Op-ed column: Taxes are price of a good life, and not such a burden
Nobody is happy about paying taxes. I deplore them like the next guy. But let’s face it: All the whining about taxes at a time of rising deficits and the possibility of serious reductions in government services is growing really tiresome.
I know very good people who have small businesses. They are carpenters, they sell insurance, they run restaurants or small farms. Nearly all of them are riding on the great anti-tax bandwagon. Many seem to have completely forgotten about the concept of communal responsibilities.
Our taxes generally fluctuate over decades within a generally acceptable range. It doesn’t make sense to threaten everyone’s security by bickering over 2-3 percent increases. It just isn’t a big deal — and especially not for wealthy individuals and big corporations who have, or should have saved, surplus income.
Public education, police and fire services, the already very basic social safety net, the huge U.S. defense budget — that highly successful government-managed operation that has made the U.S. the most dominant country in the world — all these things cost money. The money comes from tax revenue.
Exemptions drain coffers
The practice of granting so many tax exemptions to private entities is draining essential money from the public coffers.
Business interests in New York state and nationwide whine mightily about their high taxes, while the business community already has its hands deep in the pockets of the taxpayers. By now it has become clear that the long-term national strategy of business groups is to gain access to even more public money by privatizing both public education and the Social Security system.
These are the last two big sectors in the economy into which private interests can start tapping. Anti-tax rhetoric is their convenient short-term tactic. Think of it as hydrofracking into public money, if you like.
Truly one of the big recent public-relations deceptions has been convincing the U.S. middle class that taxes are bad and that our U.S. government is overly intrusive. It doesn’t say much for us — the public — that many of us have swallowed this nonsense whole.
A country that can provide neither affordable health care for its citizens, nor establish a livable minimum wage, nor even set fair rules in its banking sector is not a “nanny” state. The myth that government in the U.S. is encroaching so much on freedom has become a kind of collective delusion.
It is far easier to argue that corporate America itself intrudes into private lives on a much more massive scale than “big” government does. After all, business interests routinely advertise in our living rooms and kitchens, invading our privacy with telemarketing campaigns while treating real people as mere “targets” of consumption. There is also the new business push to collect data about our personal habits and interests. All this is much more intrusive than anything “big government” does.
One would even think from listening to all the anti-tax rhetoric that the Southern states are an American Shangri-La, with their underfunded, generally inferior public schools and inadequate social services and lack of zoning standards. Some of us will take life in New York state any time over life in Texas or South Carolina or Florida.
Much public money is already draining into the private sector. One of just several examples is the $49,625 in New York state taxpayer money in the form of grants provided to business owners in the village of Schoharie. This public money covers up for the private insurance companies whose policies and payouts to flood-damaged businesses were inadequate.
Another example is from Fulton County, where we now know that two companies have been enjoying the benefit of longstanding tax exemptions at the Fulton County Airport. The two companies have been running businesses there for years and years, taking advantage of a special tax break. Now they threaten to sue the town of Johnstown for finally having the gumption to insist that the exemption must end.
And what about all that public money — $5 billion — to be paid to private construction contractors to build the new Tappan Zee Bridge? Many of the owners and employees of those businesses will be collecting public money in their paychecks while they complain privately long and hard about all our awful New York state taxes.
A bone to GE
Perhaps the most inappropriate recent public grant to a wealthy private business is the grant of $3.1 million in public money to GE in order to help the company develop a more efficient battery. That is public money being thrown like a bone to a private company that can easily afford to finance its own research and development projects. What about funneling some extra money instead to Schenectady and Gloversville and hundreds of other cities and towns? That is where the real need presently lies.
Do we as citizens and businesses really pay too much in taxes?
Not really. Sweden, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, Denmark — all countries with historically far higher actual effective tax rates on businesses — offer standards of living for their citizens equal to or superior to that enjoyed by U.S. citizens. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Tax Database, other affluent countries with even higher standards of living have historically, and currently, far higher effective tax rates compared to Gross National Product. For example, Sweden’s is 48.3 percent of GNP. Germany’s is 36.2 percent. Ours in the United States is only 28.6 percent.
As far as our state business tax climate goes, we may pay higher taxes, but in New York state we have invested far more in infrastructure such as transportation, communication and public education. These are investments that provide many indirect benefits to small businesses.
It is truly remarkable to watch the way the U.S. middle class has been cooperating in swindling itself out of affordable health care and pension security. Much of this self-inflicted damage is the result of swallowing myths spread by anti-tax operatives in the right-wing media.
When I hear my business friends complaining about their taxes, I think of the minimum-wage workers or nearly-minimum-wage workers who have been working for decades for small businesses without being provided benefits or even basic health coverage. It is hard to overlook the fact that the public has been paying for their food stamps and absorbing their health care costs so businesses can retain a steady supply of cheap workers. Name another country in the Western world that lets their business community get away with that special deal.
Civic responsibility must trump narrow self-interest in any society worth its salt. Paying taxes is simply a necessary part of life in a dynamic Western economy. Nobody wants to do it. But bickering about an extra 2-3 percent of personal income isn’t worth the social and political instability. More important matters loom on the horizon.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion Section.