Over the last four decades, conservatives have launched a concerted attack on taxes with such success that now candidates of both parties reliably compete with each other to prove who is more anti-tax. When John McCain and Sarah Palin attack taxes, that's one thing. But when Barack Obama starts doing it, we have a big problem.
Conventional wisdom has it that Americans hate taxes. But the conventional wisdom is wrong.
"Nobody likes taxes," Obama said during his third debate with McCain. "I would prefer that none of us had to pay taxes, including myself." Sarah Palin, during the Vice Presidential debate, said there is nothing patriotic about paying taxes. Well, I like taxes and am glad to be fortunate enough to pay them and I think April 15th is the most patriotic day of the year. And I'm not the only one. Polls show voters like taxes, too, so maybe politicians left, right and center should stop attacking taxes and instead start talking about the good they do.
So here are the three reasons why I love taxes -- and, as it turns out, why the majority of Americans agree.
1. Taxes are a down payment on the common good
Public schools, roads and bridges, drinking water, national parks -- we like these things and, polls show, we like the idea of our tax dollars helping make these things better.
In a great response to Sarah Palin's remark that paying taxes is not patriotic, Thomas Friedman wrote:
What an awful statement. Palin defended the government's $700 billion rescue plan. She defended the surge in Iraq, where her own son is now serving. She defended sending more troops to Afghanistan. And yet, at the same time, she declared that Americans who pay their fair share of taxes to support all those government-led endeavors should not be considered patriotic.
According one national poll, a plurality of Americans think the biggest problem facing their local public schools is a lack of funding, and they support more federal money for public schools. According to a transportation poll, a majority of Americans think our roads need to be improved and would support an increased gas tax to do so. And notably, most Americans think (http://www.pollingreport.com/budget.htm) the share they pay in taxes is fair and about right.
Several years ago, I was buying one of those tax preparation software programs from a local big box store. The salesperson said, "Ugh, taxes."
And I replied, "Actually, I love paying taxes."
"Yeah. How else do you think we have libraries and street lights and clean water and the Internet?"
"I never thought of it that way," she demurred.
Taxes are how we pay for the things we, as a community, need. Think of taxes as our national membership card to the Costco called government.
2. Taxes fund government, and government is good
The conservative attack on taxes is really an attack on government. They want us to believe that government should be judged by its most aberrant inefficiencies and most extreme mistakes. They want us to ignore all the things we like, all the things that salesperson forgot about, how each of us is where we are today because of the help of government -- whether it's the roads that got us to work or the federally subsidized loans that paid our way through college, the unemployment benefits that helped our family through a rough time or the social security we're counting on for our retirement. Government has positively touched each and every single one of our life stories. Conservatives talk about "starving the beast" of government, but given how much government has fed and nurtured all of us, we'd only be starving ourselves.
Politicians of all stripes need to vigorously defend government. When Barack Obama talks about taking a scalpel to the federal budget, not a hatchet, he should go one step further and say why, reminding Americans that especially in a time of economic crisis, government is more important than ever. Want to re-regulate Wall Street? Want to extend unemployment benefits and help homeowners renegotiate their mortgages? Want to make college more affordable? Want to lower gas prices and have alternative energy? Every single one of these goals goes against the instincts and incentives of the free market. For the problems we as a nation is now facing, government is the solution.
Again, to cite polls, earlier this year as the economy was already in a tailspin, more Americans said that increasing government spending on things like health care, education and housing would do more to fix the economy than cutting taxes. Americans are ready to talk about the role of government in solving our shared challenges and building our shared prosperity.
3. Spreading the wealth is a great idea
Unlike John McCain or apparently Joe the Plumber, the majority of Americans support raising taxes on the rich. According to one poll, 63% of Americans think that the rich pay too little in taxes and 51% think that low-income people pay too much. The idea of redistribution is not some liberal agenda imposed on the American public. It comes from our instincts about fairness and our fundamental community values.
Take Barbie Snodgrass, a working class white woman in suburban Ohio working two jobs to put food on the table for herself and her sister's two teenage daughters, whom Snodgrass cares for. She is the classic up-for-grabs swing voter. George Packer of the New Yorker recounts Snodgrass recoiling at Obama's tax plan. Why? Not because he's going to raise taxes for families earning over $250,000 but, as Snodgrass puts it, "How many people do you know who make two hundred and fifty thousand dollars? What is that, five per cent of the United States? That's a joke! If he starts at a hundred thousand, I might listen. Two hundred fifty -- that's to me like people who hit the lottery." Snodgrass doesn't oppose spreading the wealth. She'd like to spread it around more.
In 2007, the wealth-research firm Prince & Associates conducted a survey of over 200 executives at six of the (then top) investment banks on Wall Street. In 2006, all of those surveyed received bonuses of more than $2 million. Half received bonuses of over $5 million. They spent an average of three percent of their bonuses -- or $149,000 -- on luxury cars. And now we're spending $700 billion of our taxpayer money to make sure they can keep their jobs. Barbie Snodgrass is still trying to make ends meet. Of course the money to salvage Wall Street should come from the rich, not the middle and working class people who suffered under the economic policies that helped Wall Street prosper.
Raising taxes on the very rich isn't class warfare. In fact, given the current dynamics in our economy and the fact that the super-rich continue to get richer as the rest of us struggle, not raising taxes on the rich would only fan class struggle. It's through public infrastructure that lower and middle class Americans get the opportunity to move up the economic ladder. The Works Progress Administration and other New Deal programs got Americans working again and growing their net worth. The GI Bill helped millions of soldiers after World War II go to college and buy homes. The strong middle class that unfortunately we now see disintegrating in America is the direct result of redistributive policies that spread opportunity more evenly. We will only rebuild our middle class and lift millions of Americans out of poverty by spreading opportunity again, including to communities that have most been denied opportunity in the past. As a nation, we do better when we all do better.
It should go without saying that attacks on taxes always have a racial subtext to them -- that we wouldn't want our (read: white) money to be redistributed toward others (read: black people or, increasingly, Latino immigrants). But our low-road economic policies, putting the greed of a small few above the basic needs and survival of the rest of us, has led to an economic calamity that has not discriminated. Historically, we have seen moments like these impact communities of color, poor people and immigrants first, as canaries in the coal mine who, if we care to pay attention, are harbingers of the dangers that will affect everyone. Conversely, we know that solutions that only help white collar white workers in upper-middle class suburbs are not solutions at all -- that we need to fix the fundamental, built-in inequalities of our economy so that everyone -- everyone -- can prosper and get America working again for working people.
We live in a nation because we know there are things we can do together that we cannot do alone. Patriotism means valuing -- and investing in -- the common good. Attacking taxes and undermining the tools by which we pursue the common good is the least patriotic thing I can think of.
Sure, many Americans hate taxes but not as many as we think, and not nearly as many would if politicians weren't constantly pandering to the anti-tax Right. Like gay marriage, immigration and abortion before it, this is an issue of the far right successfully acting as though an extreme opinion held by a few voters is the opinion of the majority and timid politicians echoing the opinion until the prophecy of its dominance risks self-fulfillment. James Madison once said, "The power of taxing people and their property is essential to the very existence of government." Presumably those running to hold office in government should be among those defending the value of its existence, not reinforcing the anti-tax bandwagon that is leading our common good off a cliff.