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WWTJD? Thomas Jefferson Weighs in on Modern-Day Economic Issues

June 20, 2018

Don’t let anyone tell you the VSCPA can’t attract big-name speakers. That’s right — we got tax expert and VSCPA member Art Auerbach, CPA, to present on economic issues affecting the United States in 2015. And you might have heard of his sidekick, a man by the name of Thomas Jefferson.

Before you go talking about issues like “death,” it’s actually Bill Barker, a Colonial Williamsburg employee who happens to bear a striking resemblance to our third president. He and Auerbach squared off in an economic debate at the VSCPA’s Business & Industry Conference (BIC) session “Historical Mapping — Thomas Jefferson and Art Auerbach Debate the Economy — Then and Now.” So there were two people in the room at the Williamsburg Lodge who know as much about Jefferson as anyone.

“The very first time I did this, I can’t tell you how much money I spent,” said Auerbach, who has now debated “Jefferson” five times. “I bought every book I could find on Jefferson. I probably know about as much about Jefferson as he does.”

The aim of the session was to demonstrate that today’s economic issues are nothing the country hasn’t seen before. Wealth inequality between the rich and poor, gridlock and inactivity in Congress — it’s old hat to Jefferson.

Corporate tax loopholes are another issue from Jefferson’s day that has cropped up in recent years. Auerbach and Barker used a the example of the Boston Tea Party to illustrate that loopholes aren’t a new phenomenon.

“It had nothing to do with the British government versus the colonists,” Auerbach said. “It was really a corporate loophole for the East India Trade Company. So I’m going to ask him about loopholes. That’s a big issue today — Congress closing loopholes. That was one of the first loopholes America encountered. We’re talking today about loopholes favoring corporations, and here’s one that came about before the Constitution.”

The session also touched on the contradictions inherent in Jefferson’s character. He cautioned against public debt, but created a major source of debt by spearheading the Louisiana Purchase. And he had a great deal of personal debt, which he resolved by selling his personal library to the federal government, resulting in a major expansion to the Library of Congress.

Auerbach and Barker also touched on issues specific to Jefferson’s day, particularly as they related to the initial formation of the country.

“In his time, it was pretty much the industrial North against the agricultural South,” Auerbach said. “To get the 13 colonies on the same page took a lot of effort. In the Southern colonies, Virginia and south, there was not a lot of industry, and everything that came about started with seaports. Charleston, New York, Norfolk, Boston, those were the economic hubs of the country. You went 15 miles inland, you were in the woods.”

And, of course, technology is a major change from the era of the Founding Fathers. Auerbach and Barker got some laughs out of that issue by allowing attendees to take selfies with “Jefferson,” but they backed it up with a salient point about the rapid spread of information.

“Put this into perspective. I’m representing modern times,” Auerbach said. “If you record this with your phone, you can put it up on YouTube or Facebook or another vehicle, and instantly, a bunch of people will have it. Jefferson would say something, and then, depending on if someone wrote it down correctly, it would be two or three days before someone in Georgia heard about it.”

Of course, a major reason for the session’s popularity — this marked the third time Auerbach and Barker have squared off at BIC — is the care and attention to detail Barker puts into his character. He majored in history and drama at the College of William & Mary and then signed on with Colonial Williamsburg after he graduated. His contract stipulates that he can only appear in character at Colonial Williamsburg or Monticello, Jefferson’s estate outside Charlottesville.

“He looks exactly like Jefferson,” Auerbach said. “Same height, same facial shape, same skin tone and color. It’s like you’re looking at a double.”

That resemblance makes it hit home that much harder when Barker discusses issues relevant to today’s economy, whether through similar issues from his day or by contrasting the economic and political climate of the two eras.

One major difference between today and the early days of the country is the issue of federalism. When Jefferson was elected president, each state had its own bank, and he worked with Alexander Hamilton to establish the national bank of the United States, a precursor to the U.S. Federal Reserve. Even the nationwide currency system, taken as a foregone conclusion by generation upon generation, was a major accomplishment from Jefferson’s era.

“Can you imagine if each of the states had their own banking system and you had to equate a dollar in Virginia to a dollar in Pennsylvania?” Auerbach asked.

Today, the federal vs. state issue crops up in the form of tax nexus, the way taxes apply to people and companies doing business across state lines. While the issue of powers allocated to the federal government and the states is a debate that continues to this day, Auerbach likes to point out the simplicity of a top-down approach.

“The question you want to ask the people who are there or anybody who is a CPA is, ‘Would you like 51 state rules or one federal rule? Which would you rather be doing?’” he said.

The main takeaway Auerbach and Barker stress in their debates is the importance of citizens taking responsibility for the state of government.

“The last one we did, I said, ‘Congress is locked in a bunch of inactivity and they can’t get anything done. What is the problem here? How can we fix this?’” Auerbach said. “And in his dramatic pose, he looked to me with a rather wry smile on his face and turned to the audience sitting there and asked, ‘How did you let this happen? Congress is elected by you? If there’s inactivity in Congress, how did you let this happen?’ And in actuality, he’s absolutely right.” 

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