Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Happy Tax Day

Shifter here. Tax day is such a touchy subject that I need a disclaimer.

This post may piss some people off. If so, my apologies - I'm not trying to piss you off. I'm ranting a bit, but not to piss you off. Just ranting here. I've got a few facts here and there but this is mostly opinion, so take it for what it's worth. Also, I haven't discussed this with Katy, so if you hate it, it's all me, not her :o)

It seems appropriate, on this, the 15th of April, when Americans everywhere are paying taxes and complaining about it, to pause and reflect on those selfsame taxes. Americans simply love to complain about taxes. Have you noticed that? I mean if you want to get people going, talk about taxes. If you want to mobilize a voting block, talk about taxes. If you want to eat up hours of television or air time, talk about taxes. If you want to annoy the hell out of me ... you get the picture.

What bugs me about complaining about taxes is not that I think they should not be discussed. On the contrary. Taxes are a primary means of both facilitating the will of the government (by collecting resources that fund it) and of implementing that self same will (by preferentially helping or hindering segments of society through tax breaks or increased taxes). In a democracy, where presumably people have some direct influence on who is in the government, and consequently an indirect influence on what is taxed and how taxes are spent, taxes thus represent an expression of the will of the people. They are one of the main ways that we contribute to society as a whole. So of course, they should absolutely be discussed, scrutinized, analyzed, and periodically reformed as needed. We should study them and find if we approve or disapprove of how the government is expressing our will. I often don't approve, but that's not the point of this post.

What I object to, as you can already tell from my preceding sentences, is the idea that taxes represent some form of theft, from individuals, by the government. That idea seems ridiculous to me if you believe we live in a democracy. Oddly enough the same people who are the most shrill about how glorious American democracy is are also the most strident in their yelling about taxes. If democracy is as wonderful as you say, then aren't taxes an implementation of your will? If that's the case, what are you whining about? How else do you think a society will take care of itself, both on an internal and external front? Guess what part of government eats up the largest part of our tax dollars? It isn't welfare. It isn't social security. It's foreign affairs, including national defense. Yup, the armed forces. The same people who yell the loudest about taxes are also the people who yell the loudest about needing a strong armed forces. Isn't that a little inconsistent? Those same people also yell the loudest about cutting programs that are, for the most part, a relatively small part of the national budget. To me, paying taxes isn't being robbed - it's being responsible. Paying for services and caring for others. It's easy to hate the government, and mistrust it, but what corporation do you want to trust to police your streets, secure your borders, safeguard public health, (I'm having to stretch to type this next one) regulate your markets? I'm not saying the government does a great job for this, but I'm questioning the idea that we should expect it to be done for free, or that "private industry" could magically do it all better, cheaper, and more dependably. If Wallstreet has shown us nothing else, it's that the market does not always lead to the most reliable outcome.

The whole tax debate gets even more ridiculous. When I was in undergrad, back in the 1990s, the US had some of the lowest tax rates in the industrialized world. The lowest. And people complained. Since then a lot of things have changed. But that hasn't. In 2000 we continued to be in the lower end of the spectrum. Then, under Bush, we cut them. So guess what, we spend lots less on taxes than other countries. At the same time, we have the largest and most advanced military in the world. Which ain't cheap. So why are we all complaining?

I guess there are loads of answers to that - some of which are good and some that aren't. One reason is I think most of us are misinformed. People are really surprised when I suggest we have a low tax rate. They're just stunned. That's a bad reason. People also feel out of touch with the government, that they have no say in what is happening - that's unfortunate but it makes sense to me as a reason. And people are worried about spending a lot of money when the government doesn't have a lot. That's a great reason. The only problem with that in the context of a tax debate is that it just seems to me one responsible thing to do about that is to .... raise taxes.

Thanks for listening to the rant. I'll keep the politics down in the next few posts :o)

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