happy, productive lifetime without ever encountering any representatives of the federal government.

Last year the Tax Foundation estimated that the average America had to work more than three months just to pay his tax bill. Even so, “the difference between what governments are spending and what they’re collecting has never been as great as during 2009 and 2010,” it reports. “If Americans were required to pay for all government spending this year, including the $1.3 trillion federal budget deficit, they would be working until May 17 before they had earned enough to pay their taxes—an additional 38 days of work.”

Blair’s Franklin recommends some common-sense reforms that would improve our tax system.

“To perform the estimated 7.6 billion hours of tax preparation and review work, the ‘tax industry’ requires the equivalent of 3.8 million full-time workers,” he writes. “By way of painful comparison, that is twice as many people as constituted the entire population of the Colonies when the Stamp Act was levied upon us by England.” This means that intelligent people are devoting themselves to finding legal ways to reduce tax burdens, instead of using their time, energy and intelligence to create businesses and jobs.

“The complexity, a euphemism for absurdity, of the Tax Code spawns perverse outcomes,” Blair’s Franklin points out. “Patriotic taxpayers who seek to comply with the law often make inadvertent errors, causing them to either overpay their tax or become subject to IRS enforcement actions for mistaken underpayment of tax.”

Franklin also comments on health care reform: “The recently enacted health care legislation is both anemic and misengineered,” he writes. He calls for real reform, noting first that “there is no ‘real’ health insurance” these days. That’s because “True insurance is the concept of a large group of people pulling from their purses a few dollars to cover the cost of a potential catastrophic event.” Health insurance, by contrast, pays for almost any procedure under the sun, thus hiding the true cost of care from the patient.

“Many self-employed American workers cannot afford the all-inclusive health plans mandated by legislation,” Franklin adds. “What they need, low-cost catastrophic health insurance … true insurance … is sitting next to the spotted owl.” If lawmakers created a market for people to buy insurance (instead of relying on employers to provide it) there would be more plans, and customers -- not bureaucrats -- would be empowered.

“Our government must dig deep and wide moats around America’s Treasury,” Franklin writes near the end of the book. That means reducing spending, and curtailing the power of special interests in Washington.

Blair does a good job inhabiting Benjamin Franklin, and drafting useful advice for today’s Americans. Let’s hope we heed the advice, before our overwhelming debt swallows us whole.