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Issue Date:  September 9, 2005

In praise of higher taxes


My landscape architect just told me she would provide two surveyors’ estimates -- and she assured me that I could take the one that cost the least. I wondered why she pegged me for a Wal-Mart person, one who wanted a bargain at all costs. Why did she automatically assume I was cheap? Not frugal, but cheap. Frugal is a matter of paying the right price for the right thing. Cheap is different. Cheap pinches pennies until the life behind the pennies is also pinched. Cheap is getting a bargain that turns out, often, to be very expensive.

When it comes to the redesign of my property, I want beauty not cheapness. I am going to be living with this land for a long time. I don’t necessarily want the most expensive survey either. What I want is a good survey, something that the great extravagance of my public and private educations will allow me to see, understand, analyze and enjoy.

Permit me to differ with my landscape architect and make myself generally unpopular. I am for higher taxes. I am for them because I don’t think democracy is a bargain. I think it is a costly extravagance. It has expensive hopes like liberty and justice for all. We can’t afford not to pay for these hopes.

Even in “Taxachusetts,” the public budgets for health, education and security are pinched. I can’t imagine not wanting to spend money on my children’s -- or your children’s -- education. Taxes for education strike me as a bargain, an investment with lifelong dividends. The idea that community colleges have to plead for the state to fix their roads or heat their buildings strikes me as a very expensive bargain. Short term, it balances state budgets only to elect politicians whose legacy will be potholes of the road, body, mind and spirit.

The Wal-Martization of citizenship has the same dangerous case of short-term-itis as most elected officials do. People get hurt in these potholes. Take the ridiculous story of low-income students being charged in transitional assistance benefits for scholarships won. Most people don’t know that a low-income student gets into trouble if he or she gets a scholarship. How? That money is counted against their welfare or transitional assistance. Now, there’s a bargain for you: Keep a whole generation of people in hamburger jobs. Or consider the consequences of long-term federal debt. We spend; our grandchildren pay.

I know enough about the near sentimentality of how much people with grandchildren love their grandchildren. In many cases, they are actively saving to give them a nice inheritance. Not taxing ourselves in the present, for the present, particularly for wars we choose by presidents we elect, is taking money out of our grandchildren’s pockets. If this were not immoral and a perfect example of short-term-itis, it is at least dumb. Or consider what happens when research and development departments get underfunded. Better hybrid cars aren’t made. Cures for terrible diseases do not happen. These matters cost the environment and our personal health. There are more ways to look at a family’s budget or a nation’s budget than just numbers. Cancer costs a lot more than taxes over time.

Education is not just about jobs, nor is the environment just about research. Education is primarily about itself, about opening the doors and windows of the heart and mind. The good taxable jobs that result are an important side dish. Every dime we don’t spend on taxation today will result in a lesser citizenry tomorrow, both in their own life terms and in the terms of the social order. Employers who resist higher taxes will have only themselves to blame when their next generation of employees can’t add, think, imagine or write.

There are workplace consequences to short-term-itis.

Instead of always looking for a bargain and always hiring the cheaper surveyor, as a matter of paltry principle, why not imagine yourself as someone worth something good? Not just the better dress but also the better democracy, as a citizen and shareholder in a country that has expensive dreams?

Internalized Wal-Mart thinking sells our future to the lowest bidder. Wal-Mart surely has a positive place in our world. Applying discount thinking to health, education and welfare, however, is different from applying it to toothpaste. It is not a bargain when the state keeps people in low-income jobs by not giving them an educational leg up.

Here is a new movement for you: Have every low-income person in the country put a sign around her or his neck, “Tax me.” Translated, “Tax me” means give me an income, not a handout, so that the tax base can increase. Again morality coincides with common sense: Well-developed citizens make good workers -- and increase the tax base.

Cheaping out on taxes is a long-term mistake made for short-term reasons. It is not the bargain it claims to be.

The Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is a minister in Coral Gables, Fla.

National Catholic Reporter, September 9, 2005

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