Taxes, government, and the good life

by Linda Beale

Taxes, government, and the good life

In 2012, Ed Asner narrated a cartoon video prepared for the California Federation of Teachers called “Taxing the Rich”.  It’s worth watching, given the four-decades-long effort by the GOP to convince ordinary Americans that “trickle down” economic goodies will be coming their way if they only support the fat cats’ desire for even more tax cuts for the rich, elimination of the estate tax paid by the rich, and “corporate tax reform” so that the corporations mostly owned by and benefiting their rich shareholders (and shareholder/managers) pay even less than the paltry amount they now pay in taxes.

This has accompanied the long-term position of the GOP that wants to “shrink government” (see, e.g., Heritage Foundation, Mar. 15, 2005, The Impact of Government Spending on Economic Growth, setting forth the ideological position favoring shrinking government spending as “less efficient[]” than private sector spending)–as though the jointly undertaken endeavors of American citizens working together through government were inevitably less good than private spending (even if that private spending permits a very small portion of the population to grab all the productivity gains from the vast majority of the population).  Shrinking government, that is, has been treated as a goal in itself, even though there is no clear evidence supporting the ideology and in fact considerable evidence on the other side–i.e., America’s adhering to spending the same percentage of GDP for public functions now as it did 50 years ago has stifled growth compared to other countries that have wisely invested in human and physical capital through infrastructure and health care and similar public projects.

But the side benefit to the rich of convincing ordinary Americans to vote against interest and support downsizing taxes (with tax cuts mostly to the benefit of the wealthy) while downsizing government functions (with benefit cuts mostly to the detriment of ordinary people) has been the increasing inequality of ownership of assets and power in this country.  The wealthy have taken a larger and larger share of the pie, while using their wealth to lobby against decent livable wages for their workers, get laws passed that make it difficult or impossible for their workers to unionize to have some strength to negotiate better contracts to claim a share of the productivity gains, and still telling their workers to be thankful for the tidbits that “trickle down” (as though paying a substandard wage for a hard day’s work is a mark of generosity–no wonder Trump thought he could claim that his “work” to earn “billions” by shortchanging contractors and suppliers, workers and partners  was a “sacrifice”).

Here’s the blurb that accompanies the video on YouTube

Tax the rich: An animated fairy tale (Dec. 5, 2012) is narrated by Ed Asner, with animation by Mike Konopacki. Written and directed by Fred Glass for the California Federation of Teachers. An 8 minute video about how we arrived at this moment of poorly funded public services and widening economic inequality. Things go downhill in a happy and prosperous land after the rich decide they don’t want to pay taxes anymore. They tell the people that there is no alternative, but the people aren’t so sure. This land bears a startling resemblance to our land. For more info, © 2012 California Federation of Teachers

Donald Trump, in all his boasting about his enormous wealth and success, doesn’t even pretend to pay substantial amounts in taxes (and perhaps pays so little that he has decided based on that knowledge not to comply with the longstanding tradition of releasing tax returns so citizens can judge for themselves what kind of citizen the aspirant for high office really is).  Trump’s attitude is not really different from the received wisdom of the Republican party.  The GOP has worked to achieve tax cuts for the rich for decades, since Reagan began cutting their taxes in 1981 (and raising taxes on seniors and others).

In other words, Trump and the GOP generally seem to view it as patriotic for the rich to pay as little in taxes as possible, even though their riches in large part are owed to wealth-friendly policies gained through intensive lobbying made possible by their immense wealth and cozy relationships with congressmen elected (again with the help of that immense wealth) on right-wing platforms–such as so-called “right to work” laws that really are “elimination of negotiating power with Big Bosses” laws, encouraging nonunionized workers to resent the benefits unions have achieved for unionized workers (rather than realizing they should unionize to fight for those same benefits for themselves), environmental and safety deregulation, grumbling about deficits and telling people “government is the problem” instead of investing in public infrastructure (roads, schools, health research, funding of the arts), and wealth-friendly tax policies (privileged low rates for their main source of income from capital and  inherited windfalls with no tax to the heirs and miniscule tax to the deceased whose estate generally escaped tax during life and was subject to a pittance of an estate tax after death).

When facts are examined, it is clear that the U.S. government–at least outside of the military–is now too small for the immense tasks facing us.  We have starved the IRS while assigning it more and more functions, meaning it is much harder for the IRS to effectively enforce the laws, allowing wealthy people and big corporations with sophisticated lawyers a better chance to scam the system while ordinary people pay taxes due through withholding. We have cut back substantially on federal support for vital basic research, with the expected consequences that the nation is beginning to fall behind on technological and medical innovations.  (Too many of our big pharmacy companies would rather just run the price up on drugs than do the hard research to develop new cures.)  Public support for education at the local, state and federal level has failed to keep up with the need for improved school buildings, better paid teachers, and support adequate to maintain good learning environments for all schoolchildren. While regulations should be regularly examined to ensure they still make sense, the U.S. has fallen behind on necessary regulation of commercial enterprises that have substantial impact on sustainable living:  environmental infrastructure–from innovative responses to the man-made global warming to programs to counter zika, ebola, and the problem of antibiotic resistance–is underfunded or just plain missing; while companies cheat workers –claiming they are independent contractors, cutting hours and using contingent scheduling that tends to cost more to the worker than they earn in the short time at work, failing to pay overtime due, or failing to remit health insurance premiums deducted from paychecks.

It’s time for Americans to start hearing from more of their leaders, and more from the people they trust in their local jurisdictions who are firefighters and teachers and preachers and social workers and businessmen, about the importance of governmental work and the public infrastructure that taxes support.  True patriots know that taxes are the way we work together to build a genuine community.