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A Report from the National Taxpayers Conference

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Last week I spent some time at the National Taxpayers Conference in Crystal City, just over the river from Washington DC, trying to figure what the hardcore fiscal conservatives of the National Taxpayers Union had on their agenda in this era of out-of-control spending and government war on free enterprise. To my chagrin I found the event to be a shadow of what I understand it was in previous years. It was under-attended, with a weak schedule of speakers and an air of resignation which was almost palpable. I saw too many people talking about how to live with the excesses of the Obama era and too few discussing ways to fight back and preserve our most basic economic freedoms.

I'm sure that some of the low attendance can be blamed on the economy, but when is it more important for believers in responsible fiscal policy to organize than when times are darkest and the government is spending us into economic serfdom? The NTU's publications talk about leading a "national tax revolt" but what I found at the conference was about 200 of the same old think-tank staffers and DC insiders talking at each other with only a handful of grassroots activists in attendance, looking bewildered and out of place.

There were some good speakers and interesting events on the program, most notably Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal and John Stossel from ABC News, but the tone for the event was really set by the fact that the opening speaker was Sen. John McCain, who may look like a fiscal conservative by DC standards, but really doesn't have a lot of credibility, based on his record of lukewarm efforts and marginal accomplishments. It was clearly a bad sign that the bio of McCain in the program had far more about his war experiences than it did about anything he had ever done to reduce taxes or government spending. Sadly the same was true for most of the other speakers. They had plenty of accomplishments to list, but few of those were in the area of shrinking government and saving taxpayers money.

The breakout sessions had more to offer than the major speakers did, especially if you were interested in running a local political group or organizing tax protests. Groups like the Sam Adams Alliance and the Leadership Institute had good ideas and valuable things to teach grassroots activists in sessions like "Building an Effective Grassroots Organization" and "Getting Beyond Bylaws and Boards," but their knowledge would have been put to better use had more than a handful of actual grassroots activists been in attendance.

I actually found the most interesting activity of the conference to be walking around the small exhibitor area and seeing what some of the other groups sponsoring the conference were up to. One organization I encountered for the first time was the American Legislative Exchange Council, a very interesting group which promotes conservative legislative issues nationwide to state legislatures. They must be doing something right, because they've earned the ire of the rabidly anti-capitalist NRDC which has a little hate site all about ALEC called ALECwatch. I also had a good talk with some of the people from Liberty Features Syndicate, who are working to promote liberty-oriented content in the media and seem to be off to a good start.

The other good thing about the conference was a chance to hear a presentation from John Stossel at the Friday night reception. Stossel is always entertaining and informative, and while I think this presentation was a bit under-prepared and rushed, compared to other times I've seen him, he still got very positive response from the crowd and communicated his pro-liberty, common sense message very effectively.

One of the things which caught my attention at the conference is that a lot of the participating groups seem to get their funding from the same fairly short list of sources. I love the fact that the Koch brothers throw money at pro-liberty groups like candy, but when they're behind almost all of the participants the event becomes a bit like a Koch Foundation staff picnic. When you have paid activists from one group talking to paid activists from another group and they all get their money from the same sources, it's all a little too inbred. It's a closed circle and it's going nowhere because they are all talking to the wrong people and the real grassroots activists just aren't there.

The NTU puts on a nice conference and they certainly raise valid issues and concerns, but something's missing. They act like there's "movement" or a "tax revolt" but nothing is really going to happen except for lots of talking until they find a way to broaden their message and get real citizen activists involved. That clearly was not happening at this conference, so a lot of money and effort was being expended while very little was being accomplished — a frustrating situation to observe when you know how much the nation needs real change and real activism for liberty and fiscal responsibility.

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About Dave Nalle

  • Clavos

    Interesting.

    As you said, it’s sad, at this time in our history, with the most spendthrift administration ever in Washington, that these folks aren’t more effective.

    I would really have enjoyed seeing Moore and Stossel talk. I just read the Moore/Laffer book, and always enjoy Stossel’s appearances on TV.

  • http://roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    These think-tankers need to reach out to the Glenn Beck 912ers and the Tea Party people. That’s your grassroots right there.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    There may be one explanation, Dave, why the efforts to reach or develop “grass roots” are likely to be ineffective. Perhaps the bulk of the tea-party attendees and so-called “concerned citizens” are more concerned with their own stinking situation than what’s “good” for the country at large. Right or wrong, it’s the idealistic viewpoint that is most conducive to any kind of mass movement; and these people hardly cut an idealistic mindset as though their concern was with the principle of the thing rather than their own predicament.

    I’d say it’s something to think about.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    “Can you have a “movement” when you’re just a bunch of think tank staffers talking to each other and the public didn’t show up?”

    What kind of movement?

    ;-P

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Now that I’ve dragged the debate down a notch…

    RJ actually makes a good point in #2. I’m sure the NTU was encouraged by the Tea Party kerfuffle but it sounds as if they didn’t really take advantage of it.

  • m ark

    More like the grassroots didn’t take advantage of the NTU.

    And let me take the debate one notch lower: I got yer grassroots right here! (image the appropriate gesture)

  • Clavos

    Ah, the intellectual stimulation! The erudition! The lofty discourse!*

    *Or whatever…

    YMMV

  • http://roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    Seriously, it shouldn’t be just small-government conservatives and libertarians who are concerned about the budget deficit and the national debt. I mean, it took over 200 years for our country to accumulate the debt we currently have, and 0bama is going to double it in less than a decade.

    Shouldn’t, like, EVERYONE be concerned about that?

  • m ar k

    The ‘tea party’ that I attended had folks of all persuasions except for the hardened Obama supporters.

  • Bliffle

    The problem is that these folks lost credibility by not opposing the spendthrift Bush adminisration, so they have no standing now as anti-spending champions.

    Instead, they went along with Bush and chose partisan politics.

  • Lumpy

    Groups like NTU and CAGW did actually speak out on their spending and tax issues while Bush was in office but then as now no one was listening.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Bliffle, the Bush spending is so totally dwarfed by what Obama is doing that if people who supported Bush “lost credibility” then everyone who is supporting Obama ought to be stoned in the streets.

    Dave

  • Clavos

    then everyone who is supporting Obama ought to be stoned in the streets.

    A lot of ’em probably are, but in their living rooms.

  • Bliffle

    Dave,

    Bush increased the national debt by about $5trillion, a sum well beyond anything real or implied in BHOs plans.

    FWIW, I think the neo-republicans and Bush made a bad play. IMO they decided that if they spent the nation sufficiently into debt that there would be no money left for a subsequent dem administration to do anything. But they were wrong (once again demonstrating that the neo-reps and Bush were/are poor strategists) because BHO simply ignored the debt and raised the ante.

    So now we are unwilling participants in a spending race between the reps and dems.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I wonder if they’ll let you get by with that statement, bliffle. If you’re even halfway right, you could be onto something.

  • http://thingsalongtheway.blogspot.com/ Cindy

    The ‘tea party’ that I attended had folks of all persuasions except for the hardened Obama supporters.

    It even had anarchists. :-)

  • Clavos

    So now we are unwilling participants in a spending race between the reps and dems.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Bush increased the national debt by about $5trillion, a sum well beyond anything real or implied in BHOs plans.

    He did that in 8 years, while fighting two expensive wars. Obama has spent or pledged to spend almost that much in 3 months while accomplishing nothing at all.

    Dave

  • Jordan Richardson

    Oh, so the two expensive wars are over? Neat!

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Dave,

    You have two big problems with the NTU etc. One is that American conservatives – from the NIMBY crowd to the isolationist crowd to the “my fuckin’ taxes are too high!” crowd, tend to not help others.

    The other is that the Blessed of Hussein went right around the tax issue and just handed out money without bothering to deal with taxes.

    Both he and Bush are fiscally irresponsible in the extreme, and it is only a matter of time before those chickens come home to roost – and sink the dollar altogether. Then, in come the Chinese, taking your assets (and your asses) collecting on their teds.

    I suspect that this realization slowly sinking in is what kept grassroots participation so low at the seminars you went to.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    Bush increased the national debt by about $5trillion, a sum well beyond anything real or implied in BHOs plans.

    Wrong:

    “President Bush presided over a $2.5 trillion increase in the public debt through 2008. Setting aside 2009 (for which Presidents Bush and Obama share responsibility for an additional $2.6 trillion in public debt), President Obama’s budget would add $4.9 trillion in public debt from the beginning of 2010 through 2016.”

    After 2016, of course, massive budget deficits are projected to continue.

    The Left has no credibility on this issue. They attacked Bush relentlessly on the deficit when he was in office, but now that 0bama is in office, they don’t seem to mind record-shattering budget deficits at all. Conservatives, on the other hand, were appalled by the spending and the deficits under both Presidents.

  • Bliffle

    What happened , IMO, is that the various “taxpayers” outfits let themselves be swept into the neo-republican party years ago, from which partisan position they could not escape. Thus, they had to lay low during the Bush wild spending, but that has just made them laughable now. People can’t be blamed for thinking that the “taxpayer” outfits are just neo-republican puppets.

  • Bliffle

    Gee, Roger, I thought it was pretty obvious to anyone who thought about it back in 2001 that the republican strategy was to make sure that they left an empty treasury and big debts so that any subsequent democrat administration would be paralyzed for lack of money. It’s a traditional political ploy.

    But that was based on their presumption of getting another Clinton-like dem, maybe Hillary herself, who would assiduously strive to prove himself (or herself) president worthy by balancing the budget and overcoming past rep debts (as Clinton dealt with the leftover Reagan-Bush debts).

    But they miscalculated by assuming that Bill Clintons rightward shift was a permanent change in the dems: a serious miscalculation, as we see.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    To tell the truth, I didn’t give it much thought then. My interest in politics comes and goes. Plus, it was much more absorbed by my personal life then and my love affairs, no to mention the two novels I was writing. But what you’re saying now does appear to make sense. In fact, it struck me as something to really ponder about.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    So, “Clinton-like Dem” is Bliffle’s code word for “fiscally responsible” as opposed to batshit crazy, spend the country into total economic destruction, which is what we got.

    Dave

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Is the code word inaccurate? One could take exception, though, to “spend[ing] the country into total economic destruction,” if only because some might view it as a stopgap – to avert the economic destruction (and crisis) which were already upon us, and therefore inherited, because Wall Street was allowed to run rampant.

    And that viewpoint may well prevail, even if the remedies will fail to work, for no other reason that they just may have been conceived “in good faith.” Whereas it would be kind of difficult to argue that point on behalf of the past regime.

  • Clavos

    Oh what a relief! We’ll go down the tubes “in good faith.”

  • Bliffle

    Clinton was a better conservative than reagan and Bush rolled together.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    #27

    Good intentions may not be enough to get you to heaven. But bad ones may be a sure way to hell.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Bliffle, let’s accept that Clinton was a better conservative than Bush or Reagan — mostly by pure luck. His administration produced relative prosperity by those methods. Right? So by doing the exact opposite, Obama’s intention is then to produce? What, exactly?

    Dave

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Dave,

    “Bliffle, let’s accept that Clinton was a better conservative than Bush or Reagan — mostly by pure luck.”

    What do you mean “pure luck”? Isn’t that YOUR shorthand for something – like the circumstances being different?