Why Government Bureaucrats Abuse Taxpayers

In 2010 the nation learned that the city manager and council members of Bell, CA were abusing their public positions and improperly giving themselves pay increases. The city manager had increased his public salary to nearly $800K a year. The police chief also managed to work himself up to a salary of over $400K a year. When local residents, who pay for these salaries, began to complain, the first response of the government employees was to cut back on town meetings. They refused to meet with townspeople or listen to their valid complaints.

And unlike the heads of huge corporations with outrageous salaries, the city manager has the authority to force local residents to pay his salary through their property taxes. Corporate executives do not have the power to extort salaries through the threat to seize homes. This threat lies behind the ability of local government employees to tax property, which has become the primary source of public sector union wages and pensions. And local taxpayers have virtually no say in either the amount their homes are taxed or the terms of public union contracts. These are all inside deals given to the biggest campaign contributors and the most closely connected politicians and their families.

The city manager of Bell, CA is not unique. School boards and county tax assessors across the nation gleefully raised property taxes during the housing value boom of 1995-2008. But since 2007 as housing prices have drastically declined, property taxes have not declined but gone up faster than ever. The Tax Foundation reports that from 2005 to 2010 property taxes in the entire U.S. increased an average of 27 percent. And while facing higher property tax bills, middle class Americans lost 39 percent of their wealth from 2007 to 2010.

These tax increases cause great financial stress for homeowners throughout the U.S. In fact, as property taxes increased the income of the average working American fell 8.1% from 2007 to 2012.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between the spending and taxing policies of government officials and the ability of working Americans to pay taxes. The important question is why this insensitivity exists, why government officials abuse taxpayers as their incomes decline. Is this the manifestation of a greedy, megalomaniac personality, or is there something about being in a position of control that creates abusive behavior?

To understand this behavior two researchers, Dr. Phil Zimbardo of Stanford Univ. and Dr. Stanley Milgram of Yale Univ., designed experiments to put some people in control of others. These two experiments have been replicated by other researchers around the world and are well known today.

Milgram's experiments, performed in the early 1960s, tested the propensity of a person to abuse another with an "authority figure punishment" approach. He set up a situation where "teachers" were given the authority to "instruct" students. The student was part of the experiment, and acted out the role of a suffering victim. The teachers were told if the student could not remember the correct word of a word pair, they would to administer an electric shock. These shocks gradually increased in voltage. And the voltage numbers were accompanied by descriptive words indicating increasing levels of potential danger to the students. The most extreme voltage, 450 volts, was clearly marked that it could cause physical harm.

As the experiment went on and students failed to recall words, voltages were increased.

The experimenter, who was dressed in a lab coat and had the demeanor of a scientist, kept telling the teacher to "proceed with the experiment" in spite of the students' cries of pain. Nearly two-thirds of the teachers continued the electric shocks. The electric shocks were phony; the student was pretending to be in pain. But the teacher, who was the real subject of the experiment, was not told that the shocks were phony. Milgram found, to his astonishment, that most average everyday people would follow the directions and shock the students up to the maximum, despite audible cries of pain from the students and complaints that they wanted to stop.

Noting the cooperation of the teachers with the experiment, Milgram observed: "ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process." His comment that can be applied to bureaucrats was "Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose."

Dr. Zimbardo of Stanford devised a different experiment to test if people would engage in abusive behavior when they are given total control over others. His setup involved a mock prison built in the basement of a Stanford campus building. He divided volunteer college students into two groups: prisoners and prison guards. In just the first day the prison guards began to abuse the students. This abusive behavior manifested itself within hours. Dr. Zimbardo was so concerned for the psychological effects on the prisoners he had to discontinue the experiment in just six days. Like Milgram, Zimbardo concluded that when ordinary persons are given complete control over others they lose all sense of empathy for the suffering of others.

What the results of these experiments in situational ethics show, is that when an ordinary person achieves total control over another, they almost instantly become distant and unfeeling toward other people.

It's not that bad people work to achieve positions of control; being in a position of control makes people bad. Zimbardo called this "The Lucifer Effect." Decades later Dr. Zimbardo was consulted to explain the behavior of U.S. soldiers in the Abu Ghraib, prison, where Muslim prisoners were abused. He found that the U.S. soldiers were also acting under the same Lucifer effect.

Taxpayers in Cook County, Illinois don't need to hear about these experiments. They suffer the abuse of powerful bureaucrats every day. The treasurer of Cook County, Illinois, Maria Pappas, had the chutzpah to state that all households in the county "owe" the county $87,720 for the county employees' pensions and debt. This gives great financial stress to all homeowners and renters in the county, yet Pappas is so insensitive to the moral context of her behavior she has two office employees paid by taxpayers to be her servants: one is her personal chauffeur and the other her cleaning lady. When the Chicago Sun-Times revealed this abuse of taxpayer money she did not apologize, get rid of the servants, or resign. She feels no moral remorse.

The two experiments placed individuals who did not know each other in a situation where one person had total control over the other. They proved that in the absence of racial bias, personal hatred, or a history of conflict; one person could very quickly lose any sense of human respect for another. And when a government comes under the control of one person, and this one person makes all the judgments regarding taxation, spending, and war; terrible abuse has occurred. This is true of all societies throughout world history.

The U.S. Constitution was written with an understanding of this Lucifer effect: that one person should not have all political power.

In 2010 the nation learned that the city manager and council members of Bell, CA were abusing their public positions and improperly giving themselves pay increases. The city manager had increased his public salary to nearly $800K a year. The police chief also managed to work himself up to a salary of over $400K a year. When local residents, who pay for these salaries, began to complain, the first response of the government employees was to cut back on town meetings. They refused to meet with townspeople or listen to their valid complaints.

And unlike the heads of huge corporations with outrageous salaries, the city manager has the authority to force local residents to pay his salary through their property taxes. Corporate executives do not have the power to extort salaries through the threat to seize homes. This threat lies behind the ability of local government employees to tax property, which has become the primary source of public sector union wages and pensions. And local taxpayers have virtually no say in either the amount their homes are taxed or the terms of public union contracts. These are all inside deals given to the biggest campaign contributors and the most closely connected politicians and their families.

The city manager of Bell, CA is not unique. School boards and county tax assessors across the nation gleefully raised property taxes during the housing value boom of 1995-2008. But since 2007 as housing prices have drastically declined, property taxes have not declined but gone up faster than ever. The Tax Foundation reports that from 2005 to 2010 property taxes in the entire U.S. increased an average of 27 percent. And while facing higher property tax bills, middle class Americans lost 39 percent of their wealth from 2007 to 2010.

These tax increases cause great financial stress for homeowners throughout the U.S. In fact, as property taxes increased the income of the average working American fell 8.1% from 2007 to 2012.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between the spending and taxing policies of government officials and the ability of working Americans to pay taxes. The important question is why this insensitivity exists, why government officials abuse taxpayers as their incomes decline. Is this the manifestation of a greedy, megalomaniac personality, or is there something about being in a position of control that creates abusive behavior?

To understand this behavior two researchers, Dr. Phil Zimbardo of Stanford Univ. and Dr. Stanley Milgram of Yale Univ., designed experiments to put some people in control of others. These two experiments have been replicated by other researchers around the world and are well known today.

Milgram's experiments, performed in the early 1960s, tested the propensity of a person to abuse another with an "authority figure punishment" approach. He set up a situation where "teachers" were given the authority to "instruct" students. The student was part of the experiment, and acted out the role of a suffering victim. The teachers were told if the student could not remember the correct word of a word pair, they would to administer an electric shock. These shocks gradually increased in voltage. And the voltage numbers were accompanied by descriptive words indicating increasing levels of potential danger to the students. The most extreme voltage, 450 volts, was clearly marked that it could cause physical harm.

As the experiment went on and students failed to recall words, voltages were increased.

The experimenter, who was dressed in a lab coat and had the demeanor of a scientist, kept telling the teacher to "proceed with the experiment" in spite of the students' cries of pain. Nearly two-thirds of the teachers continued the electric shocks. The electric shocks were phony; the student was pretending to be in pain. But the teacher, who was the real subject of the experiment, was not told that the shocks were phony. Milgram found, to his astonishment, that most average everyday people would follow the directions and shock the students up to the maximum, despite audible cries of pain from the students and complaints that they wanted to stop.

Noting the cooperation of the teachers with the experiment, Milgram observed: "ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process." His comment that can be applied to bureaucrats was "Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose."

Dr. Zimbardo of Stanford devised a different experiment to test if people would engage in abusive behavior when they are given total control over others. His setup involved a mock prison built in the basement of a Stanford campus building. He divided volunteer college students into two groups: prisoners and prison guards. In just the first day the prison guards began to abuse the students. This abusive behavior manifested itself within hours. Dr. Zimbardo was so concerned for the psychological effects on the prisoners he had to discontinue the experiment in just six days. Like Milgram, Zimbardo concluded that when ordinary persons are given complete control over others they lose all sense of empathy for the suffering of others.

What the results of these experiments in situational ethics show, is that when an ordinary person achieves total control over another, they almost instantly become distant and unfeeling toward other people.

It's not that bad people work to achieve positions of control; being in a position of control makes people bad. Zimbardo called this "The Lucifer Effect." Decades later Dr. Zimbardo was consulted to explain the behavior of U.S. soldiers in the Abu Ghraib, prison, where Muslim prisoners were abused. He found that the U.S. soldiers were also acting under the same Lucifer effect.

Taxpayers in Cook County, Illinois don't need to hear about these experiments. They suffer the abuse of powerful bureaucrats every day. The treasurer of Cook County, Illinois, Maria Pappas, had the chutzpah to state that all households in the county "owe" the county $87,720 for the county employees' pensions and debt. This gives great financial stress to all homeowners and renters in the county, yet Pappas is so insensitive to the moral context of her behavior she has two office employees paid by taxpayers to be her servants: one is her personal chauffeur and the other her cleaning lady. When the Chicago Sun-Times revealed this abuse of taxpayer money she did not apologize, get rid of the servants, or resign. She feels no moral remorse.

The two experiments placed individuals who did not know each other in a situation where one person had total control over the other. They proved that in the absence of racial bias, personal hatred, or a history of conflict; one person could very quickly lose any sense of human respect for another. And when a government comes under the control of one person, and this one person makes all the judgments regarding taxation, spending, and war; terrible abuse has occurred. This is true of all societies throughout world history.

The U.S. Constitution was written with an understanding of this Lucifer effect: that one person should not have all political power.