Economy

Yes, I Love Paying Taxes

The bare minimum that our common good requires is a civilian's matching commitment to pay his fair share of taxes.

I secretly love the ritual.

Every spring I pay a visit to Howard Carlin, my tax accountant, to settle my dues. Howard's upbeat personality, peppered with quirky quips, lightens the proceedings. Click, click, click, go his rapid-motion fingers. The numbers whir on screen like a digital slot machine. Up pops a figure. "See?" Howard chimes. "That's your tax burden." I wrinkle my nose. This faux disgust is just a ceremonial knee-jerk gesture, as if showing my solidarity with the millions of other Americans who vilify taxes.

But deep in my bones, that place that speaks my mind, I am proud and glad to pay my income taxes.

Others, especially those in the "Tea Party" movement, are not. Their battle cry, Taxed Enough Already (TEA), amplifies a crescendo of discontent over taxes (though they rarely specify which kinds) and government spending.

The Tea Party movement comprises protesters politically awakened by the recession. Many Tea Partiers voice their protest by describing lives freshly toppled by a layoff, a foreclosure, a bankruptcy, a catastrophic illness, a depleted retirement account. The irony? Their political complaint — "socialist tyranny," "high taxes," "stimulus spending" — often defies any credible explanation of their individual financial woe.

 

Though I sometimes look at my country with a healthy dose of criticism — the gimlet eye of a probing skeptic — I couldn't be more pleased to be American. I am as American as Wiffle ball or huckleberry pie. I lovingly recall starting a dog-walking business at the ripe age of 9. From Nike's ad campaign (Just Do It!) to PT Barnum's grand promotion (The Greatest Show on Earth!) all the way back to Benjamin Franklin's cheery Protestant proverbs (Well done is better than well said!), America's optimism and profit motive swim in my red blood cells.

That's why, in contrast to Tea Party "patriots," I fervently support income taxes.

Franklin on taxation

Beyond declaring that the only certainty in life is "death and taxes," Benjamin Franklin also reminded his complaining anti-tax contemporaries that government taxes were a pittance next to life's "more grievous" obligations. "We are taxed twice as much by our idleness, three times as much by our pride, and four times as much by our folly," said the Founding Father.

In deed and thought, I feel as connected to many of our Founding Fathers, and to this nation's revolutionary birth, as does any triangular-hat-sporting, placard-toting, Tea Party protester. Those demonstrators do not own a monopoly on those Founders or our history.

Paying income taxes confirms my pride as a modern-day American citizen. As loudly as I might declare my love for this country, I need to put my money where my mouth flaps. For those like me — not fighting in Afghanistan, not toiling in our foreign service, not extinguishing fires or fighting crime as a public servant — paying taxes makes real my commitment to a functioning America.

Besides the crucial social goods that taxes yield (schools, roads, soldiers, embassies, air traffic control), there are key business-related dividends that benefit people, including Tea Partiers, in the long view. Tax-supported research propagates new ideas to help make companies profitable and hiring. The microchip, the Internet, cellphones: Pick your daily necessity, and the government played a fundamental and pro-active part supporting the research and development necessary to get that product launched and its industry humming. The Tea Partiers dubiously downplay and deny government's crucial role incubating the innovations that shape our economy and change our lives.

To be sure, most reasonable tax protesters don't oppose all taxes or their rationale. Instead, they emphasize, taxes are too high.

But how much is too much?

America's overall effective federal tax rate, or the percentage of income that households fork over — in the form of individual, corporate, payroll and excise taxes — was 20.7% in 2006, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office's most recent calculation (2009). The lowest-earning fifth of Americans paid roughly 4.3% of their income in federal taxes, the middle fifth 14.2% and the top fifth 25.8%. Today these rates are lower for every income bracket, except the richest fifth, than in 1982, when President Reagan's first historic massive tax cuts went into effect. For all the recent grief doled on Uncle Sam, federal tax rates have remained remarkably flat, or often declined, over the past 30 years.

Moreover, taxes on the average single worker— including personal income taxes and employer-paid taxes on the worker's behalf — are lower in the USA than in any G-8 democracy (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom), except for Japan, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a non-partisan international organization that supports democracy and free markets.

Looking at federal tax rates over time, or comparing America with its closest competitors, our federal income taxes cannot plausibly be called "too high."

A time for fair sharing

This tender moment in history, besides, begs our collective support. Two global wars, a sour recession, millions of fellow citizens in economic turmoil: If ever there were a time Uncle Sam needed us to step up to the plate, it is now. The bare minimum that our common good requires is a civilian's matching commitment to pay his fair share of taxes.

That's why the Tea Party movement, with its churlish anti-government slogans and deadbeat timing, strikes me as so unpatriotic. As fashionable and "patriotic" as it might sound to demonize taxes and the government these days, I feel such duty and pride visiting Howard.

Rich Benjamin is the author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America.
He is senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank Demos and sits on the board of the Roosevelt Institution. His commentary is featured on NPR and Fox Radio, and in newspapers nationwide.