Friday, April 15, 2011

My (positive) ode to tax day. No, seriously.

It's annual tax day, which means it's also time for annual ritual cultural displays expressing angst and dismay. For example, on the way to work today I listened to the tax day theme show from Sound Opinions. Some of the songs were just about not having enough money in general, but there's quite a bit of musical rage directed at the tax collector. This is, of course, the most famous example:

Despite the protests in this country, we're relatively lightly taxed, all things considered. George Harrison's rage was directed at a much more onerous tax rate of 95% for the highest tax brackets in the UK at the time. Many of them fled the country seeking havens. While 95% seems completely unreasonable, even for the super rich, it did spur investment. Of course, the GOP claims that it's tax breaks for the rich that spur investment, though there is little evidence of that. There's plenty of evidence that the high UK tax rate spurred the rich to stick their money in every available venture. In George Harrison's case, it was the movies. Harrison's good taste and willingness to put his money down deserve the credit, but without that ridiculous tax rate, we might not have Time Bandits or Monty Python's Life of Brian.

However, a couple of movies aren't really an argument in favor of a particular tax program, or taxation in general. Judging from the songs I heard this morning, musicians seem to agree. Rage is easier to get across musically than wonkish arguments, so I understand why there aren't any pro-taxation songs. But what is the pro-taxation argument?

It occurred to me that I was driving on it. Tax money built the roads. Tax money built my employer. Tax money built the police headquarters and airport I drove past. Tax money keeps planes in the sky and cars on the road. Tax money built the Hoover Dam and preserved the Everglades and Yosemite. Tax money created the Internet. Tax money put men on the moon. Tax money defeated the Nazis.

You might say it took people to do those things. Yes, it did. It took courageous and clever people whom we rightfully celebrate, many of whom gave up their lives doing so. But it also took a government to spend the money, to coordinate the people and materiel. Only in some libertarian fantasy can we pass the hat around and all chip in our couch change to fight the Nazis. It takes a government to give soldiers guns and training and tanks and boats and planes to do the shooting with before those individual soldiers can do any shooting of Nazis. We like to imagine ourselves rugged individualists, but it takes banding together in groups and organizations to accomplish large, meaningful tasks. That's pretty much the definition of civilization. Those libertarian fantasists should try living in a hunter/gatherer society some time and see how that works out for them.

I'm not elevating government over the people who did these things, but it's worth pointing out that it did take an organized government to accomplish all of these things. In this culture - largely thanks to decades of anti-government drumbeating by conservatives - we're quick to criticize the negatives of government without acknowledging its accomplishments. It's why people can carry to a protest a sign reading "Keep Government out of Medicare" and honestly not know how stupid they are. It's also why people don't direct their anger at, say, giant corporations who pay absolutely no taxes while shipping jobs overseas. Deflection is the key word: Rich Fox News anchors and morning DJs are in those high tax brackets and want to insure their taxes are as low as possible. They're going to deflect people's anger somewhere else, like "big government".

Now, none of this means that government doesn't do bad things with our money or that you can't complain when it does. But the conservative "big government" drumbeat isn't about targeting particular spending. The anti-government crowd isn't complaining about money going to drone strikes or the Guantanamo prison; these people are the political heirs of the people who put anti-Vietnam War tax withholders in prison for tax evasion. This drumbeat is about targeting spending for anything other than conservative preferences– things usually referred to as "essential".

I don't know if I'd say I like tax day, but honestly I don't mind it so much. These ritual denunciations puzzle me. Shouldn't we be proud of the things we've accomplished as a nation and proud to contribute to those accomplishments instead of grumbling about it? I'm glad to contribute. I'm proud (and angry) that I contribute more than those tax cheats at GE.

This year I'm getting a small refund from my withheld taxes. I think I'll frame the check instead of cashing it. It's only one dollar, and one dollar out of trillions might not seem significant, but hey, it's still a dollar more than GE paid.

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