Spend a half hour with Thomas Wright and you begin to think you will find his picture in the dictionary, right next to the word "indefatigable."
Wright is the national spokesman for the "FairTax," a clever name for the movement that would replace nearly all current federal taxes with a national sales tax of about 23 percent. Armed with an authoritative radio voice and a polished array of studies and figures, he has been at it for 18 years now all on his own dime. In real life, he is the managing director of Emory Capital Management in Clearwater, Fla. But he is well-acquainted with airplanes and hotel rooms, all for the cause.
When he visited the newspaper's editorial board last week, Wright brought his 15-year-old son with him, part of a trip to a Boy Scout project in California. But there may have been a more personal reason.
"I've been at it 18 years. He's 15," Wright said. "He's more accustomed to hearing me on the radio than having me at breakfast."
Such is the life of a crusader.
The national sales tax would replace personal and corporate income taxes, unemployment tax, Social Security and Medicare taxes, estate tax, gift tax, the much-debated alternative minimum tax, as well as taxes on capital gains, lottery winnings, self-employment earnings and probably a lot of other things I can't think of. The only things it wouldn't replace are federal excise taxes and tariffs.
Your paycheck would have no deductions, other than for health-insurance premiums and state taxes. IRS agents would go the way of typewriter salesmen. And everything would cost at least 23 percent more than the list price plus whatever sales tax percentage your state and local governments charge.
I've been at this long enough to know that every tax-reform proposal considers itself fair but that there may not be such a thing. The way Wright describes it, a national sales tax would allow businesses and manufacturers to greatly reduce the price of goods and services. That's because only retail sales would be taxed, not transactions for business purposes.
"Only people pay taxes," he says by way of explanation. "Tax dollars always come out of a person's pockets." Once people understand they get much more in take-home pay, he says, they are eager to climb aboard.
But the problem is, the new tax would apply to a lot of things that currently are not taxed. Take prescription drugs, for instance, or your co-pay when you visit the doctor. Food would not be exempt. When you close on your new $300,000 house, it would cost $69,000 more.
To keep the poor from suffering, the plan would provide a monthly "prebate" check to reimburse taxes for life's basic necessities. But these would be sent to everyone, regardless of income. Meanwhile, the elderly, who now generally pay little in income taxes, suddenly would pay a lot in sales tax.
Oh, and there is one other little detail the 16th Amendment. That's the one that made income tax legal. Wright would repeal it; otherwise, Congress would be tempted to use it in addition to the sales tax. Without a prohibition-type groundswell, that won't happen.
Wright was in town to speak to members of the Utah Legislature studying ways to reform the tax system. He admits the FairTax works best on a federal level, but he's encouraged that a number of states currently are studying it.
In fact, he's encouraged by a lot of things. Sure, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thinks the idea is a right-wing oddity that deserves no attention. Sure, Democrats are expected to gain more seats in Congress this fall.
But Wright is, well, indefatigable.
"I'm in the sweet spot," he said. "I don't care who's the president, and I don't care where Congress is. There's always another congressman that our grass roots will go after. We do this through the grass roots, and at the end of the day, the grass-roots voters are more important and more influential than the best-heeled lobbyists."
And when he gets too old for the fight?