Culture

Death and taxes

Culture | Remembering a man who sharpened mainstream culture; how withholding gave birth to "take-home" pay, increasing government's "take"; and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Worldview warehouses," July 17, 1999

A lifetime of reading
Clifton Fadiman isn't well remembered today, but he helped develop the American ideal of the educated man. In a career that spanned the 20th century as writer, editor, and even game-show host from the 1920s until his death in June, he loved the life of the mind and he used his charm and pitched his joy to the world. Mr. Fadiman was a gatekeeper. As senior judge for the Book of the Month Club, editor in chief at Simon & Schuster, and book editor for The New Yorker, he helped influence what people read for decades. He wrote more than 65 introductions to important books from War and Peace and The Martian Chronicles to Six by Seuss. Mr. Fadiman also developed "The Lifetime Reading Plan," a guide to helping place the intellectually curious on the path to good books. He even helped popularize game shows, hosting Information Please, a celebrity panel quiz program that was the 1930s intellectual equivalent of Jeopardy! What made Mr. Fadiman such a mainstay was his personality. He could talk about anything and had a contagious charisma. Mr. Fadiman started as a New York high school teacher in 1925 and never stopped working until he died of cancer. He won the National Book Award in 1993. "I can't retire," he said. "I wouldn't know what to do." Like his fellow popularizer Mortimer J. Adler, he used his abilities to help sharpen mainstream culture. The worldview he pitched was the old Cold War liberalism David Gress wrote about in his From Plato to NATO (see WORLD, Dec. 19, 1998). In a 1997 interview, he said he took a quote from Aldous Huxley's prophetic Brave New World as a theme in his life: "Let's be a little kinder to each other." Mr. Fadiman's educated mainstream is preferable to '90s nihilism, but that vital center didn't hold. In the age of digital cable and cellular modems, efforts such as The Young Children's Encyclopedia and even the Book of the Month Club become less and less relevant. Even The New Yorker is a dinosaur. Yet his legacy will carry on everywhere from local reading clubs to homeschool curricula to the paperback classics at Barnes & Noble. Greedy government
Lay the blame for your heavy tax burdens at the feet of a little-known Macy's executive named Beardsley Runi. Wall Street Journal writer Amity Shlaes calls him "the father of the modern American state" in her book about taxation called The Greedy Hand (Random House). What did he do? Back in 1942, Runi cooked up the modern system of federal tax withholding. Instead of paying one lump sum every spring, people started paying on the installment plan, like newlyweds who just bought a waterbed. It was the middle of World War II, so Americans could more easily pay their "Federal Income and Victory Tax." Hiding behind the veil of patriotism, Runi created a monster. The withholding scheme made taxes quiet and more invisible, like the aging process. Uncle Sam didn't have to worry as much about tax evasion, and the concept of "take-home pay" was created. Taxes stopped being a way of giving back to America and became a burden. As Ms. Shlaes explains, they penalized families, made accountants rich, and endangered the Los Angeles Dodgers. The first paycheck with the first withholding is now a rite of passage, what Ms. Schlaes calls "the grandest of all life's sticker shocks." That's what makes The Greedy Hand so depressing. Tax code regulations are about eight times longer than the Bible. Part of the problem dates back to early American pamphleteer Thomas Paine, who coined the term "Greedy Hand" to refer to government as a competitor to the "invisible hand" of commerce. He was one of the fathers of Social Security and high inheritance taxes. "God, or at least the god of King George's England, was not delivering," Ms. Schlaes writes. "He wanted the government to take over the job." Paper profits?
Your local newspaper doesn't want to be buried by the Internet, which is why most papers are freely accessible on the Web-even though few receive much return on the investment. For five years papers have jumped into hypertext, giving people a newsstand covering every spot on the planet. And with so many competitors, publishers are scratching their heads about how to attract advertisers. The new game among players like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Knight Ridder newspapers is to go "portal." The portal strategy is all the rage in everything from search engines to auto-parts dealers: Shove a bunch of features like free stock quotes and chat rooms into a site and hope it becomes "sticky" enough for users to make it their first stop when they log on. Portals also swap content among one another in order to "drive traffic" to themselves. "Consumers want and need a convenient entry into the entire local online information and commercial marketplace" hypes Washington Post CEO Alan G. Spoon. "We want to be the first stop on everyone's electronic journey to Washington." Trouble is, portal sites are so repetitive they all start looking alike. There's precious little reason to choose one over the other. The powerhouse portals Mr. Spoon wants to emulate-like Yahoo, AOL.com, and Snap-are amazingly similar. Since a flood of new users is still washing into the Net, portal makers hope they can be at the right place at the right time to become someone's addiction. One reason newspapers want a piece of the portal action is that other portals are a threat to their main cash cow: classified ads. Local papers want you selling your car through them, not Infoseek or Lycos. To beat them, they have to join them. Newspapers hate the idea of giving content away; many publishers dream of being able to collect "micropayments" of a penny or two per article. Right now the economics of online news is to lose money, lots of it. But media outlets can't afford not to be online, so when the eventual weeding out of winners and losers comes, the news landscape may be radically changed.

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