Going To The Mat With I.R.S.

If you really want to get an accurate feel for the political pulse of the nation, forget Gallup and Harris, [...]

July 1 1992 by Edwin J. Feulner


If you really want to get an accurate feel for the political pulse of the nation, forget Gallup and Harris, forget your high-priced “proactive” PR consultants, forget The New York Times and tune in, instead, to the TV channel that broadcasts “professional” wrestling on Saturday morning.

What you will find is this: Perhaps more than at any time since the 1929 Teapot Dome scandal, grassroots America is absolutely fed up with official Washington, its air of arrogance, and its wasteful ways.

To get all this from big-league wrestling, you need to understand that what you are watching is not an athletic contest, but a morality play: good versus evil.

The World Wrestling Federation, one of the two main organizations in the business, is a multi-billion dollar enterprise that probably is a mystery to most CEOs. In business terms, the WWF is best described as a confederation of individual entrepreneurs, who market their products under such trade names as Randy “Macho Man” Savage (and his sometimes manager/spouse The Lovely Elizabeth), Hulk Hogan, Ted Dibiase (“The Million Dollar Man”), Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Rick Flair, The Undertaker and Earthquake.

While a core of regulars travels the circuit, during times of political crisis new characters are invented to act out the bad-guy roles. Thus, during the Iranian hostage crisis, the baddest of the bad guys was the Iranian-flag-waving Iron Sheik, who hailed from the country’s capital, Tehran. Because the hostage crisis occurred during the coldest days of the Cold War, The Iron Sheik frequently teamed up with the sneering, hammer-and-sickle flag-waving Count Nikolai Volkoff, hometown Moscow.

But Iran was defeated and the Soviet Union fell apart. Is it surprising then, that the man wrestling fans now most love to hate is one Irwin R. Schyster-better known as IRS?

Introduced to the world of pro wrestling just months ago, this new villain-with an acronym dreaded by U.S. taxpayers-has been an in-your-face instant success. Many of the other bad guys on the wrestling circuit are stomp-you-into-the-ground direct about their brutishness. The trademark of one star is the length of two-by-four lumber he carries into the ring; others adorn themselves in futuristic war paint. But the IRS baddy wears eyeglasses, dresses in a suit and tie, and carries a leather briefcase. Just the kind of guy you see every day pushing pencils in Washington

What the blue-collar world of wrestling is telling us is that to the average wage-earner in Bayonne, NJ, or Tupelo, MS, the Washington bureaucrat has become the consummate symbol of all that is evil in America. That’s the political reality politicians face come election time in the fall.

It’s not hard to understand why, and it’s not just the check-kiting scandal. It’s the fact that despite all of our problems, Washington continues with business as usual. As CBS Radio’s Charles Osgood appropriately noted on Tax Day, April 15, Washington is basically out of control. Using data squeezed from the U.S. budget by my colleague Scott Hodge, Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs, Osgood was especially “amused” by the federal helium reserve-a program started in 1929 to provide a lift to the blimp industry.

The blimp industry went down with the Hindenberg, but the helium reserve remains. It is a multi-million-dollar (actual cost: $121 million in fiscal year 1992) hot-air monument to Washington‘s wasteful ways.

While federal programs such as this make for lively radio copy, the taxpayers are hardly amused. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of other reasons for U.S. taxpayers to hate Washington. There’s the Superconducting Super Collider in Dallas, for example. When completed, the super collider will be the world’s largest and allegedly most powerful high-energy particle accelerator. The Department of Energy originally projected it would cost U.S. taxpayers just over $5 billion to develop, build and equip the facility, with Texas taxpayers picking up an additional $1 billion for local infrastructure improvements. DOE already has upped its estimate to $8 billion, and the General Accounting Office, the congressional auditing arm, places the cost at $12 billion (in 1990 dollars). For what?

Then there are the numerous U.S. Department of Agriculture handouts, from the Conservation Reserve Program (annual cost: $1.6 billion) to the dairy, honey, mohair and wool subsidies (another $1.3 billion a year).

To the Washington bureaucrats, a few billion dollars is just chump change. To the rest of America, wasting this kind of cash earns Washington a body slam. The Conservation Reserve Program deserves special note. Begun in the mid 1980s, the program pays farmers not to farm their land. Recognizing a pretty good deal when they see one, U.S. farmers have taken about 35 million acres out of production, equivalent in size to the state of Illinois. By 1995, USDA officials hope to take another 4.5 million acres out of production. As a result, says analyst James Bovard, “rocky, craggy ground is now worth more than good farmland” in some parts of the country.

The USDA already spends about $800 million a year teaching farmers erosion prevention-a dubious expenditure, because farmers already have every incentive as business people to conserve their land. To do otherwise would be to destroy a valuable capital resource. Why do they deserve government support?

U.S. taxpayers realize that Washington is awash in such programs. And they’re rightly fed up.

Perhaps more than anything else, grassroots America is disgusted with the unbridled arrogance of Washington. And no agency of government-with the possible exception of the Congress-more accurately reflects that arrogance than the Internal Revenue Service.

The IRS, we also learn, is one of Washington’s great boondoggles.

According to tax economist James L. Payne of Lytton Research and Analysis in Sandpoint, ID, the IRS doesn’t just cause us grief-it costs us lots of money. Indeed, his research shows, every dollar the IRS collects in taxes costs the economy $1.65.

Unofficial costs include the time we spend keeping records and filling out forms, lawyers’ and accountants’ fees, and the drain on the economy caused by diverting productive resources to tax compliance (and evasion). Merely complying with federal tax laws is so labor-intensive, Payne found, that it takes the equivalent of nearly three million people working full-time year-round to review and fill out all of the IRS paperwork.

“Most evaluators of federal programs assume that the cost of raising tax revenues is trivial,” Payne says. “But in fact,” he says, “the tax system is the most expensive government program of all.” The system costs more than $600 billion a year, more than twice as much as defense and six times the cost of the Medicare program.

As one Washington-watcher recently noted, Washington more-or-less got a free ride from the taxpaying public during the Cold War, because the public realized the need for a large and powerful government to wage this life-and-death battle. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, that threat is gone, and America no longer sees the need for such concentrated power-and is no longer willing to forgive Washington its excesses.

In the post-Soviet era, Count Nikolai Volkoff couldn’t make it in the World Wrestling Federation. He’d be a big yawn.

For all the same reasons, The Undertaker and IRS-representing death and taxes-have become the scourge of the wrestling world. Tune in some time and learn more about your customers.


Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D., is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy research institute. He also serves on the board of several other foundations and research institutes. Dr. Feulner is the author of Conservatives Stalk the House.