Populist rage manifests itself in disturbing way

Two weeks ago, a 53-year-old software engineer, Joseph Stack, lit his house on fire and flew a small plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas. He left behind a ranting, six-page ‘manifesto,’ posted on several news Web sites, condemning the evils of our government and, especially, its tax system.

As manifestos go, it’s kind of a disappointment.

He begins his final message like an exhausted visionary, a had-been idealist disillusioned by the world he’s encountered. In the end, he styles himself a revolutionary, an uncompromising martyr to the cause of that sacred principle: justice. But the middle part is kind of a letdown. Basically, this guy burned down his house and crashed a plane into a building because he couldn’t figure out his income tax forms.

He was mad about recessions, about business cycles and, ironically, about terrorists. His life had been a sad series of comfortable successes, of reasonable compensation, of hard work for his money. He knew he deserved better. He had put in his time — gone to college and worked at jobs — and he deserved a life of wild success.

But stuff kept coming up. The Air Force closed bases, so he lost some clients. The dot-com bubble burst, so he made less money. Sept. 11 happened, so he had to deal with airport security. In short, his life was totally unfair. But the real indignity of it all came from watching big business — or those “wealthy sows at the government trough,” as he calls them — get bailed out by the same government that “left [him] to rot.”

And there it is, his common ground with the non airplane-crashing population. Everyone wants a bailout, this guy just demanded his in a crazier way.

There are legitimate arguments against “bailing” anyone out — it’s a slap in the face to the free market principles we pretend to believe in. It encourages foolishness and risky behavior. It rewards failure. But those aren’t the reasons we hated the bank bailout. We hated it because we’re not bankers.

And ever since, we’ve been looking for ours. For the bailout of Main Street. For the bailout of the American People. The bailout for plumbers, construction workers and crazy 53-year-old software engineers.

The dangerous lesson of the “Great Recession” isn’t that banks and automakers are “too big to fail,” it’s the concept of “too big to fail” in itself. Because now we all think we are.

So we demand tax cuts, incentives, credit-card forgiveness and mortgage adjustments. We will not accept service cuts, and we will not pay more taxes, more tuition or more fees. We demand safe harbor from the waves of our free market economy. We deserve a guarantee against the business cycle, immunity from market bubbles and special treatment by airport security.

The scariest thing about the Texas IRS attack was that this guy’s angry, hypocritical entitlement has become a common political refrain. It’s not just the bankers asking, “What can my country do for me?”

At least most of us aren’t flying into buildings.

Demand your bailout at john.a.gaylord@asu.edu


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