By David Tough
This is the final essay in a five part theme week marking the centenary of income tax in Canada.
It’s like clockwork. Every time I tell someone I’m writing a book on the history of income taxation, the conversation plays out with eerie consistency. First, they say that the topic sounds painfully dull, and chuckle. Then they say that they had heard that income taxation was introduced as a temporary tax – then another chuckle – to pay for the First World War.
If I explain that income taxation was introduced during the war, but had more to do with dulling opposition to conscription than paying for the war, and that income taxation was actually a popular measure the government was reluctant to introduce, and that popular demand for some sort of direct tax, one that would weigh more heavily on the rich and lighten the tax burden on the average citizen, had been loudly expressed in the election of 1911, they invariably ask why I decided to study such an obscure question.
Income taxation is a central fact of modern political life, and the question of how to allocate the burdens and benefits of capitalism, a question that hinges on the powerful potential of a progressive income tax to fund redistributive social programs, is at the heart of modern politics, and of the system of political differences – the left-right spectrum – that we use everyday without thinking very much about it. As political questions go, it’s far from obscure.
I’m a political historian, not a specialist on taxation per se. Unlike David Foster Wallace, who devotes pages and pages of The Pale King to discussions of the US tax code, I am basically innumerate, and my pre-doctoral academic training prepared me only to study taxation as rhetoric. So my book is really more about words than taxes: I trace the way, as income taxation became the central instrument of economic government in the early 20th century, people increasingly used left and right, which were known but rarely used in Canadian politics before 1914, to say how they wanted to see that instrument used.
It’s true that a large chunk of the research I did was boring, as is true of a lot of archival research. Because I was interested primarily in one thing about taxes, I often had to read hundreds of pages in order to find a reference to, say, the differences between the two political parties. It was a remarkably inefficient process at times, and I welcomed the times I got to spend reading primary sources like the Grain Grower’s Guide, where the ratio of relevant words to irrelevant words was higher.
But I also appreciated the many times I was bored with the material, because I knew that boredom was important and productive. To be able to concentrate while being at least somewhat bored is an important professional skill. If I had simply put aside sources that bored me, I would have missed key bits of evidence as well as potential counter-evidence. I also would have been expecting the past to entertain me, which, as a historian, would be deeply irresponsible as well as self-defeating, because hours of tedium are so often a prelude to an extraordinary encounter.
I’m sure other historians, particularly those studying something people creating and storing documents paid no attention to, who have to read archives against the grain, have had similar experiences: a lot of it was boring. But this has much more to do with the tangential relationship between my research questions and the material I was reading than with taxes per se.
And it has almost nothing to do with my work as a product, or that of other tax historians. History scholarship is about selecting particularly vivid shreds of documents and arranging them in a compelling and comprehensible order. The documents might be dull, but the shreds are selected for their vividness and arranged to be compelling; if a history is boring, it’s the fault of the historian who wrote it, not the documents it references. Some documents might take more determination to get through than others and yield fewer results, but their tedium doesn’t infect the histories we write.
People who suggest that my work must be boring intend to insult my taste, but they really insult my craft. As a historian, I’m confident that I have made observations about taxation that are interesting, and that I can communicate those observations in such a way that they interest others, just as other tax scholars have done. But I suspect the idea that taxes are boring can withstand unlimited contrary evidence, because it’s based on ideology rather than experience.
The boredom that people evince when they sense they’re in danger of encountering tax history is the boredom of disgust, not surfeit. It’s not that people want you to stop talking about it because they’ve already heard too much of it and have become bored. It’s that they find the idea of hearing about it so horrifyingly dull that they want you to never start talking about it.
To see income taxation as worthy of intelligent reflection, given this almost universal reaction from intelligent people, is to resist a powerful imperative in our society to see taxation as a difficult and dull topic. People deem taxes boring to think about before they have even begun to think about them, and they do so in almost exactly the same way, which suggests something other than strictly personal taste is at work.
Boredom, like taxation, is political, and historically contingent. As Michael E. Gardiner has written, boredom is part of “a shift from the legal-juridical subjugation of workers in the workplace” to the more seamless governing of “workers’ entire lives” by the imperatives of the market. This requires a kind of affective literacy, a confident sense of “what works” more than a given set of skills.
The ideal neo-liberal worker demonstrates, not just at work but in all their performances, in their curation of a self, what Gardiner calls “a certain set of psychological and behavioural dispositions.” To be eminently employable nowadays is to be culturally fluent not just with a fixed and memorizable set of respectable cultural practices, as workers were required to before the 1970s, but with a sense of what is thrilling, what is edgy, what can be sold.
We need to think of neoliberalism, Gardiner says, as “the hip uncle imploring us to … seek endless new ways to be titillated and entertained.” This urge to distinguish between what is exciting and what isn’t becomes a habit, because it’s a necessary habit. Even with historical knowledge of income taxation’s importance, it’s easy to see why taxes don’t sell easily.
But income taxation is an ideal case for demonstrating the damage excitement does as a criteria for determining where our attention lands. By forcefully denying our political energy to what we deem dull, we surrender the ability even to think about participating in the struggles happening around those things. By deeming fiscal politics dull and therefore contemptible, we surrender control over a central fact of modern citizenship, surrender the most tangible, material bond between strangers there is, to professionals – professionals whose entire purpose is to undermine and weaken that relationship. As Ralph Clare says, in a review of The Pale King, “choosing not to pay attention to such ‘boring’ things as political and economic issues does not mean that one will be free of constraint, but that one will pay off this debt with the freedoms that were granted long ago.” Fetishizing excitement has heavy costs.
We enjoy a surfeit of charismatic moral and political questions. When we think of what’s worth fighting over, other things tend to crowd taxes out. Our instant boredom with taxation surrenders the consideration of the relative burdens and benefits of our fiscal system to those who can devote all their time to the endeavour, or who can afford to pay others to do so for them. Our tax system, which weighs lightly on high income earners and heavily on low to middle income earners, is a reflection of our collective boredom with fiscal politics. We have the tax system of people who don’t want to talk about taxes.
Tax scholarship shows us that taxes don’t make themselves interesting; people make taxes interesting. It is up to us to make taxation important, to engage with its possibilities, and make it into an intelligible terrain on which we can struggle for the world we want. It is up to us to make it interesting for each other, by using rhetoric to open up new possibilities and, like the farmers and workers in 1911 and 1917, expose the absurdities and injustices that are written into the tax system and the wider political culture that supports and legitimizes it.
David Tough is a post-doctoral fellow at the Trent Community Research Centre in Peterborough, Ontario, and teaches part-time in the School for the Study of Canada at Trent University. His first book, The Terrific Engine: Income Taxation and the Modernization of Canada’s Political Imaginary, will be published next year by UBC Press.
 Michael E. Gardiner, “The Multitude Strikes Back? Boredom in an Age of Semiocapital” New Formations Volume 82 (2014), p. 33.
 Gardiner, “The Multitude Strikes Back?,” p. 37.
 Ralph Clare, “The Politics of Boredom and the Boredom of Politics in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King,” Studies in the Novel 44 (4) Winter 2012, p. 440.
I agree that taxes tend to be underdiscussed as an issue compared to a lot of other concerns. However it seems to me that David Tough is engaging in conspiracy theory when he sees in this a neoliberal plot to stifle debate. The explanation is probably a lot simpler: our journos tend not to have any background in economics, let alone public finance, so don’t relate easily to such questions. In fact, the limited coverage and gross ignorance on the subject is just as likely to favour centre-left agendas as right wing ones. Most journos seem to be quite clueless that the Ontario debt will go on rising even if the budget is balanced in 2017-18, although they only have to check the governnment’s budget papers to see that this is so. The conspiracy theory explanation would be that our journos want to conceal from the public that the government’s ambitious infrastructure projects will keep the debt mounting even with the budget in the black, because they are always in favour of bigger and bigger government. There may be an element of truth in this, but it also may just be because media people are generally ignorant and uninformed about economic issues, even when tasked with reporting on them.
I had a flashback to a long-ago first date when, after I explained my thesis topic, which I thought rather clever and relevant to the overall understanding of society, peeking a glimpse at the heart of what it is to be human, my date said, “Why would anyone care about that?” Historiography destroys yet another dinner….