Friday, December 3, 2010


My nurture years were spent in Europe, pre-, during, and post-World War II. This might explain the gap between my understanding of the nature of a common social responsibility and the American abhorrence of taxes. Well, actually, I'd be happy not to have to pay them, too, but I do see it as my needed contribution to the common weal. I have no children in school, so there's no immediate apparent value to myself in paying my share to support our education system; but if I look just a little bit further than my nose, I'll see that failure to adequately support our education system does indeed affect the quality of my life. It means, for one thing, that I have to pay more to support what I'm told is the biggest industry in California today: the prisons. It means a lesser ability for our country to compete in world markets, with a consequent loss of jobs. It means that our young people are increasingly less well equipped with the intellectual skills needed for those jobs. And so on.

I might also mention things like the social safety net that's needed to ward off abject poverty; a humane and workable health care system; an efficiently working infrastructure, including a transportation system adequate to our needs; a criminal and civil justice system. I won't mention the military. These things are necessary to assure the smooth functioning of a contemporary society.

In my limited understanding of our federal budget--based on what I read--the money that could be saved by cuts to non-essential services and programs is relatively small in the overall scheme of things. The tax revolt that started in California in the early 197os, and which brought us Ronald Reagan, has succeeded on the one hand in creating unrealistic expectations among voters, and on the other in depleting revenues to such an extent that our national economy is now in a dreadful mess. It seems quite clear to me that we won't get out of the mess until we change our collective minds about taxes.

For most of us, I suspect, a reversion to the pre-Bush tax cut era would make a relatively small difference in our annual household budget. It might hurt a bit, but isn't some sacrifice called for at this moment of crisis? It's the idea of paying taxes that plays out so unacceptably in the the public mind. However, in an economy that really does need to get moving again, I see the good sense in extending the cuts to benefit those who would immediately churn their savings back into the daily grist for the economic mill. Is this true of those whose annual net income is more that a quarter of a million dollars--that's more than twenty thousand a month? Does the majority of small business owners who are touted as the job-creators net that kind of personal income? I suspect not. It seems to me in my ignorance, then, that a reasonable tax increase on just that portion of income that exceeds the quarter million would be a perfectly reasonable place to start. (Okay, I'm nowhere near that category, so maybe I'm a bit biased! It seems stratospheric to me.)

The rhetoric I'm hearing at this moment is much about what the American electorate meant by their vote in the November election. Republicans choose to believe they were mandated primarily to preserve tax cuts. I'm thinking that the vote had more to do with cutting the deficit. The estimated $700 billion savings that would result from suspending the Bush-era tax cuts for the very wealthy would seem like a good first step...

It's our minds we need to change as much as anything. Or perhaps simply rediscover this lost resource. It's our sense of who we are as a community of peoples, and our obligation to each other--even if it's only in our self-interest. Do we really want to cling desperately to our small tax benefit? Or do we want to live in a thriving, creative, just society in which everyone has an equal opportunity to make what they will of their lives? I thought that was what the "American Dream" was all about, but now it just seems to be about money.


Kara Rane said...

Hi Peter-
I agree with some of your tax ideals (see Sweden's example) but in the U.S. I get frustrated when so much money is spent on the military (these statistics are SCARY) and -since you mention it - prisons!
Please note, many countries do not have a system of luxury lifestyle for their inmates. In some (India, Thailand), if you do not have family/friends bring you food -then you may not eat. This is terrible if you are an innocent but just if you are a rapist, violent criminal, murderer,etc..
And having lived in the Caribbean- I have seen the over-reaching expenditure of the U.S. tax dollar to support ?Puerto Rico?.
And what about the arts! When you compare arts funding worldwide, the U.S. funds are comparable to a third world country like S.Africa (these alarming numbers are in the sept.2010 Modern Painters mag.)
No offense, but the younger generations will not benefit from this current system of wrong tax dollar spending.

PeterAtLarge said...

No offense, indeed, Kara! I welcome your comments. I too am deeply distressed by the amount money that goes to the military, and to war. And I share your regret that we do so little to support the arts. Our priorities do seem badly skewed. That said, I do believe we need to be more realistic in the way we think about taxes, as well as about spending. Thanks for checking in...