One lesson I learned growing up while watching Pop Mannion at work as our town supervisor is that a lot of people cannot make the connection between the taxes they hate to pay and the services they expect their town, state, and federal governments to provide.
As far as they were concerned, every penny they paid in taxes of any kind went either into the pockets of do-nothing politicians and bureaucrats or lazy bums living on welfare in New York City and other big and dangerous cities in the state and around the country.
You could hardly blame them for thinking the former. The New York State Legislature was then (and is now) a comfortable hide-out for gangs of crooks and con artists who really did seem to think that taxpayers existed to be fleeced and the only reason we had a state government was to provide them and their families and friends with an easy living.
As for the latter, they just couldn’t be made to hear these questions let alone answer them: How did they think the streets got plowed and paved? (The highway department crews did nothing but stand around leaning on their shovels all day, collecting time and a half for a quarter day’s work, you know.) Why did the fire department bother to show up when they were called? Who built and maintained the fighter jets at the nearby Air National Guard base and trained and paid the pilots protecting us from the damn Rooskies? Did they think the teachers who taught their kids, the janitors that swept and mopped the classrooms, the bus drivers who got up at four in the morning in the worst sorts of weather to get the kids to school did it out of the goodness of their hearts?
Did they think all this came free?
Well, yeah, they did.
They didn’t know they thought this. They’d even deny they thought this if you asked them that straight out. But they did. What they thought they thought was that they were paying too much for it and that other people weren’t paying enough or anything.
It is a bedrock belief of all anti-tax types that they themselves are the only people in the United States paying taxes.
What it came down to, though, is that they wanted their taxes cut to nothing without a single cut to the services they took for granted.
Most of them. There were a few who’d have been happy to watch the town’s roads crumble, the schools shut their doors, and the fire department sell off its trucks rather than pay a nickel in taxes. I almost admired these skinflints. At least they understood how things worked. They just didn’t care if things worked.
Another lesson I learned from Pop Mannion, though, was that politicians and government officials who try to explain the facts of life to disgruntled taxpayers are risking their jobs come the next election.
Americans do not want to hear that rather than being over-taxed they are laughably under-taxed relative to the amount and quality of government-provided services they expect as their due.
The loudest complainer about his taxes was very likely to be the first to call our house on a Saturday afternoon when Pop was supposed to be relaxing with us to scream about the giant pothole at the end of his driveway.
He did not want to hear that a crew wouldn’t be able to get to it until after the weekend because the town couldn’t afford to pay the overtime.
He certainly wouldn’t have wanted to hear Pop say that the town would be glad to call in some guys on their day off, fill up the gas tanks on the truck and the roller, and get right to work taking care of that pothole if Mr Angry Homeowner was willing to pick up the tab.
“That’s what I pay taxes for!” he’d have had every right to splutter.
By the way, this is where Libertarianism falls on its keister or I should say bottoms out—nobody’s going to pay out of his pocket every time a pothole on his street needs fixing. (Dear Libertarian readers, I’m using potholes as a metaphor for all public services, so don’t try to use the minimal government argument on me. Use it on the guy with the pothole at the end of his driveway. Again, that’s a metaphor.) Actually, I’ve never met a self-styled Libertarian who wasn’t a version of those disgruntled taxpayers. They don’t really want the government to cut back on services. They just want somebody else to pay for them.
Now, I used the word keister up there because it’s a great Reaganesque word and it’s appropriate to bring up Ronald Reagan here because Reagan was the great proponent of the You Can Have Your Cake and Eat It philosophy of big government. That’s Reagan’s legacy. Lots of government spending at little or no cost.
Reagan liked to point out that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. What he meant, though, was that there’s no such thing as a free lunch for other people.
For the rest of us, lunch was on the house and we got a free dessert too.
I’d like to blame Reagan for infecting the country with this foolishness, but it’s been a strain in American politics—and I mean both definitions of strain—since the get-go. Reagan rose to office partly on that plank in his personal platform. His legacy was giving the attitude a smile and an affable shrug with which to express itself instead of the irritable and nasty and skulking look it had formerly worn.
He made Scroogishness feel like a virtue and being Scrooge a pleasant and even admirable way to be.
But California’s Proposition 13, the first and still the most far-reaching and destructive declaration that the people have a right to have their cake and eat it too, had already been enacted two years before Reagan became President.
It’s been said that the Conservative plan is to turn the whole country into California, to have the middle class constantly denying itself necessary services while the rich laugh and cheerfully buy those services for themselves with what, for them, amounts to pocket change.
Which is what happened in California last year. The state legislature finally came to grips with the state’s financial problems but the voters stopped them from doing what needed to be done.
And now something similar is happening here in New York.
Last night a crowd showed up at a local school board meeting to protest possible cuts in extracurricular activities:
What is school without music, yearbook, honor society or JV sports?
Those are among the extracurricular activities parents and students pleaded with the leaders of the Pine Bush School District to keep at Monday’s budget forum at Circleville Middle School.
With state aid set to be slashed by more than $5 million, and contractual obligations due to rise by about $4 million, the district must somehow meet the needs of the community and deal with the stark reality of some of the region’s highest proposed cuts.
New York State’s practically broke. The Governor can’t raise taxes because the State Legislature won’t. (Except on poor people who don’t vote in the form of more sin taxes.) That leaves it up to the local school districts to make up for the shortfalls themselves. To his credit, the school superintendent brought up the possibility and put it in stark, realistic terms:
“When you have less to spend you have to spend less or raise taxes,” Superintendent Phil Steinberg told the crowd of some 250. “It’s about making choices.”
The apparent response from the crowd was predictable.
But while hardly anyone could stomach the 18 percent tax hike or layoffs of some 100 school workers needed to keep the status quo, it was the possible cuts to extracurricular activities that drew the most heat on the cold night.
Basically, it sounds like people were saying, “What do taxes have to do with it? We’re talking about my kid’s fun and future success!”
“If we cut music programs, how am I supposed to continue my life?” asked high school student Jacob Barkman, to ringing applause.
“And what about (getting into) college? Are we supposed to leave the extracurricular part blank?” asked high school student Marielle Darwin, to even louder applause.
If too many activities are cut, it wouldn’t just hurt the kids, many parents said. The cuts would devalue the district that spans three counties and is a magnet for folks moving up from New York City.
“And that would hurt property values,” said Mary Ann Anthony, who has two kids in Pine Bush schools.
OK, I don’t mean to sound like Slate’s Jacob Wiesberg here and call the entire American public childish and ignorant. I know I’m being unfair. I’m sure there were many responsible and realistic people in that room.
But I’m just as sure that even among the responsible and realistic there were those who would rather let the yearbook go unpublished than give up their cable and use the money to pay the extra in taxes that would save it.
People came to the meeting with suggestions on how to pay for things the district was running out of money to pay for:
Hold fund-raisers, some said. Get tough with the unions and bus company, said others.
Perhaps those who can afford it can pay to play sports, a few parents suggested.
Darwin drew some of the loudest applause when she echoed suggestions made by two Town of Crawford officials: Students should pay to park at the high school.
“If we charge $35, we can raise $4,000,” she said.
Yep. Bake sales will solve everything.
Now, what do these suggestions have in common, besides being completely inadequate to solving the problem and their usefulness as proof that a lot of people just have no idea how much things cost?
They are all plans for making somebody else pay for my services.
They are all various ways of saying, We can have our cake and eat it too, and by the way slices of said cake will be on sale for a dollar at half time, come on out and support the team.
Before we progressives get too smug:
Last month, voters in Oregon did the responsible and realistic thing and agreed to raise taxes—on the rich.
Now, it’s true, the rich and the well-to-do do not pay their fair share in taxes and they are doing what they can to see that that they pay even less. And a minimal increase in their marginal rates would go a long way towards digging the country out of its financial hole. But the fact is that for the great majority of us the rich are other people and voting to raise their taxes while leaving ours alone is still voting to make other people pay for our services.
Meanwhile, the President is counting on the back-ended stimulus money to start kicking in this spring and help move us towards recovery, but the money from earlier is already running out and the same troubles it was used to forestall are going to return with a vengeance.
And while I’m hoping and praying the Democrats in Congress get it together to pass a useful jobs bill, I have to wonder how they plan to pay for it because there doesn’t even seem to be the will to roll back the Bush tax cuts for the rich, let alone raise taxes a dime on the middle class, and once again we’re talking about freezing spending without cutting any services.
To make matters worse, we have a vociferous and growing political party devoted to one single goal, Having Their Cake and Eating It Too. The tea partiers like to think of themselves as simply anti-tax. But what they really are are anti-any government spending on other people and pro-making other people pay for their services.