How an Obama joke led millions to evade taxes

Conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds can't see the humor in the president's joke about auditing Arizona State University administrators.


Alex Koppelman
May 19, 2009 2:45AM (UTC)

If you thought that President Obama's joke last week about asking the IRS to audit administrators at Arizona State University for deciding not to award him an honorary degree was a good way of defusing the controversy, or maybe even funny, you were wrong. Very, very wrong. In fact, it was a recipe for widespread tax evasion.

That last phrase isn't actually the way I feel (I admit to finding the joke a little humorous -- sue me), but a snippet from an op-ed written for the Wall Street Journal by Glenn Reynolds, a law professor who came to fame as the blogger Instapundit. In the piece, Reynolds demonstrates a certain talent for humorlessness when it comes to people he disagrees with politically, writing:

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Mr. Obama noted that ASU had refused to grant him an honorary degree, citing his lack of experience, and the controversy this had caused. He then demonstrated ASU's point by remarking... "President [Michael] Crowe and the Board of Regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS."

Just a joke about the power of the presidency. Made by Jay Leno it might have been funny. But as told by Mr. Obama, the actual president of the United States, it's hard to see the humor. Surely he's aware that other presidents, most notably Richard Nixon, have abused the power of the Internal Revenue Service to harass their political opponents. But that abuse generated a powerful backlash and with good reason. Should the IRS come to be seen as just a bunch of enforcers for whoever is in political power, the result would be an enormous loss of legitimacy for the tax system..,

This is why the IRS is so strict with its own employees. Paul Caron, a professor at the University of Cincinnati who writes the TaxProf blog... suggested that Mr. Obama's "joke" might be grounds for firing if he were an IRS employee...

The notion that people who are audited are probably just "enemies of the regime," coupled with the idea that big shots get a pass -- that, as Leona Helmsley is reputed to have said, "taxes are for the little people" -- is a recipe for widespread tax evasion.

A colleague of mine did some yeoman's work checking through the archives of Reynolds' blog, and turns out -- not exactly to our surprise -- that he never mentioned President Bush's famous skit at the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner about searching for weapons of mass destruction, at least not in the week immediately following it. And at Instaputz, liberal blogger Blue Texan notes a different Bush joke from 2004, "[Y]ou've got to be careful about this rhetoric, we're only going to tax the rich... Just remember, when you're talking about, oh, we're just going to run up the taxes on a certain number of people -- first of all, real rich people figure out how to dodge taxes."

Just for the record, lest I be accused of hypocrisy, I do think that joke is pretty funny.


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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