Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Not a four-letter-word any more

In polite society there are four letter words. We all know them, even if we manage not to use them. Politics, however, has simplified this a bit. Whether in Washington or anywhere else in America, we are now down to a three letter word. Tax.

It may be heresy to say this, but both parties have found something to agree on: taxes are bad. The disagreement is one of degree, not of position. The easiest way to describe the Republican position is, “taxes are bad, especially on those who make the most money because they work the hardest, but necessary to maintain a strong national defense.” The Democratic position is slightly more convoluted, “Taxes are bad, especially on the poor who can least afford to pay. But taxes are also a good way to redistribute wealth.”

While I would like to say that neither of these messages is compelling, the Republicans have shined their “taxes are bad” message into a beacon to draw people like moths to a flame, and have sharpened their rhetoric to use “tax hike” as knife to cut down opposition.

So instead of saying that neither the Republican or Democratic position is compelling, I will say that neither is genuine, and has the interests neither of Americans nor America at its root. Like too much political rhetoric in the past twenty years, our language on taxation has been wielded to build a more successful party, not a more successful America.

For all the rhetoric and position-jockeying on taxes, there are a couple simple things I try to keep in mind when thinking about them.

First, taxes are where cheap talk gives way to real commitment. Nothing happens in the government (or anywhere else, as the charge for wireless internet connections at Starbucks illustrates) for free. A politician can talk up an idea all he or she wants, but until there is an action to put money behind it, it’s just a nice speech.

Second, the collection of what the government commits itself to becomes our social compact. Whether you believe government has a large or small role in society, taxes are the government’s commitment to a people that it will move the country in a given direction. A government’s ability to convince people to surrender their earnings to accomplish something is the government’s badge of legitimacy.

Statements that taxes are ‘bad’ or ‘good’ miss these two points entirely. People are willing to pay thousands of dollars for a business-class airplane seat because they feel there is value in what they are purchasing. This is the direction our national conversation on taxes must move: not whether taxes are good or bad, carte blanche, but whether the government is able to provide something of value to Americans for the taxes collected.

Any politician can demonize taxes—whether because they are too high on the wealthy, the poor, or the middle class—but the rhetoric of negation and using ‘tax’ like a three letter word will not create a stronger, safer, smarter, wealthier America. What America really needs, if we are to continue to be a strong, smart power, are politicians who are willing to recommit to a social compact with America.

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