Taxes are one of those things that everybody loves to hate. Tax collectors are the perennial bad guys, a picture of a 1040 form is squeezed between a picture of Hitler and an MRE on the blog StuffNobodyLikes, and the certainty of death and taxes is widely agreed upon. The Beatles, angered by the high tax rate in England, even wrote a song about taxes (which, allegedly, some post offices actually play on April 15). "If you drive a car, I'll tax the street; If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat," sings George Harrison. Of course, this doesn't acknowledge the fact that taxes made the road possible.
But taxes, when viewed from a progressive perspective, just ain't so bad. Taxes have funded our highways, our roads, and our infrastructure. They've funded scientific development, the courts, communication systems, firefighters and and water supplies. They fund the FDA to keep our food and drugs safe, public education, and public health and emergency services. Simply put, taxes are what has enabled this country to grow, function, and succeed.
In fact, taxes have in many ways made the United States what it is today and (gasp) even made it possible for the rich to succeed and get richer. As George Lakoff and Bruce Budner wrote on TomPaine.com, it's not just the poor and middle class, but the rich who have benefited from taxes as well.
"Consider Bill Gates. He started Microsoft as a college dropout and has become the world's richest person. Though he has undoubtedly benefited from his unusual intelligence and business acumen, he could not have created or sustained his personal wealth without the common wealth. The legal system protected Microsoft's intellectual property and contracts. The tax-supported financial infrastructure enabled him to access capital markets and trade his stock in a market in which investors have confidence. He built his company with many employees educated in public schools and universities. Tax-funded research helped develop computer science and the internet. Trade laws negotiated and enforced by the government protect his ability to sell his products abroad. These are but a few of the ways in which Mr. Gates' accumulation of wealth was empowered by the common wealth and by taxation."
Although taxes didn't create Gates' wealth, they certainly allowed him, and millions of others, to succeed. "We think of taxes as investments that give us dividends," writes the Rockridge Institute.
Part of changing the public perspective on taxes, though, isn't just realizing all the good that taxes have brought about. We need to reframe the debate, using positive, progressive language to talk about taxes. We need to drop the phrase "tax relief" and replace it with "tax equity." We need to talk about taxes as what has driven, and not destroyed, our economy.
Granted, the current tax system -- and the way that taxpayer money is being spent -- is far from perfect. An article in yesterday's Times notes that a conservative estimate of the amount of money spent on the Iraq War would cover the cost of Hillary Clinton's universal health care plan or Barack Obama's health plan and proposal to help people facing foreclosure. And even the super-rich Warren Buffet -- who says that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary -- admits that the tax code needs some help. "The taxation system has tilted towards the rich and away from the middle class," he says in this video.
Robert Borosage and Celinda Lake write about a more progressive tax code in The American Prospect:
"Simplify the tax code and make it more progressive. Tax income on wealth at the same rate as income on work. Give low-wage and middle-income earners a break while raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Invest in areas vital to our economy. That would help generate demand and produce jobs here at home rather than chasing them overseas."
And it's not just the federal tax system that needs some help. As Amy Traub has written, New York state's tax system needs a serious overhaul. She writes,
"The fact is, New York is the most unequal state in the country, and our regressive tax system only makes things worse. We’ve been cutting taxes for high-income households for years and now we’ve got a gaping budget shortfall. Raising taxes on the less-than-half-a-percent of New Yorkers who benefited most from the state’s economic good times is the least we can do."
So, when you write out your check to the IRS this year or stand in a mile-long post office line, remember that although filling out forms and waiting in lines isn't any fun, that taxes themselves are, in fact, a good thing. If only George Harrison was still around to rewrite "Taxman" from a more progressive perspective...