More Dogs on Main Street
April 17, 2009
Filing my tax returns was pretty painless this year. For the first time in many years, my quarterly estimates (read "wild guess on income") were higher than what I owed. So instead of selling a kidney on eBay, I have money coming back or applied against 2009. There’s a silver lining in the new Great Depression. Whack your income and the tax bill goes down. I feel better already.
Of course, that doesn’t change the basic fact that the country is bankrupt, or that the tax code is a collection of special favors that just reeks of corruption. Every paragraph in there is some Congressman paying off a contributor with a minor tweak of the code that saved somebody millions that the rest of us will be paying instead. Or, to be accurate, putting on the national credit card.
Actually, since the federal government is spending a lot more than it takes in, it’s like we are getting a big discount on everything they do. They take in a buck in revenue, and spend a buck thirty on programs and services. It’s like a big sale at Walmart. "National Parks 30% off!" "Buy one war, get a second one free!" "Hip replacements for the elderly marked down for quick sale!" Of course it can’t go on like that. We’re in a period of sort of astounding federal spending to try to breathe some life into the general economy, but sooner or later, that has to stop. We’re on one of those interest-only loans, and one of these days, the Chinese will expect to get paid back in full. We ain’t got it. I don’t care who is president or which party controls Congress. Our taxes are going up.
All over the country there have been "tea parties" of Fox News viewers protesting taxes. The participants drove there on federally funded highways, or rode on federally subsidized mass transit. They filled their gas tanks with oil that got here in tankers defended from pirates by Navy Seals. Their pickups are safer to drive because they have federally mandated air bags in them, and cheaper to operate because of (modest) federal fuel economy standards. The air they are shouting in is cleaner because of federal regulations on pollution. They can stand out on the public square in front of courthouses that exist to protect their rights to assemble and speak freely. If they happen to be over 65, they paid for their doughnuts with Social Security checks, and their heart bypass surgery will be paid for by Medicare. God, no wonder they’re so angry.
The Republicans are simply unable to see the connection between taxation and government services. No serious Republican has suggested eliminating Social Security or Medicare. None of them runs for office on a platform of abandoning the interstate highway system or shutting down air-traffic control. More spending on weapons systems? No problem. But apparently they don’t think we should have to pay for any of it. There is no problem the U.S. has ever faced that the Republicans can’t solve with a tax cut. So they have organized these phony protests to demand higher deficits. They are protesting the tax rates set by the Republicans, by the way nothing Obama has proposed shows up on your 2008 tax return.
None of the outrage is demanding reduced services. The picket signs don’t say, "Let Granny starve," or, "I want unsafe medication." But when we are already spending about 30 percent more than we take in to provide services, that’s what lower taxes has to mean.
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I’d love to pay less. Government isn’t a model of efficiency, whether it’s five guys and a half million dollars of machinery filling one pothole, or contractors looting billions in Iraq. But it’s wrong to equate the effectiveness of the services provided with the services themselves. Government provides services that we rely on clean water, clean air, a civil society, roads, and on and on. Somebody has to pay for it.
There’s plenty of reason to be rioting in the streets. After a generation of complete irresponsibility when it comes to managing the nation’s finances, things are caving in all around us. To provide the level of service we all have come to expect, we have been living beyond our means. Congress has failed in its primary responsibility. The hard choices ahead will reshape our society for the next couple of generations. We either have to agree to get by with less, or we will have to pay more. Most likely, we will have to do a lot of both.
If the tax protesters gathered in the village squares all over the country were really honest about what they want, their picket signs would read, "Tax my kids!"
Tom Clyde served as Park City attorney in the 1980s and is the author of "More Dogs On Main Street." He has been a columnist at The Park Record for more than 20 years.