Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Little House On the Prairie's Message on Taxes

As part of our Sunday evening family ritual, we are working our way through the 1970's Little House and the Prairie episodes. We're almost through season two and tonight we just saw the episode entitled Centennial, where the community of Walnut Grove prepares for the 100th year since the Declaration of Independence. Their plans is to have a picnic with fireworks and to make a new American flag to celebrate the event.

The episode begins hopeful. The government just announced the expansion of roads - a massive investment in the nation's infrastructure, with the accommodating promise to ease trade allowing more opportunities for the farmers to sell their crops.

The good cheer turns sour when significant tax increases are also announced. Charles Ingalls' savings is wiped out paying by the tax increase. More poignantly, a Russian immigrant family who had just moved into town a few months earlier, received notice that no property taxes had been collected on the property they purchased in the past seven years, and he was responsible for the entire seven or he'd lose his property.

The entire town was feeling mighty depressed about this turn of events and the entire July 4th celebration was in jeopardy. Everyone was feeling pretty miserable about their politicians and pretty miserable about America. They complained about how well paid their politicians were despite the fact they were doing nothing but robbing from the pockets of hard working Americans. One farmer had the audacity to suggest that an income tax was coming next.

As the episode progresses, the Russian immigrant does lose his land. Homeless, they are camping out until they are able to figure out what to do next. Charles walks over to offer his condolences and to provide the family a listening ear, but all the while feeling this anger at the direction of our government. The Russian immigrant instantly rejects the sympathy and says that it was his own foolishness for buying the property without understanding the terms. And he was hopeful. Knowing he could get more land and rebuild as a homesteader. He suggested that it was a privilege to pay taxes because those taxes were used to make investments for everyone. His own son was getting an education and that through his education, the son was teaching the father to read English. No other country on the globe made education accessible to everyone. Everywhere else only the well off had such access.

In Russia, by contrast, taxes were used to line the pockets of its czars and not to build schools and roads like in America. In a dictatorship, taxes enrich the dictator who is not accountable to the people. In a representative democracy, the taxes are used to build up the country for the benefit of all. America, he says, is the greatest country in the world for its freedoms and for its opportunities.

I think we lost this point, along the way. Taxes, in and of themselves, are not the problem, the problem is how we use those taxes. It is a privilege to pay taxes. Every time I drive around my city, its wide roads, its beautiful parks, I feel like I own a piece of it. The parks are partially mine. Quite literally, this is my community. And our family takes advantage. We attend the parks; we make use of the public pools; we visit the national parks; we drive on the roads; we drink the water. Given how much we are blessed, I say it's a privilege to pay taxes.

Not that our tax code isn't broken, it is, severely. We need a tax system that's both fair and broad. Far too many people with means are not paying their fair share. There are simply far too many ways to get out of paying taxes, largely for pretty dubious reasons. Business owners and investors have too many opportunities to make their income look like business or capital investments, shielding the money from the higher tax rates. This makes no sense.

I'm not sure why we think money made by a business owner should be more protected from the tax code than the money made by the laborer. Every single one of us has a role to play in this economy. The more productive we all are, the more rich this country becomes. The smart investor is no more valuable than the efficient and innovative worker. Why tax the two at different rates?

The problem in our country is not that we are necessarily spending too much either. The problem is that we have gotten into this mentality that we can get a lot from our government without having to pay for it. We need to take stock in what we want to pay for, then we need to figure out how we're going to raise enough tax revenue to do just that.

How big of a military do we want? What kind of global presence do we want to preserve? How big of a safety net do we want to provide and for who? Do we care about clean air and water? Sanitation? Do we want a responsive government in the face of natural disasters? Do we want to collectively ensure our elderly, those who cannot work at the end of their years, a life of dignity and a guarantee against painful poverty?

How much government do we want? Whatever the answer is, we have to be willing to pay for it. No other country in the history of this globe has ever amassed as much wealth as this one has. We have the capacity to accomplish beyond what we realize. And much of this has come because of our freedoms and our way of government.

We didn't declare our independence from England because of taxes. We did it because they were taxing us without representation. We didn't have a say back then in how those taxes were being used, but we have that say today. We only have to couple our desires for government service with a willingness to pay for it.

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