I don't write about the boys much anymore. But my older boy's visit home from college served as an entryway into talking about a subject sure to be on everyone's lips this week—tax policy—and I figured, "why not?"
We bundled our 19-year-old to Midway on Sunday for the flight back to California. But if you’re expecting a weepy my-boy-is-gone column, that wasn’t true in August when he first left, and it’s less true now. Sometimes you just have to be grateful and shut up. He was home for a month, during which there was frequent fun and zero crises, which I recognize as the rare good fortune that it is, like winning the lottery. Cash your check and the less said the better.
No arguments, but we did have some heated discussions. My son seems to believe that the point of conversation is to get under the skin of others, as a kind of sport, and since I know exactly where he gets that trait, I can’t complain too much, though it was vexing at times.
For instance, we were settling into our seats in the Civic Opera House — we saw both “Porgy & Bess” and “Anna Bolena” — and I looked around, marveling at the theater’s gilded beauty, and said one of the squishy sentimental things I am prone to say at such moments.
“Maybe 50 years from now you’ll be here with your son.”
“Or 100 years from now,” he replied.
A strange statement. I paused, looking for a fingerhold.
"Well, you'd be 119," I ventured. "You probably won't live to be that old. You probably wouldn't want to live to be that old."
"By then," he said, "the Singularity will allow our intelligence to be uploaded onto machines."
The Singularity? Ray Kurzweil's fairy dust about technology reaching some critical mass and humans injecting their intelligence into machines?
"That's the silliest thing you've ever said," I replied, shocked to hear him endorsing such claptrap. "There's no indication that'll ever be possible. We aren't anywhere near that. It's science-fiction fantasy."
He defended the notion until I was thoroughly aghast, then sat back, pleased, announcing that no, of course he didn't believe that at all, he was just seeing how agitated I would get arguing against it.
Did I mention he wants to be a lawyer?
"You know," I said, annoyed, "I get enough of that from readers without you luring me into pointless debates over something we both agree on." Eventually the opera began.
The other thing he said that lingered was during a dinnertime political discussion. He said he is in favor of low taxes, which I was about to shrug off as more of the cold-blooded conservatism popular among college kids today. But then he added, "which is why they should be raised."
That seemed a conundrum. In favor of low taxes so they should be raised? OK, I'll bite.
"Our taxes are very low," he said, "compared to most other developed countries."
"So . . . " I said, catching his drift, "if we want taxes that are merely low, we'd have to raise them?"
That's true, and props to him for knowing it. The anti-tax mantra is so steadily chanted in this country, a lot of people don't realize that if you use the world as a model, we have it good.
The average American pays about a quarter of income in taxes, which puts us 25th on the list of developed nations. In the European Union, it's about a third. Italy, Greece and Belgium pay over 40 percent of income in tax.
Taxes are the fissure that forms the central divide in American political life, the chasm between Republicans - who believe in a nation of self-made Robinson Crusoes, where government is the problem and the solution is to starve it of money and watch it die - and Democrats, who believe we are all part of one society that should function by educating children and repairing bridges and caring for the mentally ill, and all that takes money. Tax money.
Like gun rights, this isn't really open to discussion. It's closer to religion than political belief. We all hold our positions and defend them. The alarming shrinking of the middle class and the burgeoning of wealth among the already wealthy is only a concern to Republicans as rhetoric, since the middle class votes and the GOP wants those votes.
The Republicans in Congress have already been starving the IRS, since it not only collects taxes but collects taxes on Republican groups, which is an obvious vendetta, even though cutting funding to the IRS results in poorer service to all Americans trying to pay their low taxes.
Taxes are on everybody's lips since Tuesday night, in his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed some $320 billion in tax increases over 10 years, mostly for the highest-income Americans, who have been enjoying the fruits of the recovery over the past five years, offset by tax breaks to the shrinking middle class. The Republicans are shouting that this is redistribution of wealth, as if that were a bad thing.
I haven't decided whether my kid's conservatism is another joke - a pose designed to unsettle dad - or just what a white shoe big firm contract attorney looks like when he's 19. But I took the realization that Americans get off easy when it comes to taxes as a hopeful sign that he's living in the fact-based world. Now if I could just get other people to join him.