Since the beginning of the new year, I’ve heard quite a bit of grumbling, both virtually and in real life conversations, about decreasing net pay due to federal tax increases. Most people claim losing relatively moderate sums, to the tune of $100 or so a paycheck. For some families, $100 less disposable income each pay period is significant, a deceptively small amount which has the remarkable ability to ensure that everyone’s mouths are fed and the power doesn’t go out in a household. For others, it adds up to eating out on one less occasion each month, while for still more people, the dollar value is so minuscule relative to total income as to make the impact of the tax hike entirely negligible (though very vocal complaints are definitely to be heard from this group too). I have long been in favor of a more progressive tax system, of a reversal of those tax cuts bestowed again and again upon the richest among us, however that’s an issue for another post.
What gets me about all this ranting and complaining is the complete lack of thought regarding where that tax money goes. I’ve long wished that American taxpayers held a more European view toward taxation. A German-born professor of mine always touted April 15th as one of her favorite days of the year – paying taxes fills her with pride and generosity, a sense of positively contributing to something of which she is a part. Across the pond, many nations have considerably higher tax rates and alarmingly fewer qualms about it than us. But that’s because they have a heightened awareness regarding not only where that tax money goes but how it benefits the entire citizenry, not to mention a more progressive attitude toward social welfare.
Sure, some portion of our tax dollars will be routed to unsuccessful projects or to causes that we don’t support (something like $0.37 of every American tax dollar used to go to military spending, a figure I have hope to imagine will soon be decrease). But despite all our misgivings and dissatisfactions, we are the ultimate beneficiaries of a sizable amount of that tax money, whether in the form of roads and infrastructure development, education, the production of jobs, or safety and security now and into our old age. These benefits are rarely considered when taxes increase, and the opportunity costs are given even less thought. If the government weren’t to manage all of these services for us, how much would they cost under private hands? Would they even be managed? We don’t have to worry that the overpass will give out on our commute to work or that our children won’t be able to receive a basic education because these things, albiet at times imperfectly, are built in by virtue of our tax dollars. Just consider the healthcare system. Countries with universal coverage spend less on average per person for care than Americans do, and they have the comfort of knowing there is a tightly woven safety net in place should they fall ill or become injured. In stark contrast, many Americans delay doctor or hospital visits because of the impending cost, praying away symptoms and injuries in the hope that they won’t need to spend exorbitant sums of money on their own health and wellbeing.
Transforming our attitude toward taxation requires an overhaul of the fiercely independent American spirit. The values upon which the Founding Fathers created this nation are beautiful and stirring – liberty, freedom, sovereignty. But overtime such a moral code has translated into a rather self-centered populace, one that gives little regard to the necessity of community, cooperation, or ensuring the welfare of others. In practice, this social mentality prizes individual rights over the wellbeing of the general population while generating fear of infringements upon those freedoms without recognition of the necessity of communal liberty.
But what I’m calling for is not a total overhaul of the American way of thinking (much as I would relish one!) so much as a subtle shift in our mentality. The concept is simple and universal: mindfulness. Rather than isolating ourselves in bubbles without regard for the ways in which our lives touch and are touched by others, we need to increase our awareness of the grand interconnectedness of things. No complaint, decision, word, or deed of ours is immune to this interdependence. If, upon receiving a smaller sum in the net pay section on our paychecks, we considered for only a brief moment to what we are contributing with that money out of our own pockets, it might be just enough to stop the whining. If we realized that paying taxes is a privilege of living in a democratized nation, these complaints could abruptly stop. And if we truly seized upon the power that taxation provides, if we held ourselves more accountable for the ways in which our tax dollars are spent, if we deeply considered and voiced our concerns regarding the allocation of public money, then maybe we just might grow to like, or even love, paying taxes.