Taxes and What We Get for Them

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Yesterday was tax day, and as usual the Tea Party and others rallied against our supposedly unreasonable tax burden, even though United States citizens pay some of the lowest taxes in the developed world.

But tax time is also a good time to consider what we get out of those twenty-seventh-highest taxes in the world.

For instance. Raleigh gets trashed by a tornado, so we need an enormous response by public agencies to help those harmed and dig our way out. Thank you, fire department; thank you, police department; thank you, Department of Transportation; thank you, taxes.

The continuing crisis at Fukushima Daiichi has lost its central status (first to Libya, then the NCAA men's basketball final, now to economic concerns, next to anything else we can think of to take our minds off it), so knees have ceased to jerk quite as spasmodically regarding nuclear power.

But now we need to think about the performance of our own nuclear plants. According to the News & Observer, the Progress Energy plant that sits closes to my house is about the healthiest nuclear plant in the country -- but otherwise the Progress nuclear fleet emerges as a fleet deeply troubled by errors, incidents, and accidents. Of course activists claim the good marks are a whitewashing, but that we have public hearings at all? that we have a Nuclear Regulatory Commission, deeply flawed as it is, to look into the problems? That we have public hearings when Progress and Duke Energy seek to merge?

Thank you, taxes.

We're trying to figure out how to improve a public square, requiring all kinds of hearings and management of land owned by the state. Thank you, taxes.

We have decided it's in our best interest to put more sidewalks on more streets in Raleigh, and to charge homeowners less for doing so. That's good for all kinds of reasons -- if for no other reason than studies show lack of sidewalk access and obesity are related. For the sidewalks -- and for the studies themselves, supported by universities and countless government science and research organizations -- thank you, taxes.

So  we have to pay. Now no rational person disagrees that the system is way too complex and needs adjusting. But say the word "tax" and most Americans grab the torches and pitchforks and surround you. I speak to organizations all over the country about infrastructure and taxes. Two thirds of the way through it's all happy faces, as I talk about our miraculous water and wastewater systems, our roads and bridges and cables. Then I raise the issue of paying for all this stuff, and suddenly it's crossed arms and male pattern baldness, as all I see are the tops of the heads of men grumbling into their belt buckles.

Folks: We're lucky. Our lives are easy. We have great roads and great wires and great pipes. But they got there somehow and if we want them to stay, we're going to have to pay for them.

Raleigh, a city invented from the ground up in 1792 as a state capital, had an Overseer of the Main Streets before it had main streets, and he had the power to demand that you come on out a few days a year and help him. If you wanted streets, you had to pay for them. You could work, you could send slaves (antebellum South; what can I say?), or you could pay your way out. But nobody thought they shouldn't have to pay for the streets.

Now we all pay our way out. We call it taxes. But somehow we've decided that taxes are unfair or irresponsible, a money-grab by the government.

They're not. They're how we get all this great stuff. So grumble if you like about how complex the tax forms are -- I know I do. But the taxes themselves? Which should obviously be higher? Say what I say.

Thank you.


Posted by Scott Huler

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Wires, pipes, roads, and water support the lives we lead, but the average person doesn't know where they go or even how they work. Our systems of infrastructure are not only shrouded in mystery, many are woefully out of date. In On the Grid, Scott Huler takes the time to understand the systems that sustain our way of life, starting from his own quarter of an acre in North Carolina and traveling as far as Ancient Rome.

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