Monday, March 22, 2010

Taxes Aren't Theft

I startled some friends of mine a few years ago. It's not that difficult for me to do, owing to my penchant for saying what's on my mind, but this comment was dropped into the night and left it's mark without my even noticing. Josh and Lisa had invited us over for dinner one winter evening and it was pleasant enough we lit their outdoor fireplace and pulled up their fake Adirondack chairs and sat around looking at the flames as one does and talking about this and that.

It was a while ago and I was worried more about the future of the economy which seemed, at that time to have hit a dead end. Our leaders in New York and Washington were running around like headless chickens and indeed they tell us now things really were on the brink. Little wonder I was gloomy as I sipped the whiskey and watched the flames. It seems I made a remark about paying taxes that struck a chord with Josh and Lisa. They told me later that I said that paying taxes is the price of admission to a civilized society and as such I was glad to pay them. Which is how I feel. No surprise I suppose that I am not the first person to say that, though it was my original remark at the time.

Linguist George Lakoff says conservatives frame the debate over paying taxes as though taxes are an affliction. It's this approach to paying taxes that has set the tone for political debate since Ronald Reagan came to power. Alongside deregulation, the notion that paying taxes is somehow "bad" entered into the common consciousness, one that democrats have felt obliged to subscribe to as well. This despite the fact that conservatives routinely critique Democrats as "tax and spend Liberals" as though Republicans somehow don't tax and spend. Actually I think that taxing and spending makes for a sensible budget instead of cutting taxes and increasing spending but that is another story.

Back to Lakoff from whose writings I have this rather provocative quotation:

Conservatives have worked for decades to establish the metaphors of taxation as a burden, an affliction, and an unfair punishment – all of which require "relief." … And on the day that George W. Bush took office, the words tax relief started appearing in White House communiqués to the press and in official speeches and reports by conservatives. …The word relief evokes a frame in which there is a blameless Afflicted Person who we identify with and who has some Affliction, some pain or harm that is imposed by some external Cause-of-pain. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, and it is brought about by some Reliever-of-pain. … The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. Taxes, in this phrase, are the Affliction (the Crime), proponents of taxes are the Causes-of Affliction (the Villains), the taxpayer is the Afflicted Victim, and the proponents of "tax relief" are the Heroes who deserve the taxpayers' gratitude. Every time the phrase tax relief is used and heard or read by millions of people, the more this view of taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes gets reinforced.

Try this alternative view of taxation instead:

Taxes are our dues — we pay our dues to be Americans and enjoy the benefits of American society. Taxes are what we pay to live in a civilized society that is democratic, offers opportunity, and has a huge infrastructure available to all citizens. This incredible infrastructure has been paid for by previous taxpayers. Roads and highways, the Internet, the broadcast airwaves, our public education system, our power grid — every day we all use this vast infrastructure. Our dues maintain it.It is about being a member, a part of the community. People pay a membership fee to join a gym, the local YMCA, or a club for which they get to use the basketball courts, the swimming pool, and the golf course. They did not pay for these facilities with their own memberships. They were built and paid for by other members, and all the current members maintain them with their dues. It is the same thing with our country — being a member in good standing of a remarkable nation. Americans pay their dues.

Funnily enough this was my own attitude toward paying taxes neatly summed up here by someone of whom I had never previously heard. After Lisa and Josh expressed surprise at my attitude, expressed perhaps as an immigrant. I am finding this lack of desire to be a member of the club to be rather disheartening. I wonder at the fact that state lawmakers, faced with laws of which they disapprove come up with the notion of secession as the answer. I find it hard to credit the taxpayers of the state of Utah with having much sense when their representatives suggest secession as the answer to health insurance reform. The club survives when we follow the rules and pay our dues. I would hate to imagine that sitting around a fireplace talking of taxes as patriotic could be construed as too patriotic in the face of secession. Secession? Surely that is more unthinkable than the proposal that we all get access to health care. Isn't it?


Orin said...

What the Fascists are doing is called "propaganda." I was fortunate enough to learn about such things on the taxpayers' dime (ironically enough) while being trained to be a U.S. Army broadcast specialist.

It has never ceased to amaze me over the course of my adult life how the Democrats just don't seem to grasp the concept of "playing to win," while on the other hand the Fascist party (they're not the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, they're the party of Hitler and Mussolini) not only gets it, but has gotten it all along.

Part of that playing to win has been the creation of an ignorant, room temperature IQ electorate via gaining control of school boards, and continuing that process by taking control of the mass media.

We are inexorably living in the 21st century equivalent of the fall of the Roman Empire, and there's not a damn thing any of us can do about it...


Anonymous said...

Of course it's those darn "Facist" schoolboards! Nothing to do with the grip the AFT, NEA, etc. has on our educational system wherein we have the highest per student spending in the world - with 3rd world results is it...

Anonymous said...

Mr. Conchscooter, thank you for the piece on taxes and "the club." It may have helped me understand the thinking on the part of folks who feel entitled to enjoy the labor of others.

A point not brought to the fore, but is critical to see the flaw in this passage, is that the clubs cited (e.g. YMCA) are VOLUNTARY. No one will show up accompanied by folks in dark suits and handcuff you if you choose not to participate.

The fact that you and other likeminded folks like to swim, I say "go forth, enjoy!" If I don't, well, then why should I be forced to buy you a pool?

The other examples quoted - internet, powergrid, broadcast airwaves, are also funded to a large degree by voluntary users (you know, the ISP fees, the utility bill, the commercials we're forced to watch...etc.)

If a "club" didn't provide the "right" services or did so inefficiently, the club would fold. Not so with a failed gov't program...

The educational system, which participation via taxation doesn't have a voluntary component... the U.S. ranks where in the world?

Danette said...

Well said, Conch! Unfortunately for the population that believes the government is an evil human institution or those that have made tons of money off of demonizing the government so that they can pocket the money, taxes are always going to be a takeover of private property. Greed! Gotta love it!

Anonymous said...

Greed = Taking others property by force! Gotta love it!

Anonymous said...

Why go through the trouble of providing goods / services others will voluntarily purchase - or you go broke... when you can use the power of the state to take what you want - and never go broke! Brilliant!

Conchscooter said...

Keep 'em coming!
Here's another aspect to the problem: theoreticaly the government that taxes us is democratic. ie it represents the will of the majority with built in protections for the minority (the Justice system is a prime example, the much derided cloture rules in the Senate for another).
The real problem right now is that we have lost control of the builders of the swimming pool to the corporate interests who buy our representatives. Which is not good for the rump of Eisenhower's Republican Party and it isn't good for those of us who wanted a public option in the reform plan.
Even though membership is not voluntary, election of the board should be.Especially when it's your own government!
And as a Union member myself I thank unions for trying to balance the power of the powerful.

Anonymous said...

Unions suffer the same diseases as corporations - ruled by elite power class mainly concerned with lining their own pockets at the expense of the guy on the floor. They did wonders for the workers at GM, Chrysler, U.S.Steel, etc.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see a discussion on how we return the focus of our elected representatives to serving the electorate - not the powerful interests that finance their campaigns. Both parties equally culpable.

Danette said...

Mr. Anonymous: on that we are agreed. I think everyone would like to see that.