Darien finance chairman writes ‘Animal Farm’ sequel

DARIEN — Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky is known for witty speeches and his comments aimed at the state government, which he has characterized as having “problems of cartoon-like proportions.”

Poking fun at the government is nothing new for Zagrodzky. In 2007, he wrote a satire explaining his arguments for a single-rate tax, an asset tax and a balanced budget.

“The Rats are in the Cheese: One Hedgehog’s Political Journey,” a sequel to George Orwell’s allegorical “Animal Farm,” tells the story of a world where animals settle in the seemingly idyllic Freedom Island, where the currency is cheese, only to face the all-too-real problems of constructing a viable system of government.

The author’s interest in the tax system and reform was sparked from a moment he shared with his father, Russell, during Gerald Ford’s presidency in the 1970s.

“I remember my father being upset because Nelson Rockefeller, vice president under Gerald Ford, had paid less in taxes than my father and at a lower percentage rate. That was an example of how rich people manipulated their affairs and taxable income to avoid paying taxes,” Zagrodzky said.

Zagrodzky portrays a reformist spirit in Hedgehog, the main character of the book, who owns a small shop, but loses it due to increasing taxation when special interests and lobbyists push for burdensome regulation to stifle competition. Hedgehog’s motivations to reform the tax system pair him up with Connector Mouse, a network-savvy individual, and Professor Wonk, an economist. The trio eventually come up with a plan to repair the tax system, ideas that reflect Zagrodzky’s thinking.

Their solutions include: a rule that requires spending to be matched by taxes, a single-rate income tax to replace all taxes to the top 85 percent above a certain income level and an asset tax applied to the top 10 percent.

Following a vein similar to “Animal Farm,” the book shows how characters like Politico Rat, who start out as idealistic and hopeful, eventually become part of the very system they set out to change. The powerful sweet-talk the politicians, the media becomes too cozy with government officials and the wealthy avoid taxes. These influences are represented through characters with self-explanatory names like Biz Rat, a large-business owner, and Rich Rat, the wealthiest rat in the island.

Throughout the book, the inhabitants of Freedom Island argue they are not becoming “another Animal Farm,” yet this “sequel” is more a subtle warning of how democracy can be eroded when a tax system is abused by those in power and with wealth.

Though the book is 10 years old, the federal tax reform bill passed this month, which lowers the corporate tax rate to around 21 percent, demonstrates the debate regarding taxation.

“The real reason behind the tax bill that just passed is that it’s trying to equal taxes on businesses in the United States with the taxes on businesses in other countries,” Zagrodzky said. “It relates to (President Donald) Trump trying to bring jobs back by lowering the corporate tax rate.”

Though Zagrodzky would prefer a single-rate tax, he believes making American businesses more competitive is “a start.”

“The Rats are in the Cheese” took Zagrodzky about six months to write. The ending where Hedgehog and his group of idealistic reformers spot the members of the political establishment whispering about them is meant to end as a cliffhanger. Asked about a possible sequel, Zagrodzky does not dispel the idea that Hedgehog himself may become corrupt, as other characters in the novel did.

“There’s always a risk that someone may be corrupted, but I fully intend to show how Hedgehog carries out his plan,” Zagrodzky said.

Despite the changes in the federal government and the overdue budget at the state level, Zagrodzky believes preparation at the local government could amount to changes in a bottom-up approach.

“We have to turn the attitude regarding the state government around. At the local level, we have a positive outlook and we’re managing pretty well. What’s worrying people is the perception of the state, but if we can do well at the local level, we could carry that on,” the Darien resident said.

“If tax reform were easy, we would’ve done it a long time ago,” Zagrodzky said. “There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers and those are hard to corrupt.”