Tea Party movement confused about taxes and the Boston Tea Party

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Tea Party members misunderstand the real Boston Tea PartyFor most of us, the stress of filing our income tax return is subsiding and we can get on with the usual business of figuring out how to pay our regular monthly bills. But what will surely continue beyond tax day is the strange co-opting of the Boston Tea Party by the anti-tax Tea Party movement.

I hasten to preface this with the fact that I don't begrudge anyone the right to organize and protest against perceived injustices. This isn't another hit piece about how the Tea Party movement is awful or driven by race or controlled by corporate lobbyists. However, the notion of an anti-tax Tea Party movement that borrows its name from the Boston Tea Party seems bizarre and contradictory.

After all, the Boston Tea Party was ultimately a protest against a corporate tax cut, whereas the modern Tea Party movement is in favor of tax cuts.

I run a small media company with a staff of one. Me. But the services I provide happen to also be services that are offered by much larger companies. Some of them are international conglomerates with staffs of thousands. One of the reasons why I'm able to compete (in a relative sense) is that American business taxation is, at the end of the day, reasonably progressive. I pay taxes in an amount relative to the net revenue of my business, as does, say, Viacom.

But imagine how screwed I'd be if the government swooped in and said that Viacom didn't have to pay any taxes at all. Competing against a company paying a 0% effective tax rate would be extraordinarily difficult to say the least, since every dollar in net revenue I earned would be obviously accompanied by a significantly higher tax rate than, you know, zero.

A very similar slap in the face occurred in 1773 with the passage of the Tea Act. It was the passage of this law which ultimately sparked the famous Boston Tea Party.

The East India Company, the Monsanto or the Microsoft of its era, was in serious financial trouble, and being so closely tied to the economy of Great Britain, it was, to use the parlance of our times, too big to fail.

But rather than bailing out the corporation, King George and Lord North decided that if they just cut the taxes of the corporation to zero, the East India Company would be able to sell tea to the colonists at a discount -- boosting sales and rescuing the near-bankrupt mega-corporation. Plus, they reasoned, the colonists would embrace them for the cheaper tea, and tensions between the empire and the colonies would be ameliorated, at least temporarily.

So in May, 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act. The long-form sub-title of the act read as follows: "An act to allow a drawback of the duties of customs on the exportation of tea to any of his Majesty's colonies or plantations in America; to increase the deposit on bohea tea to be sold at the East India Company's sales; and to empower the commissioners of the treasury to grant licenses to the East India Company to export tea duty-free."

Several months later, the East India Company attained the proper clearances and set off to various colonial sea ports with its duty-free tea.

It goes without saying that the smaller colonial tea distributors weren't happy. Their retail prices would be severely undercut by the tax-free tea, shoving the smaller importers out of business. Not only that, but they would continue to pay taxes without representation in Parliament.

"No taxation without representation," by the way, didn't mean, "No taxation -- period." Colonial tax payers would gladly have paid taxes if they were afforded political representation, and a level playing field in terms of the East India Company's special duty-free advantage.

The Tea Act was British oppression at its most insidious (until the war, that is). So, in retaliation, the Sons of Liberty proceeded to intimidate and raid -- with orders to tar and feather the pilots -- any East India tea ship landing at various ports from Philadelphia to Sandy Hook near New York to, naturally, Boston.

On December 16, 1773 colonial insurgents disguised as Mohawks boarded several British ships, including the Dartmouth, at Griffin's Wharf and dumped hundreds of crates of tea into Boston Harbor.

Now, fast forward 237 years. I'm not sure what Samuel Adams would say about the modern tea parties. I'm positive, however, he'd have problems with all of the corporate tea bags being purchased in stores and used as props -- as opposed to the Sons of Liberty deliberately hijacking ships and vandalizing corporate tea.

The colonists simply wanted a fair deal from King George and were willing to pay taxes as long as they could elect members of Parliament to represent their input in the laws governing their lives. The colonial patriots weren't opposed to taxation, as the anti-tax Tea Party appears to be.

Although, there seems to be some confusion here, too. Evidently Tea Party activists are angry that some 47% of American households didn't pay any income taxes in 2009 due to tax cuts and, predictably, the negative economic impact of the recession. In fact, Glenn Beck, last week on his radio show, went so far as to recommend to a caller that she return to the IRS. a "Making Work Pay" tax credit she received from the stimulus, amounting to an additional $800 in her refund check.

Boiled down, it appears as though the Tea Party movement is all at once in favor of taxes and against taxes. They appear to be in favor of lower taxes for upper income workers and corporations, and higher taxes for lower income workers and corporations. Unless I've totally misunderstood the Tea Party reaction, it seems as though, once again, it's exactly the opposite of the original intent of Boston Tea Party which, to repeat, was against tax cuts for wealthy corporations at the expense of the little guy.

Again, this isn't necessarily an indictment of the Tea Party. But it seems as though they're a little confused in terms of their position on taxes, and especially how that position conflicts with the original intent of their namesake Boston Tea Party. Maybe a name change is in order -- then again, it might be too late. Either way, it's really a shame. Not only is it an embarrassment for the Tea Party movement, but it's presenting a misinterpreted view of a significant event in American history.
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