20 October 2008

the political post

I don't write much about politics on my blog. I don't keep my views a secret -- I have my tagline and my "Obama Mama" button (thanks, Jessica!) in plain view on the front page -- but I don't often write about it, in part because most people who read my blog already know or can guess my views, in part because I get really worked up about certain political issues and, for the sake of my mental health, it's best to avoid getting into them too frequently, and in part because I would mostly be preaching to the choir here.

But I can't refrain from doing just one political post this year. There are a lot of things I could complain about, in regards to both presidential candidates, but there is one issue that's been coming up a lot recently, in the debates, in speeches, in election ads, that is driving me crazy: taxes, especially as they relate to economic class.

McCain and Palin have spent a lot of time criticizing Obama's tax plan, arguing (falsely) that it will hurt Joe Sixpack and Joe the Plumber and anyone else named Joe in the middle class. Palin has mocked Biden for saying in his campaign speeches that it is an act of patriotism to pay taxes. McCain has, since the last debate, spent a lot of time deriding Obama's plan to "spread the wealth around." They're hinting that an Obama/Biden administration is the first step on the path that will lead the US to socialism.** Under a McCain/Palin administration, however, good old free-market capitalism will ensure that everyone will make as much money as they possibly can, and hold on to every last cent. No need to share your hard-earned money with any free-loading poor people, or those soulless bloodsuckers in Congress! Sounds nice in theory, doesn't it?

My opinion on taxes is pretty well summed up by former Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr: "I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization." Republicans seem to have forgotten what taxes are actually used for. Presently, I'm not a fan of the large percentage of taxes which are being used to fund an ill-conceived and mismanaged war, but I would happily pay more taxes if it would ensure that every person in America had access to health care, that every child in America had access to a solid, well-funded, free education (including college), that the war would be ended, that more money would be invested in funding alternative energy sources and scientific research, and that failing infrastructure would be improved -- to name just a few.

The problem with arguing that your money should be yours to keep because you've earned it, is that you're ignoring all of the taxpayer-funded factors that contributed to you being able to earn that money. Were you educated in public schools? Do you drive a car that meets safety standards down a paved road equipped with traffic lights? Have you ever taken antibiotics that were tested for safety and approved by a federal agency? Can you call 911 and expect that police, fire, or ambulance will be dispatched to your home or the scene of an accident? Do you have mail delivered to your house and business almost every day of the year, free of charge? Heck, do you eat food or drink clean water?

Without taxes funding all of these aspects so necessary to daily life and to help our society flourish, you might be making more money, but you'd be spending more from your own pocket to make up for the shortfall. It is in the best interest of a society -- it is essential to the growth and prosperity of a society -- to protect public health and safety, to promote law and order, and to educate its citizens. Taxes may fund some things you don't personally approve of, but they fund many more things that we, as a society, require for our continued improvement.

What about Biden's patriotism angle? I guess that depends on your definition of patriotism. Personally, my patriotic relationship to my country resembles my relationship to my children. I love them, I am grateful for the things (both tangible and intangible) that they give me, I am proud of their accomplishments, I am occasionally disappointed in their bad behavior, but ultimately I want to see them succeed, and I will, to the best of my ability, help them achieve success. Part of that necessarily involves spending money to help support them. It is because I love America that I am happy to pay taxes to support all of the things that make this such a nice place to live.

I mentioned economic class above, and here's where that comes in: so far, all I've heard any politician talking about is the middle class. How do we help the middle class keep their homes, how do we help the middle class send their kids to college, how do we help the middle class afford rising gas prices? It seems like such a long time ago that I was a supporter of John Edwards, but before the primaries he was my top choice, in part because he was willing to talk about poverty, and how to help eliminate it. When he dropped out of the race he was congratulated on making poverty a priority for the Democrats, and Clinton and Obama both promised to keep talking about how to reduce poverty. And now... when is the last time you heard any politician mention poverty? The problem with focusing on housing, or college tuition, or gas prices, is that you're ignoring the people who don't even have homes and cars, and whose children will not be going to college no matter how cheap it is.

I wrote above about all of the societal benefits that are funded by taxes. We pay taxes collectively in order that all citizens might share in what these taxes pay for. That some people have managed to enjoy these benefits while building a great deal of wealth is incredibly fortunate. It doesn't happen that way for most people, and not because of laziness or stupidity, but because there is a lot of arbitrary unfairness built into our economic system. Personally I believe that the work I do raising my children to be educated, responsible citizens is, in the long run, a greater benefit to society as a whole than the work that a professional baseball player does. Yet somehow our free market has decided that a man who gets to play games for a living should be compensated more in one year than I will probably make in my entire life. I'm not asking for pity -- certainly I've made a choice here -- but it's a good example of how skewed our values as a society are. I can obviously see that some jobs require more skill, more training, more education, more time, more physical effort than others, and should be compensated accordingly, but in general the disparity in income between social classes is far larger than is reasonable, and I'm all for Obama's plan to "spread the wealth around" and make things a little more equitable.

McCain has also criticized Obama's proposed tax credits for people who don't pay income tax. Something I never hear mentioned in discussion of these tax credits is that these people who are not paying income tax are not paying because they don't even make enough money to live on, let alone be taxed on. Right now, we are one of those families. We pay no income tax because a graduate student's salary is not enough for a family of four to live on. Without tax refunds and credits, we would be bankrupt by now. Maybe this will sound hard to believe, but I actually look forward to being able to pay taxes, because it will mean 1) that we have enough money to live on with some to spare and 2) that we will be able to repay the government for the benefits they've given us over the last few years.

My family is on the threshold of becoming middle class, and if we ever do get up above Obama's proposed $250,000 cut-off (which was not chosen randomly or arbitrarily, but because the people who earn more than that in a year make up the top 5% in the US), I really will be happy to pay taxes to help the 95% of Americans who are not so fortunate. Especially those closest to the bottom. I don't have any complaints about paying taxes. I might disagree on how those taxes should be spent, but if I have some extra money that could be used to teach a child to read, to clean up environmental waste so that people have clean drinking water, to give someone a new kidney, to rebuild a bridge that collapsed, well, why wouldn't I give that money? Why wouldn't anyone want to contribute to making our neighborhoods and cities and states and our country clean and safe and healthy?
** There's a good article in today's New York Times that explains just how hypocritical it is for McCain to accuse Obama of socialism.


Jessica said...

THANK YOU!!! Very well written! I have been thinking many of the same things about taxes recently, especially as McCain has recently called the Obama plan "welfare." As Obama responded here in St. Louis, it's not welfare if you WORK but don't make a living wage. And I can't wait to pay taxes, either, because it will mean that after 12 years and a PhD, we are finally making a living wage.

Ren said...

Well said!

andreajacy said...

ah john edwards. its unfortunate he had to get wrapped up in that scandal otherwise i think he could have been an effective member of obama's team. obviously the issue of poverty is way too radical for this election.