Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the way we talk about citizenship in this country. Especially when it comes to taxes and citizenship.
Does it bother anyone else that we’re now referred to as, “taxpayers” instead of “citizens?” I hate it. It seems an attempt to make me feel like a consumer and the government should give me great customer service. I’d like to think that my contributions to my country go much farther than the check I send on April 15 every year.
My father and I were having a discussion about unions when he came to visit earlier this month, and he said something that I think is valid. “Unions got greedy,” he said. I think that’s true to an extent. But I think we could substitute any number of nouns for unions, and it would still be true. “CEOs got greedy.” “Lawyers got greedy.” “Doctors got greedy.” “Professional athletes got greedy.”
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in the New Yorker where he makes this point: at some point in the 20th Century, people asked for what they could get instead of what they deserved or needed. (I’d link to the article, but unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall).
Bonuses are now like encores at concerts: expected, not special rewards for a job well done. Salaries keep climbing, regardless of actual performance, and the rich continue getting richer, even when they have to lay off workers to pay for those raises.
Americans, even those who are falling further and further behind, have come to believe that bonuses for the wealthy, or increasingly generous tax loopholes, should be the norm. And this type of thinking has affected the way we think and talk about taxes. People seem to believe that they should do everything they can to minimize the amount of taxes they pay.
But is it right? And should it continue? There’s been a lot of focus on General Electric right now, because it appears  they’ve taken advantage of the complexity of the tax code to avoid paying their fair share. But they aren’t the only ones. It’s become a common practice across industries to take money that would be spent paying taxes to provide better roads, schools and other services and instead pay lobbyists and accountants to help companies avoid having to pay taxes.
What if we just accepted that taxes are necessary and good? What if we were to stop thinking that no money is enough, and started asking for what we need, instead of what we think we can get? I’m happy to be a citizen of the United States. I get clean water, sturdy roads, and I received a great education. I also know that during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, SNAP benefits helped keep families from starving. So I hope the taxes I paid in 2010 will help keep those benefits coming for all citizens.