The Republicans are Trying to Use the Tax System to Attack Their Political Enemies

by Benjamin Studebaker

We’re seeing lots of good pieces which point out that many of the claims the Republicans are making about their tax plan are not true, that the plan favors the rich at the expense of the middle. But today I want to make another point about the plan, one that doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it merits. You see, it’s not just that the Republican plan helps the rich and hurts the middle. Those distributive consequences are real, and they matter, but this goes deeper than that. The Republican plan specifically targets liberal and left-leaning groups in the country for tax increases. It is an assault on the political neutrality of the tax system.

I want to focus today on just two examples of this–the tax increase on graduate students, and the tax increase on people living in blue states.

Grad Students

American universities usually offer PhD students free tuition plus a stipend. This allows people who aren’t independently wealthy to go to grad school if they choose. Even so, the stipends are not very large. My friend David over at the University of Michigan receives a stipend of just $23,000. He has a wife and child, but they make do. The Republican plan would upend this by counting the free tuition David receives as part of his income. This would lift his tax burden by over $10,000, to $17,000. He’d only have $6,000 left to live on.

That means David’s PhD would not longer be economically viable. Without outside funding, he’d be forced to quit. So would many other graduate students. Others wouldn’t bother going in the first place. In the American university system, graduate teaching assistants (TAs) increasingly take on much of the undergraduate teaching so that the extant academic staff can focus on research and the universities can avoid hiring more expensive full-time professors. The graduate students are made to take their own future jobs from themselves, and they’re paid a paltry stipend for the privilege. But apparently the Republican Party thinks that even this is too much–it wants TAs to be paid a mere $6,000 a year to educate our college students.

Obviously that’s not practical for most would-be graduate students, and that’s the point. The Republican Party wants fewer graduate students, and it aims to tax most of them out of existence. This is because the Republicans perceive the universities to be left-leaning and want to weaken them institutionally. The right can always pay for its own research–there are dozens of right-leaning think tanks funded by billionaires happy to hire anyone who wants to help spread the libertarian good news. But the left doesn’t have that kind of money. Deprive middle and working class lefties of access to university stipends and left-wing research goes extinct. The supply of left-leaning PhDs dries up. The universities are forced to rely more and more on independently wealthy graduate students, who are more likely to skew right and more likely to support the Republican line.

That’s ideological warfare. That’s an attempt to control the political orientation of academic research. And it’s the bread and butter of right nationalism, which views the universities as part of a progressive “cathedral”. Curtis Yarvin–one of the earliest “neoreactionary” writers, and a known inspiration to Peter Thiel, Steve Bannon, and others in this circle–laid this out in 2008, shortly after the election of Barack Obama:

The great power center of 2008 is the Cathedral. The Cathedral has two parts: the accredited universities and the established press. The universities formulate public policy. The press guides public opinion. In other words, the universities make decisions, for which the press manufactures consent.

Yarvin views the universities and “progressivism” as ideologically uniform (he clearly has never attended an academic seminar or participated in campus politics). He calls for a “hard reset” in which the state–led by a CEO–nationalizes the universities, fires their employees, and liquidates their assets:

In a hard reset, all organizations dedicated to forming public opinion, making or implementing public policy, or working in the public interest, are nationalized. This includes not only the press and the universities, but also the foundations, NGOs, and other nonprofits. It is a bit rich, after all, for any of these outfits to appeal to the sanctity of property rights. They believe in the sanctity of property rights about as much as they believe in the goddess Kali.

Once they are nationalized, treat them as the public schools were treated in the soft reset. Retire their employees and liquidate their assets. Universities in particular have lovely campuses, many of which are centrally located and should be quite attractive to developers.

The people Yarvin inspired have spent the last decade attempting to take over the Republican Party and use to it pursue a creepy reactionary nationalist program. Of course, the Republicans could never do anything this blatant. But they view the universities as enemies, and they hardly even try to hide this anymore.

This tax is a political attack on the university system. Its goal is not to raise money–it’s not as if families like David’s have much to give. The only object is destruction.

Blue States

The Republican plan also intends to prevent Americans from deducting their state and local income and sales taxes from their federal taxes. This means that if you live in a blue state with higher taxes and more generous public services, the federal government will double tax you. The goal of this is obvious–to drive business and investment out of high-tax blue states. In the short-run, this enriches low-tax, cheap-service red states. In the long-run, this forces blue states to lower their income and sales taxes to remain competitive, turning them into red states. Lower taxes at the state level means gutting public services and dishonoring pensions. Gutting public services takes money from the public schools and from the state universities. It helps privatization campaigns convince ordinary people that government programs aren’t worth maintaining, which leads state governments to divert even more resources away from the public system to voucher-based private alternatives. Those funding diversions further run down the public services, leading to a spiral of state abandonment.

This is a federal power grab in which Republicans at the national level intervene in state politics to make strong progressive tax systems and public services economically impossible in the hopes of producing a vicious rightward cycle. It’s an attack on states’ rights and state autonomy designed to coerce blue states into adopting red state economic models. And of course, it’s no coincidence that one of the chief victims of this will be the state universities, like Michigan, where David goes.

Republican governors have long been trying to run down public services, and the universities in particular. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is cutting the University of Wisconsin’s budget by 13% in a single year while at the very same time imposing a tuition freeze. The goal of that policy is obvious–to make Wisconsin’s public university system worse. As Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence spent years attacking public education, much to the detriment of my home town. The Republicans see how Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner is stymied by his Democratic legislature. The blue states are under pressure from red state tax havens, and the GOP wants to kick that pressure up a level. What better way to do it than to slip it into a big, fat tax cut bill?

Many Republicans are actively hostile to the university system. They have no respect for states’ rights when those rights concern blue states. They are perfectly willing to use the tax system to advance these ends. This is not just a tax cut, it’s a political attack on the American left, and it poses an existential threat to our universities and to left-wing politics at the state level. I’m not fan of alarmism, but it’s the truth. We have to sink this thing.