Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Americans should pay more taxes

     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.


  1. advocate of the anti-ChristJanuary 21, 2015 at 12:54 AM

    Government is the source of money to begin with. It prints the stuff. So why taxes. Why does it not print what it needs and eliminate the costly IRS bureaucracy, record keeping, etc. We'd all "pay" through resulting general inflation.

    Oh, and as for the Singularity, you are wrong. We will soon all be immortal.

  2. The subject of economics has always fascinated me, and the positive vs. negative effects on our economy of lowering and raising taxes can be debated at length. I missed Obama's SOTU address, but what you wrote about his 10-year tax increase proposal sounds like a positive step to me, a middle-class citizen who sometimes struggles to make ends meet. The gap between the wealthy and the rest of us cannot continue to widen if we truly want a fair and democratic society in America.

  3. "Closer to region...."
    That is spot on.

  4. Bravo to your son. I hope we meet before he's 119 ( and I'm a bit older than that)

  5. Or maybe many years from now he'll be there with his daughter, Neil. Why so sexist?

  6. Is that remark really sexist? I shudder to imagine your world, then gratefully realize, I don't have to.

  7. It isn't just Christians who want to impose their way and Muslims do so in a dangerous way. Hasidics want city to change their rules for them. I'd love to see an article on them from you.

  8. or airlines to change their rules, off topic, but interesting

  9. Neil: I wrote Tom Roeser a few years ago to compliment his writing and ridicule his reasoning and asked him whether he wanted to get rid of all taxes or would accept some level of taxation to keep ravenous mobs from roaming our streets. He probably got a lot of letters like that and didn't respond.


  10. If we could just monetize all of the shrieking and caterwauling that conservatives do every time someone suggests giving a single extra dollar to the less fortunate, probably no one would have to pay taxes ever.

  11. What are your thoughts on the state taxing retirement income? We had an entire generation or 2 pay less than their fair share of taxes their entire careers - if the state didn't have enough money for pensions in 1980, shouldn't they have raised the rate back then? - then end up collecting retirement that goes un-taxed by the state.

    Instead, the state raised the rate 67% to 5%, basically forcing future generations to pay for the low taxes the previous generation received. Wouldn't that be a "fair tax"? I find it a bit hypocritical that most of the folks floating increased taxes are the ones at or near retirement age and have already earned their wealth.

  12. I like how your son thinks - I'm guessing he reads more than 3 magazines too! Adam Smith and Henry Ford recognized the need in a free enterprise system for wages sufficient for money to circulate through the economy. The Clinton administration showed that you could raise taxes and grow the economy. So which President agreed to permanently undo most of those Clinton tax hikes? President Obama. Yes, I know his motives were good and the GOP was reckless in its brinksmanship, but he did it. Now, with a GOP Congress, he thinks he can undue it? Of course not - he's posturing for history.

    By the way, didn't sequestration have *something* to do with the deficit going down? I wouldn't be surprised if the GOP responded "let's give a tax cut to everyone and make the government tighten its belt instead. Do you remember all the doomsday predictions the Democrats made last time we pushed this?" Which will also be a non-starter.

    The bigger issue discussed last night was the President's remarks about future jobs and education. Anyone who thinks that community colleges is the answer hasn't spent much time in a community college lately.

    1. (Last Anonymous Anon-not-Anon - sorry, I'm drowning in a sea of anonymity...)

    2. I don't know about "lately," but I spent a lot of time in various community colleges, including Truman College, Daley College and Malcolm X college and found them all learning environments par excellence. I much preferred the small class size, the accessibility of the professors, and the cost of classes to the 4-year colleges with their humongous classes, teaching assistants of doubtful ability, and high prices. In my opinion the level of instruction was much better at the community college.

    3. Point taken - I think community colleges are good for a lot of things but, ironically, NOT for kids out of high school. The percentage of kids who start at community colleges who -ever- get a 4 year degree are very low - like the low 20's. I think some of that is because of the nature of the students (some are there for the low tuition, others because they had bad grades), some because the classes aren't at the same level as the 4-year schools so they need remedial help or are behind when they transfer. I've taken some good community college courses, but I know that it wouldn't have taken much effort to just get a passing grade. As for adults, with the exception of nursing I don't think they're that great at retraining workers to wholesale new professions.

      You mention high tuition costs at 4-year schools and I think *that's* where to focus our energy - tuition should be free at such schools, or at least there should be an offer to repay student loans or give back tuition money to parents when the kid gets the degree in, say, 6 years of starting (how's *that* for some incentive to hunker down?). And free board for those in STEM programs. That would mimic what other nations with industrial policies do.

  13. Neil, you head this post "Americans should pay more taxes." The column in today's S-T says "Americans could pay more taxes." Someone there trying not to offend Gov. Brucie?

  14. Not necessarily. I was trying to goose it up a bit.


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