Brotherly Commentary – Amazon Review of THE TAXMAN COMETH (This review originally was posted on Amazon. Author’s replies are in bold type.)
Format:Paperback|Amazon Verified Purchase
I read Jim Greenfield’s “The Taxman Cometh” along with two other books that provided a most useful contrast. One was Eileen Rockefeller’s “Being a Rockefeller Becoming Myself”, and the other was Chris Matthew’s “Tip and the Gipper”.
In the interest of disclosure and to explain the contrast: Jim Greenfield is my younger brother. We have politically diverse views and goals, but nothing would please me more than to see my brother succeed both in selling this book, and in having the greater political impact he covets. .. I only hope I can correct him in the error of his thinking in the process.
THE TAXMAN COMETH is really two books. The story itself is well-written, funny, and emotionally complicated. It tells of a used car salesman, Samson (who bears an unmistakable personality similarity to my brother). Samson takes on the IRS bureaucracy and his nemesis, Elliott Mess . The two engage in struggle to the death reminiscent of a Roadrunner cartoon. Having seen earlier versions of this story, and having had countless discussions with my brother about issues of character, human motivation, and the benefits and dangers of government activity, I can say that Jimmy has finally gotten it right. His Samson is politically at odds to my own world view but nevertheless a sympathetic character. Samson provides a perfect foil for Mess and the government mindlessness he represents. If I only read the story, I would probably start thinking I should become a Republican.
Unfortunately, Jim also provides a second book, with appears as “dubious philosophical musings” that are sprinkled among the chapters of the story. Jim’s musings are neither as evolved nor as nuanced as his Samson. Jim creates straw men that he can handily demolish in the style of the Fox News commentators. He equates government trying to improve opportunity to the poor in the form of such things as health care and education, with redistribution of wealth. Frankly, I have not understood why requiring that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett pay taxes at the same rate as Jim I do in order to provide a child in North Philadelphia with a decent school will make the child into a millionaire and Gates and Buffett into paupers. Nor do I understand why it sticks in Jim’s craw.
Jim’s Reply: The above comment from my smarter older brother mis-states my view. I never said I oppose using tax money for education. As to the assertion that I equate “government trying to improve opportunity to the poor…with redistribution of wealth,” I never equate anything with redistribution of wealth except redistribution of wealth. When the state uses its taxing power to take money from someone and give it to someone else that is the definition of redistributing wealth. Whether the money is taken from the rich and given to the poor, or taken from the middle class and given to both the rich and the poor as is more common, either way it’s redistributing wealth. Actually it’s more complicated than that. They also take money from some in the middle class and give it to others in the middle class. Along the way, the people who are doing all the redistributing manage to slip out some of the money and put it in their own pockets. You can favor redistributing wealth, or oppose it, Bill, but don’t pretend it doesn’t happen. It constitutes two thirds of the federal budget. And by the way, my brother, you and I, like most Americans, are both payers and payees in this convoluted system. We’re both receiving social security and medicare benefits, paid for by taxing younger working people who are less well-off than we are, who are struggling to support their children with what’s left after they pay taxes to pay our retirement benefits. Is that your idea of “fairness?”
My simultaneous reading of the Rockefeller and Matthews books with my brother’s book was fortuitous in setting a context for my discomfort with Jim’s philosophical leanings. Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan may have had ostensible philosophical differences, based, in part, on O’Neill’s misreading of Reagan. Even though both descended from Irish immigrants, O’Neill, according to Matthews, saw Reagan as a kind of golden boy, not recognizing that the character he saw was what Reagan constructed out of a background more emotionally and financially impoverished than his own. (This political misreading does not come close to the Bobby Kennedy misreading of Lyndon Johnson, as per Caro, that Johnson “did not understand poverty”!!!). My point is that, political ideology aside; these two could work together because they came from a similar place where people understood what it was to compromise in order to get things done, and to make a deal and stick with it.
Eileen Rockefeller’s title is also the outline of her entire story. She was born into a world of privilege at a level that could be considered royalty. It is not just that her family does not want for anything; it is that they live on a different scale than regular people. Instead of buying a second or third home, they buy second and third islands, and then bring in workers to create entire economies that did not exist before. How does a child find meaning and individual purpose in such an environment? First of all, the family understands the importance of cutting through and moving beyond the issue of status and money. There is no tone of entitlement in her or her parent’s behavior, and frequently there are references to relationships that clearly bypass social status. Secondly, once you get past noticing that an experience occurred on uncle Laurence’s 55 foot yacht, or that the home in Maine had 50 rooms, the stories themselves are no different than one would read about any child growing up in a successful family. A child of a successful family may seem to “have it made”, but in fact, the wish to be recognized for one’s own merit and accomplishment is magnified by the accomplishments of parents and grandparents, not made easier. The child of a wealthy and well-known family must fear that she will not only be liked and manipulated in order to gain favor, but that she will not be seen as having any value of her own.
Which brings me to Jimmy and his musings. Jimmy and I may not have been born Rockefellers, but sure were not Reagans or O’Neills either. Our father was a graduate of Harvard Law School and both of his brothers were lawyers as well. His uncle Albert entertained three US presidents and many world class leaders other celebrities on his compound in Philadelphia. Relatives who were reasonably intelligent and had some ambition, such as my brother and I, would attend Ivy League colleges, get professional degrees, graduate without debt, and contribute to the family wealth during our lifetimes. Relatives with even limited intelligence or ambition would never be without cars or health insurance. They would get what education they could without incurring debt, and most likely, would own their own homes. In this context theoretical constructs about capitalism and other esoteric economic models are a quaint luxury that may serve as a kind of cover for some inconvenient truths. Like, for example Uncle Albert championed civil rights and introduced Martin Luther King to a Philadelphia crowd in 1961, and Jim’s and my parents were always great supporters of civil rights, But the Brooklyn Dodgers were denied service at the Ben Franklin Hotel, when Jackie Robinson became a member of the team. Uncle Albert owned the Ben Franklin Hotel.
My debate with my brother over many years has nothing to do with capitalism, which is the system to which we both owe our financial well-being. My issue is with fairness. I don’t understand why a child born to parents without means should have less access to the basic needs of life than we did. This has nothing to do with making all things equal, or with reducing the luxury of the wealthy. It has to do with believing there is a minimal level of support to which we think our fellow humans are entitled. It is hard for me to understand why my brother, and many other people who are equally or even more comfortably situated, seem so focused on getting more for themselves.
Jim’s Reply: I don’t make the argument that capitalism is fair. It isn’t. But the only alternative to capitalism is socialism, and socialism isn’t fair either. My brother has discovered that life is unfair and, being a high-minded guy, he’s troubled by that. Fine, if you think it’s unfair join together with other high-minded people who think it’s unfair, and do what you can to help the poor. Use your own money to do it or raise money from other people who are willing to donate voluntarily to the cause. But don’t imagine you can solve the “fairness” problem by building huge government bureaucracies, funded by taxes, and run by power-hungry politicians and petty tyrant bureaucrats. We’ve tried that approach for 80 years, and all it’s done is create a dangerously corrupt concentration of power in Washington. Life is even more unfair when Washington power-brokers decide who gets what than when wealth is distributed according to the admittedly Darwinian vicissitudes of the market.
Capitalists are as divided on this issue as any other group. It is interesting to me, however, that the capitalists who stand with me on the issue seem to be pretty much out front on the matter. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Ted Turner are capitalist titans and public icons as well. On the other side, I cannot think of a single capitalist who actually speaks out himself, with the possible exception of Mitt Romney. They would prefer to quietly spend millions suppressing the vote and getting other people to speak falsehoods, truisms and half-truths. I keep thinking that if Samson, I mean … Jimmy, could understand this, we might get an even funnier sequel that really could be the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of our time.