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Thoughts on Tax Day: I get email

April 15, 2012

I remember, with some shame and regret, when we all followed Ronnie Reagan as he said; “Government is not the solution, government is the problem!” Now our country is in debt the likes of which Reagan never imagined, and there is more stratification of wealth than ever. (For those of you just tuning in to our program, this is not a good thing)

Government is the corporation of the people, for the management and protection of the commons. Government and the free market each have their best theater of action: government does what the free market can’t, or what it won’t, when there isn’t a fast buck to be made. Government is precisely the solution for those problems where we need to pull together for the common good. ¬†Unfortunately Reagan’s famous slogan has become a religion fanatically supported by corporations, Conservative think-tanks, and media outlets to the point where it churns out planet-sized absurdities.

It is no accident that there are many examples of government ineptitude. When large chunks of government are controlled by people who hold exclusionary religious faith in the Free Market, there are bound to be spectacular failures. There are also many examples of amazing government successes, achieved by people who believed it could be done, needed to be done, and that a public enterprise was the way to get it done. The commons is not in opposition to the Free Market; it is the foundation of it. If we believe in our country we will be willing to invest in it, and we will see that it is run by people who believe in it – and we will exclude leaders who want to strip-mine it for the few at the expense of the many.

Just got this email from Kent Ashcraft:

Friends,

How many of you consider yourselves patriotic? I don’t mean in the flag-waving sense; I mean in the original sense of the original patriots. I’m talking about the World War II sense, in which Americans went without most luxuries for years for the good of the nation, or the JFK sense of “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Since today is the infamous April 15, I think this is a subject worth exploring.

This great nation of ours is supported through tax dollars. Without taxes, there would be no United States of America. Yet the subject of taxes is the nastiest and most contentious one in our public discourse. It’s natural, of course, to argue about the specifics of taxes and how the revenue should be allocated, but today there seems to be a widespread mindset that taxes are generally evil, that they constitute punishment, that they suck our hard-earned money down some government black hole never to be seen again. This viewpoint is evident in the fact that political candidates must always promise tax breaks, whether they can provide them once in office or not, as a requirement of getting elected. It’s not a partisan problem – even Democratic candidates won’t propose raising taxes (except on the ultra-wealthy). It’s an American attitude problem.

I propose we would be better off if collectively we changed our view of taxation from a negative to a positive one. That’s not at all radical if we believe we have the greatest system of government in the world – we should consider it a privilege to financially support it, not a punishment. So how have we come from the shared sacrifice of the 1940s to the “me generation” of American history?

Part of the problem is what I call “lifestyle creep.” In 2001, taxes were significantly cut for most Americans. The prudent thing for American families to have done would have been to save at least part of that windfall against the likelihood that taxes would go back up in the future, not to exclaim, “Honey, now we can afford those granite countertops!” But a sense of entitlement is easily acquired and difficult to shed. People traded in their Toyotas for Lexuses without thinking how it would feel to have to do the reverse. For a family stretched to the limit on their mortgage, of course a tax hike is going to hurt, but maybe the time to think about that should have been before they stretched themselves to the limit on their mortgage. Just sayin’.

Of course there are always those who claim the solution to deficits is to cut spending rather than raise taxes. That sounds fine in theory, but everyone wants spending cut in different areas, namely the ones that don’t personally affect them. Do you want deep cuts in defense spending? Bet you’re not in the military. To abolish the Department of Education? Bet you don’t have kids in public school. To trim Medicare and Medicaid? Bet you don’t depend on either of them. With all the competing interests involved, it’s no wonder that as a practical matter, overall spending is very difficult to cut.

We need to stop “looking out for number one,” and start considering the needs of the real number one: Our country, which is deeply in debt. When more Americans return to the self-sacrificing patriotism we used to practice, perhaps I’ll return to the flag-waving variety, but not before.

- Kent Ashcraft

What do you think?
NOTES:
  • Take a look at this visualization of our national budget. Go full screen and be sure to zoom in for small details. Spend some time exploring. (And as an aside I might note that we spend as much on defense as the next nineteen countries combined. But Ashcraft is right that, as a practical matter, cutting that pathological excess down to size is nearly impossible. It doesn’t mean we should stop tracking bird flu or fixing bridges to make room for it. If we paid for things in real time perhaps we’d find a sense of priorities.)
    data visualization (fragment) of the US federal budget
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