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Sid Taylor, 1914-2012 - An Appreciation

by Pete Sepp / /

     On my very first day with National Taxpayers Union back in 1988, I was unable to meet our Research Director Sid Taylor in person because he was doing off-site data analysis. In the pre-Internet, pre-voicemail age, one administrative task I had was taking phone messages on an old-fashioned carbon-paper pad. So, I first got to know Sid through the people who called for him, and I was immediately intrigued by the eclectic bunch who sought him out – an Air Force budget liaison, a Department of Labor statistician, a U.S. Congressman from Indiana, and … a reporter with the National Enquirer. Given this list of callers, I knew that I was in for a fascinating experience in talking with Sid himself. Two days later, when he returned to the office, I wasn’t disappointed.  And I never was, each time we spoke in the years that followed.

     He would regale all of us with his experiences in the U.S. Army, beginning with boot camp, where he was issued a coat he said had been “mustard-gassed” in World War I. He knew Clark Gable when serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces, and, later, braved briefing sessions with cigar-chomping U.S. Air Force Generals whose disapproving glances had sidetracked many a young officer’s military career. It was in this crucible where Sid fully developed a skill that would benefit NTU’s fiscal policy agenda time and again – being able to boil down extremely complex issues into presentations that were both understandable and digestible. One of his trademarks became an oversized chart showing in stark green and red bars the federal budget surpluses and deficits under various Presidents serving after World War II.

     Of course, one problem he encountered in later years (for his own chart and NTU’s version on ledger-sized paper) was that the deficits became so large they were impossible to depict in proper scale; profligate spending had overtaken the capacity of an 11x17 sheet of paper, or a posterboard.

     But lest anyone think Sid was merely a man of numbers, he could turn a phrase with the best of them too, in the days when doing so required more effort than an Internet search. A sample of “Sid-isms” includes:

“Deficit Spending Is Bankruptcy Pending”

“Red Tape Makes Red Ink”

“Double-Dipping” (a term Sid popularized through regular releases of data showing federal employees receiving dual or multiple forms of compensation)

“Washington Wonderland” (The title of Sid’s often-anticipated columns on wasteful government practices)

“When Outgo Exceeds Income, Upkeep Ensures Downfall”

“SYSIM – System Simplification”

“Let’s Oppose Stupid Expenditures” (LOSE)

     The last entry was among NTU’s most brilliant pithy responses to any of the government’s P-R efforts (in this case, the Ford Administration’s “Whip Inflation Now” (WIN) initiative).

     Still, it would be a mistake to attribute Sid’s successes simply to a knack for concision. Behind the brevity was a much weightier contribution involving the same formula of blood, sweat, and tears that goes into number-crunching today. But unlike now, where the aggravation and exertion often take place online, Sid’s efforts primarily involved wading through stacks of dusty government reports unseen by other human beings except the authors, navigating bureaucratic phone trees for hours to obtain the answer to a single question, and pounding on the buttons of calculators whose screens couldn’t depict nine-digit numbers, much less twelve-digit ones.

     The results of his labors could be spectacularly novel as well as motivational. One example was the Taxpayers’ Liability Index, a multi-trillion-dollar compilation of government’s commitments beyond the national debt. These were far-sighted and frightening numbers at a time when, to the general public, “unfunded liabilities” were as foreign as mobile phones or microwave popcorn.

     In addition to these quantitative undertakings, Sid brought qualitative benefits to NTU’s culture that last to this day, including an appreciation for outside-the-box ideas, an abiding dislike (but persistent attitude) for navigating bureaucracies, and a focus on changing systems rather than just their elements. While Sid’s pre-NTU profession of systems analysis had many colleagues, far fewer in number were dedicated “systemists” who looked outside their immediate field to apply their principles toward improving all kinds of institutions. Fewer still in the upper echelons of government had even heard of the concept. This was Sid’s forte.

     It seems like barely a few years – five? seven? – when Sid Taylor went from being semi- to fully-retired as NTU’s Research Director. But his legacy to our movement, as a systemist and futurist, will be lasting. Today, our thoughts and fond remembrances go out to Sid’s family members as his funeral service concludes. We will miss him for his wit, wisdom, and incomparably elegant dancing moves.