What Kind of Society Do You Want? Let’s Talk Taxes

Lately there have been some skirmishes on ye old Twitter regarding taxes. One side includes people who see taxes as theft and/or will skirt them as much as possible. Another includes those who don’t feel that way. A third wants us peons to thank them for paying taxes.

And for all three, I think you need to ask yourselves: what kind of society do you want? Taxes are, essentially, an investment in principles (and places), for both individuals and corporations.

Corporate Off-Shoring

I’ve seen at least one PF blogger label taxation as government theft and saw another one this week praising the offshoring corporations do in order to lower their tax burden. Such practice is common, despite enormous profit margins and our exceedingly modest tax rates, certainly compared to those in the past.

What offshoring confirms is that the rhetoric of corporate investment in any given location is often fairly shallow: the investment only goes so deep as to get what that corporation wants. It’s rarely about community, state, or nation. States lose companies when they don’t offer tax breaks, which puts them in competition with other states that will. Often, those competing states both badly want the jobs, but could also use that tax revenue being spent to lure them in. It’s a terrible system that only benefits one player–the company–while states and country suffer.

When those corporations take those tax breaks and also offshore substantive chunks of their revenue, similar issues arise. I can’t find it in me to congratulate those companies on their international wiliness. Countries could do a lot with those dollars (or euros or what have you), and we know in general they’re not invested in employees. They might be invested in stock buybacks (as in the December tax law change) and in dividends for stockholders, but that consolidates wealth among the already-wealthy, primarily, as they own most of the stock out there. This combo helps feed global wealth disparities.

If taxes are an investment in a society, then corporate tax evasion (not the illegal variety) through offshoring and demanding breaks suggests they prefer societies that see companies as more significant than people, consequences be damned.

Onto another point…

For those who see tax as theft, who want to avoid all taxes themselves, I want them to consider how they benefit from those taxes and reconsider their position. Do you like having a fire department? Roads, however in need of repair? What’s the core of their opposition?

Where I suspect group 1 and 2 may overlap is in opposition to how our taxes are used, even if they disagree on what the problematic expenses are. I don’t mind paying my local taxes too much because I see how much good they do in our community. We have multiple libraries. A robust senior center with a van that totes older folks around. Our city leadership is voluntary, so all our tax dollars go to services and schools, which are top-notch. Great! Even if our taxes are really high.

I do chafe at our federal taxes, but primarily because I disagree with how they’re used.

I don’t think an enormous military industrial complex is the answer to everything, and it galls me to see the social safety net being deliberately worn down to pay for it, as well as for tax cuts for people who already have lots of money. I’d love for us to adopt a Scandinavian model wherein education and well being are the focus of tax use. National health care? Yes, please. People love America’s innovative ability now–how much more innovative could we be if people weren’t tethered to day jobs for insurance? Our educational system, which is a state rather than federal endeavor, has been beaten down for years. Other countries VALUE education for their citizens! We could do so much better than we do now.

It’s no secret that I don’t believe in “bootstrapping“–that everyone is capable of lifting themselves into wealth and success if they just try hard enough. We know not everyone starts in the same position, nor ends there. We could use tax dollars to help even the field, to keep our citizens from hunger and cold, be they young or old. It should bother everyone that the wealthiest country on earth has such disparities, but we have lots of this guy:

Ultimately this distinction–between “spending on social programs is good” and “no, it’s not”–is, I suspect, the great gap between “tax as theft” and “I don’t mind paying taxes” groups. It’s a doozy. It’s a distinction in what kind of society we want to live in. Do we want to help each other, or do we believe everyone should be out for themselves? I’d argue the latter idea is based on the myth of the American dream, and that helping each other doesn’t make us less motivated or eager to innovate. We might in fact be happier people if we knew we had a better safety net. I’d be more than happy to invest my taxes in that.

As for the Third POV…”Show me gratitude!”

The society those who seek overt gratitude from fellow citizens can only be one modeled on an Oliver Twist-type world. The argument of the person who proclaimed this point of view on Twitter was that, as a six-figure earner, he put more taxes into the pot than someone who earns, say, $30,000, and thus that person in particular should be grateful to him. What got confusing was that he seemed to suggest gratitude could be a daily, quiet practice, but also that he wanted to be acknowledged for his money.

I argued that for the person making $30,000, their tax burden–however numerically lower–was far more burdensome than the higher amount likely is on the higher earner. No dice. He still wants a thank you. What this tells me–and I know he’s not alone–is that he sees himself as a paternal patriarch who bestows his blessings upon us. Those of us who are not big earners must then be grateful both in our minds and with our words for his generosity, for whatever pittance his taxes makes possible.

Once upon a time, “lessers” were required to doff their hats to their “betters.” Sumptuary laws dictated that only the “betters” could wear certain fabrics, clothes, and jewelry, so as to maintain distinctions lest confusion fray people’s morals. Terms like “mister” and “mistress” were only for those people, and everyone else got a variant on Goodman or Goodwife. We have status symbols galore in our country that serve as reminders of who has and who doesn’t, from better schools in higher tax areas to Maseratis. I literally park next to one of those at the gym at least once a week. The middle folk and the poor folk DEFINITELY know people with money have money, generally speaking.

Isn’t that we have a system that benefits the wealthy enough of a thank-you? If you need your gratitude from the poor–if the system-wide “here you go, buddy,” isn’t enough–then what you’re looking for is groveling. And that is arguably even worse than corporate offshoring in terms of making our wealth disparities more pronounced.

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6 thoughts on “What Kind of Society Do You Want? Let’s Talk Taxes

  1. If you’re a high earner and you’re looking for thanks, I would say to look at your paycheck. There’s your thanks. Could you be thanked more? Sure. Doctors could be thanked more. So should nurses, technicians, and the custodians who clean offices and hospitals (dear god has this been on my mind since I gave birth…how do they not just throw out the whole hospital and start over?! ::shudder::) There are plenty of people working thankless jobs. Some of them pay well, many (most?!) do not. To me, the issue isn’t figuring out how to deliver thank you cards at tax time, but it’s about getting better as a society with showing gratitude AND practicing gratitude so people feel valued and appreciated.

    As for taxes, does it sting to pay more now that we’ve moved up an income bracket or two? Yup. Especially now that there are three of us instead of two. But we are also free to earn less. No one is compelling my husband and me to figure out how to bring in six figures one day.

    Plus, there’s the fact that we all benefit from taxes. It’s not just my family using the library, it’s my community. Ditto for schools and park districts and forest preserves. There’s great value in living in an educated community. At least, there is from my perspective.

    1. I agree completely! I actually thought about you a lot while I wrote this, and our recent conversations about education.

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