News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Talking Taxes

Contrary to what the right would have you believe, our tax dollars really are hard at work.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

I don't need to remind anyone that it's time to pay your taxes. But when will progressive politicians, intellectuals and activists learn to counter the Right's mantra that we get nothing for our hard-earned tax dollars?

What we all need to do, however, is to figure out how to explain to ordinary Americans why, in fact, we do pay taxes. The Republican mantra -- "shrink government and lower taxes" -- is fundamentally dishonest. They want us to believe that we are heavily taxed by an oppressive government and get nothing in return.

The truth is, our quality of life is far safer and more convenient because of government ordinances, regulations and inspections. Follow me through a typical day and I'll show you what I mean. Government services and regulations may seem invisible, but they're everywhere you look.

I wake up and brush my teeth with water whose purity is inspected by government agencies. I pour some cereal and milk into a bowl. No creepy crawlers appear; both are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Federally mandated labels on the cereal box and milk container, moreover, list the ingredients contained inside.

I leave home and in the middle of the street intersection are city workers doing maintenance on the sewer system after California's most recent ferocious winter storms. I get in my car, reassured that the smog device in my 20 year-old care recently passed the state's stringent test. On the way to the BART station, I look across the bay and see a breathtaking view of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge. When I first arrived in California, some 30 years ago, before the state enacted stricter pollution controls, a brownish haze masked such magnificent vistas.

As I drive, I slow down for city workers fixing potholes. I pass the public library where I often do research. I stop at lights and signs that regulate traffic and keep drivers from murdering all the kids walking to public schools. I park and walk to a Bay Area Rapit Transit subsway station, financed with public money. From the window of the train, I see cars locked in gridlock on an interstate freeway funded by the federal government.

In a café, I turn on my computer, remembering that a Pentagon agency created the Internet and that the federal government subsidized the development of the chips that now drive my laptop. To complete some research, I call a colleague at the University of California at Berkeley, the world's premier public university. The U.C. system has educated hundreds of thousands of undergraduates who, as educated and skilled workers, have fueled this state's economy.

By now, I have a headache. So I take some ibuprofen, tested and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

It's time for lunch, and I'm meeting a former graduate student from China, who is now an American-based professor. I don't even think about the hygiene regulations or public health inspections that allow us to enjoy eating in a restaurant without worrying about getting sick from contaminated food. She asks if it's possible to earmark your taxes so that you don't pay for the war in Iraq. I wish.

On a walk between storms, I see San Francisco police officers dealing with a car accident and hear the shrill siren of a fire truck racing toward some emergency. We stop at a corner convenience store that's prohibited by law from selling liquor and tobacco to minors.

Once at home, I make a reservation for a future holiday hiking in one of our great national parks, paid for by tax dollars. Last month, I spent four glorious days cross-country skiing in Yosemite, yet another taxpayer supported national park.

I finish reading my students' papers for tomorrow's seminar. Rarely do I remember that it's the taxpayers of California who pay my salary and give me the opportunity to teach and write. I finally put those envelopes with my tax checks -- my dues for using all these services and infrastructure -- into the mail.

As a slip them into the mailbox, I think about the right-wing's unbelievable success at persuading Americans to believe that they are heavily taxed and receive nothing in return for their hard-earned dollars.

What progressive politicians, intellectuals and activists need to do, perhaps every day, is to remind Americans how many times, during a single day, they actually see their tax dollars at work. Otherwise, the idea of a public good will simply become one of those quaint phrases from a distant past.

Historian and journalist Ruth Rosen currently teaches public policy at UC Berkeley. She is a senior fellow at the Longview Institute.