Sunday, September 26, 2004

This is What I'm Talking About

Over at the American Prospect blog Tapped, there is the following observation today:

"It seems clear that the most important and difficult long-term task facing liberals -- and, really, anyone else interested in returning even the slightest semblance of sanity to American policymaking -- is to begin the work of reversing thirty years of conservative tax revolt dogma."

Truer words ain't been spoken in some time. I think I know the secret path to reversing this idiocy. The core concept is value. Governmental value. The root cause of the public's fear of taxes is the completely erroneous belief that money paid to the government as taxes is money just plain wasted, thrown down the drain. This perception is strongly re-inforced by the way most people are introduced to the tax system: when kids or young adults get that first real paycheck, they see the list of all the various deductions, Fed, FICA, NYS DIS/SU, etc. And they can easily see just how much of what they thought they'd get ("Let's see, 40 hours, $10 an hour, ought otbe about $400 bucks...") goes to taxes.

So we make a big deal out of clearly explaining to people -- generally no less than every two weeks -- that their labor is the primary economic engine of some distant and unconnected thing called The Government. (Apart from keeping score of this grating math, I suspect there is not much other purpose to the bi-weekly distribution of reports of deposits that people get in lieu of paychecks these days).

What we almost never do is the other side of the very same ledger: when people receive government benefits, there is almost no effort made to document in dollars and cents just what people have received. For example, no one receives a statement at the end of every month saying that the federal government has provided national security services costing $38.75. No report from the state of New York saying that the cost of providing the various subway and bus rides, use of the roadways, and other transportation infrastructure comes to $14.21. Nothing from the City of New York (I can't help capitalizing that one!) saying police, fire, sewage, garbage and caring for our young people and providing them with a modest education cost $9.52.

And therein, folks, lies the problem. There is a carefully calibrated system of making sure you knowjust how much you're paying in. And there is almost no system to ensure that you are aare of how much you're taking out. To get Americans back on the bandwagon in terms of adequate public spending (and I can't believe that we haven't fallen way behind the rest of our well-to-do peers), our leaders must begin to help Americans see the value of the government services they receive. Like this: "Like clean air? Clean water? How about pure, unadulterated meat? What about the fact that in our nation, children are not allowed to work in factories. Or that you can rest assured that businesses you interact with meet minimum standards of fair-dealing? If you like these things, then pay your taxes!" I suspect that if most Americans knew the actual cost to them on a monthly basis, of various programs, they'd be more than happy to pay. (Kind of like thinking, "I can't really afford that new plasma TV at $3000, but for just $64 a month, why hell! Why not!") What if we asked Americans if it would be worth it to them to double the number of teachers in our schools, and double the pay of the top half of those teachers? If the answer was, "just $38.56 a year," I think nearly everyone would jump at it. "If you gave up your Starbucks for just one month, we could afford to send every deserving child to the best school they could get into on merit -- all schools would have needs-blind admission." I think that's an easy sell, and the way out of the idiotic tax neurosis the Repubs have sold so well to so many. Most people complain about their taxes, but the truth is that government services are a good value, and that the government is an apparopriate vehicle for us to advance the quality of our citizens lives and ultimately the lives of our fellow humans around the world.

There. Now we've got that sorted.

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