Can’t Wait ‘Til Tax Day!
It’s a heretical thought, but would people pay more taxes if they could designate where a portion of their money went?
I dropped a check for $800 in the mail, and I had no idea where my money was going.
Well: I knew that it was headed to the U.S. Treasury, and that, eventually, it would be spent by the federal government. But that was all I knew. This was last year, the first year in which the IRS didn’t grant me a refund, but instead required me to write a check. Of course, I’m a liberal who had never bristled at the notion of paying taxes, considering it a social duty on par with loving your parents and, later in life, providing for your children. Even today I’d have little complaint about paying more taxes. Yet coming face-to-face with the unaccountable leviathan popularly referred to as the U.S. tax system was a revelatory experience. I had made what was, for me at least, a not insignificant contribution to the federal government. But judging by the government’s response, I might as well have thrown my money away.
Access to an incredible array of goods and services, not to mention the right to live in a well-ordered, prosperous society, is what you get in exchange for paying taxes. The federal budget totals between $3 and $4 trillion a year, covering national security, Social Security, and everything in between. I get this. And most Americans, I imagine, have a similar understanding–they know that, even when it’s spending $30,000 on a toilet seat, the federal government is doing something with their money. They just don’t know exactly what.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When I return a movie to Netflix, the company e-mails me to let me know when it has received the film. And when I purchase almost anything–any good or service–I am provided with a receipt, which shows not only proof of purchase but also documents what, precisely, I have bought. Yet I didn’t know that the Treasury had received my money until the check cleared my bank account. And I was never provided with a receipt documenting what I had received in exchange for it. It’s often said that our government is stuck in the twentieth century; in this area, at least, that complaint would be charitable.
For too many, government is either an abstract notion or a source of irritation; you either can’t understand what it’s spending your money on or it’s wasting it altogether. As a result, feeling disconnected from their government, people tend to turn on, tune in, and drop out–witness our comparatively low voter participation rates, or people’s befuddlement when asked their opinion of the federal government. A Gallup poll last year reported that almost half of Americans rate their federal agencies as "neutral," which, it reported, "could be a reflection of Americans’ ambivalence or an indicator that Americans haven’t had enough experience with a federal agency to rate its overall performance." And without the check and the balance of an active public, government performance suffers.
A vicious cycle is born, turning people’s distance from government into a reason for disengagement, which in turn causes poor performance–which only pushes the government back further, and justifies the initial disengagement. Accountability, traditionally the idée fixe of democracy, is undermined. And the progressive project, which trumpets an affirmative vision of government, is devastated.
We are telling the government, ‘Screw you!’" Howard Jarvis, tax rebel extraordinaire, exclaimed to reporters. The year was 1978, and Jarvis’s beloved Proposition 13 was on the fast track to passage as a ballot initiative in California. After it was approved by voters that fall, Prop 13 severely curtailed state and local governments’ ability to collect property taxes and required that future legislatures approve any tax increases by a two-thirds majority. We know what’s happened since. California has become a basket case, confronting near-annual budget crises by axing services, with a legislature in constant gridlock. This past summer, the state found itself in such bad shape that it was forced to rely on IOUs, rather than real money, to meet its obligations.
Around the time Prop 13 passed, Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California–the Golden State has an outsized role in our current misery–was preparing for another run at the White House. Just as he had done during his 1976 run, in 1980 Reagan excoriated the "welfare queens" who cheated the tax system for Cadillacs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in undeserved welfare checks. He was the Pied Piper of the anti-tax movement, and he rode public anger about taxation and perceived runaway government spending to victory. Prop 13 had, in the words of Time magazine, prompted "tax-cut fever [to] spread across the nation like an exotic strain of flu."
Over time, this flu infected both political parties, eventually reaching almost the entire body politic. Tax rates have fallen dramatically since Reagan’s 1980 victory: The top marginal rate, for example, has been cut precisely in half, from 70 percent to 35 percent. Even so, taxes are only more loathed, and government more derided, than they were 30 years ago. Even Barack Obama, in the dwindling days of his presidential campaign, was forced to resort to full-throated cries for broad tax cuts. Joe Biden’s claim during the campaign that paying taxes is "patriotic"–which, insofar as it equates taxes to civic responsibility, is true–was instantly derided as a gaffe, even within the Obama campaign. Some of this opposition is an honest, understandable response to real waste. Some of it is racial; your tax money, says the subconscious of many American voters, isn’t just wasted on overpriced toilet seats and money for the poor–it’s wasted on poor people who don’t look like you.
Post a Comment