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TaxesCatherine Rampell of the Washington Post has an excellent essay in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer about how the American aversion to taxes has become an irrational and destructive affliction. Not only are we leaving core public structures and services chronically underfunded, we’re skewing our entire political system by turning our public servants into scavengers who must concoct ever-more-elaborate schemes to pay for the services we demand.

“Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice.

Think of recent, infuriating stories on civil asset forfeiture, in which law enforcement seizes cash and other property from people who are never charged with crimes. Often the departments that do the seizing get to keep the proceeds, which leads to terrible incentives. Officers around the country now attend workshops that offer tips on the best goodies to nab (go for flat-screen TVs, not jewelry).

Forcing cops to remit forfeiture proceeds to the state or local treasury, rather than allowing an eat-what-you-kill policy, might discourage bad behavior to some degree. But at heart, the reason such actions are so commonplace is that government revenue has to come from somewhere, if it ain’t coming from taxes.”

As Rampell goes on to point out, this ridiculous state of affairs is transforming how we fund government from a broadly-shared, democratic enterprise  into a regressive, market-distorting mess. She might’ve also mentioned that it’s helping to transform how we think about government as well. Where once all citizens were stakeholders/owners, we’re now becoming cheapskate bargain hunters looking only to get the best deals for ourselves (e.g. private school vouchers).

Her solution: “It’s time to take off the fiscal blinkers and start rewarding politicians who have the courage to advocate raising revenues the old-fashioned way: through taxes.”

Amen to that.

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Road crewsThere was a great cartoon in the New Yorker magazine a couple of years back in which a man whose house is on fire stands next to it with a bucket in his hand, waving away arriving firefighters and saying “No thanks–I’m a libertarian.” As North Carolina endures another major winter storm today and tomorrow, it’ll be interesting to see how many conservative, anti-government Tea Partiers have such a thing to say about the public services and structures that will save lives, bind our society together and expedite recovery.

The guess here is the number will be very small. When it comes to natural disasters, even the far right seems to forget its hate of government and all things public — if only temporarily. For some reason, all of the “government = slavery” talk and rants about monstrous commie plots seems to go by the wayside when roads need to be plowed and basic safety and utilities need to be delivered or made possible. Who wants to listen to Limbaugh when there’s a big snowstorm blowing?

While it would be tempting, however, to attack and deride anti-government folks for their hypocrisy at such a moment, we would all do better over the coming days to simply welcome them back into the communal fold. So hang in there, stay warm and keep an eye on your neighbors — whatever their political beliefs. Maybe just maybe, the experience of coming together during a crisis will even remind a few  of our conservative fellow citizens that society fares much better when it hangs together on warm and sunny days too.