Sunday, January 25, 2004

The Price

I picked up Turbo Tax yesterday morning on the way home from the supermarket, and by the early afternoon I had finished and electronically filed my return. I should get my refund in a couple of weeks. It won’t be a lot – another payment on the Mustang, maybe, or a donation to the Inge Festival – but at least my taxes are over and done with for another year.

I am one of the few people I know who has no complaint about paying taxes. That probably has to do with the fact that my taxes are pretty simple (single, no kids, no mortgage, one job, a pitance of interest earned) and it’s been about twenty years since I’ve had to pay addtional taxes. (The last time I wrote a check to the IRS was thanks to an idiot stockbroker in Boulder who forget to explain to me about how capital gains will come back later and bite you in the ass.) But I don’t really mind that much. It’s the price we pay for what we take for granted in America, and if you want to fly first class, it’s going to cost you something.

Sure, I am not crazy about some of the things we spend our money on. As a Quaker and a pacifist I am not in favor of funding the Department of Defense and their purchase of weapons. Theoretically I’d love it if we didn’t need a Department of Defense, but in the real world, that’s not possible. There are people out there who wish us ill and we have the duty to protect ourselves. I don’t like tax dollars going to support corporate welfare. I would love it if there was no need for governments to offer tax “incentives” to companies to locate a plant here or there and therefore shift the burden of the tax from the company to the community, but the counterargument is that without that company, there would be no new jobs to provide the income to tax.

What’s the alternative? A tax-payer’s line-item veto? No. The alternative is to elect people who represent our views and needs as a community and trust them to implement laws and services that meet those needs. We are, after all, a republic – a representative form of government. So we must come to an understanding: nothing comes for free, and we must be realistic about making the choices.

Of course there will always be those who say we pay too much in taxes. (And these same people will crawl buck-naked over broken glass to plunk down $5 for a Powerball lottery ticket.) It’s a real crowd-pleaser to get all worked up about how “Washington takes YOUR money,” and you can practically guarantee winning an election by promising to cut taxes. I’ve had conversations with friends in Canada who shake their heads in wonder at how low the taxes are here in the United States. The highest income tax rate here is somewhere around 36%. That’s about ten points lower than what a friend of mine who lives in Montreal pays to Revenue Canada, and that’s not including provinical and local taxes. He and his wife are what I would describe as middle-class: a decent job, a house, two cars, and two kids. The Canadians also have national health care among other services supported by the government, so he says he doesn’t mind chipping in his fair share; he thinks he gets his money’s worth.

Our tax system is not perfect by any means – nothing this large and complex ever is, and there are many gaps and cracks that need to be repaired – but the intention is to provide for the common good, and that, more than anything else, is the most important service we can provide for ourselves and each other.