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Benjamin R. Barber Headshot

No Representation Without Taxation!

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Erskine Bowles, co chair with Alan Simpson of the president's fiscal commission, has announced with stupefying self-satisfaction that whatever the legislative outcome, "We've won big: The era of deficit denial in Washington is over." Enjoying the victory, Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Kyl have written to Majority Leader Harry Reid saying they will permit no business to proceed in the Senate unless the Bush tax breaks for the rich are extended.

Deficit denial may be over, but tax denial is reaching warp speed. Bowles and Simpson address the deficit first of all by proposing more tax cuts. America's deficit crisis has been presented as a puzzle that can be solved only through zero-sum spending cuts. Can't do a thing with revenues, that would require taxation. Yet, truth is, the deficit crisis and the Social Security crisis and the Medicare crisis and the jobs crisis and the stimulus crisis can all be solved without cutting a single dollar from the budget: Just (don't gag when you say it)... R... R... RAISE TAXES!

Yes, to be sure, first of all, on the wealthy. Letting tax rates for those making more than $250,000 a year return from 35 percent back to 39.5 percent is common sense in a country where 98 percent of the people make less (far less!) than that. But this is not just about "tax the rich." It is about "tax ourselves!" Tax carbon (fossil fuel), tax sin stuff like cigarettes and alcohol, tax inheritance -- if only on legacies a million bucks (that's another no-brainer) and tax financial transactions (one way to get Wall Street to pay a share). But here's the thing: Yes, tax the middle class too. You heard me. Tax us.

America's problem is not that it can't afford the defense and medical and educational and Social Security programs it needs, and even wants. America's problem is that IT DOESN'T WANT TO PAY FOR WHAT IT WANTS! We pay big bucks privately for the cars, gear, entertainment, gadgets, games and stuff that make us happy. We pay only pennies publicly for common goods, and then whine about how many pennies it's costing.

Why? Because three decades of neoliberal market ideology have persuaded Republicans and Democrats alike that government is our enemy and that the public purposes it pursues are illegitimate; and that, Q.E.D, collecting taxes to pay for such purposes is a form of theft. Americans don't just oppose high taxes (high taxes were when the rich paid 85 percent or more back in the Eisenhower era), they oppose taxation per se. In principle. Which principle? The principle that government is illegitimate, politicians are outlaws so taxes are (literally) highway robbery.

We thus frame the "hard choices" as choices between which expenditures to cut rather than between which taxes to raise. But the really hard choice is surely about whether or not we want to pay for the society we want to live in.

Telling America that the only way out of its deficit crisis is to reduce public services is like telling a family that the only way out of a family budget crisis is to forgo either breakfast, lunch or dinner -- because Dad prefers to spend his income on ballgames, and Mom likes to use her salary for novels and makeovers, and sis is spending her summer job salary on Taylor Swift tickets and iPod downloads. Obviously, if family members construe a family budget as a form of theft, that's not only the end of the family budget, it's the end of the family; and either breakfast, lunch or dinner (or maybe all three) will have to go. The real problem is family denial: a refusal to recognize the integrity of the family and its common needs.

Our budget problem today is America denial. The American national family isn't a family anymore -- perhaps because white people don't think people of color are real Americans (as the Birthers continue to say about the president); perhaps because working people don't think poor people try hard enough to get jobs; perhaps because everyone has bought into the privatizing ideology that proclaims "me first!" and the community last. Whichever way you read it, tax denial means Americans are abjuring the American community, the American commonwealth and the American res publica (things of the public) that actually constitutes the meaning of that precious term republic that the Republican Party carries in its name.

When the American community vanishes, American democracy vanishes with it. For in fighting for the democratic principle of no taxation without representation, the founders fought implicitly for the equally democratic principle of no representation without taxation. Membership in the commonwealth entails putting wealth at the disposal of the commons -- the precise aim of public revenue collocation through taxation.

I am not delusional: I know very well that Americans are going to continue to refuse to increase their taxes as a solution to our budget crisis. But that, my fellow Americans, is a form of denial even more pernicious than (pace Erskine Bowles) deficit denial.

We can, as we seem intent on doing, cut away not just fat, but muscle, sinews and bone from the American body politic on the way to cutting the debt. Or we can pool resources and tithe ourselves a little more, sharing the burdens equally in accord with our income, and thereby pay for a healthy society, safe from foreign enemies and secure at home in life, liberty and happiness for all.

For that we have to pony up, however. Make the rich pay their share for sure and save $700 billion right away. But then pay for the rest of what we need and want all by our middle class selves, if America is to be healthy and whole. Representation without taxation is little more than a formula for bankruptcy: bankruptcy of the nation's budget, but more dangerously, bankruptcy of our democracy.

My answer to the Tea Party is the Commonwealth Party, a party willing to pool its wealth by taxing itself enough to provide for the great American commonwealth. It may never garner more than one vote, but it is the only honest response to the endlessly ballyhooed deficit crisis.

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