Monday, April 15, 2013

the cost of society

In the USA, it's Tax Day--the day when millions of people who waited until the last minute panic about all the forms and whether they have they money to pay what they owe, or when they rejoice about the money they've loaned the government over the past year being returned to them.

For the first time this year I filed my taxes ahead of the deadline and paid on time. It's an Easter season miracle.

Tax season threatens to overshadow the Easter season this year (and most years, due to the vagaries of the lunar calendar!). It's the time when we traditionally complain about the complexities of the tax code, the fact that so many of us need professionals just to navigate the forms, and of course we like nothing more than to complain about how much money we give to the government and to lament the ways in which they mis-spend our hard earned dollars.

Of course, we all pay taxes every day, because most of us live in places with sales tax and gas tax and property tax and various vice taxes. We all have a stake in the tax reality. But today is federal (and state) income tax filing deadline, so we're focused particularly on one type of tax, which about half the country pays. I heard a really interesting story on the radio today about the history of taxation in the US, that included the little tidbit that the income tax, when instituted via Constitutional amendment in 1913, originally applied to only about 4% of the population--just the very wealthy. It was during WWII that the income tax expanded to apply to about 44% of the population--just slightly lower than today. Of course, in those days we weren't paying all those other kinds of taxes. But the story said that people paid it relatively willingly, because with a war on they could SEE where their money was going, and they knew it was important.

It's harder today to see exactly where money goes, I suppose. I'm sure there's waste and mis-spent money. I suspect that's a smaller amount than most of us want to believe. Because really, let's just be honest: living in a society costs money. It can be expensive to run a 350-million member community across thousands and thousands of miles, especially when that community is active in any number of other communities around the world. Do we need more transparency? Yes. Do we also need to learn to trust just a little? yes. (aside: as much as I would like to be able to designate my taxes for things I care about, or rather to NOT be used for things I find objectionable, the reality is that a system like that would be even more problematic on a government scale than it is on a church/non-profit scale...and the whole designated-giving thing has been a *nightmare* for the church. Can you trust us to use money where it's most needed, to do the most good? What would happen if we expected that from the government too?)

I really appreciate having things like roads and train tracks and policemen and fire departments. I want children to be educated so they can create an even better future for this country and this world. I want clean air and clean water, standards for our industries, and someone else to negotiate with the people from other countries about any number of things, from banana imports to nuclear disarmament. I believe it's our collective responsibility to care for one another and for the natural resources we have been gifted, and to ensure that we leave future generations a land and a culture worth living in, so I long for the day when tax dollars are used to help people get training, education, housing, food, and the resources necessary to help them stand and contribute to that future. I like having controllers who know where all the airplanes are, a corps of brilliant engineers who can keep traffic moving even on a drought-depleted Mississippi, and a National Guard ready to step in when there's a disaster or a need. I appreciate people who inspect bridges, fill potholes, and welcome me to beautifully conserved National Parks. I want people to be looking into just what the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries are trying to sell into our bodies before we can buy things at the store. I want laws that create the boundaries of a society in which we all thrive.

I expect a lot from the government. I don't think they always deliver, but I think they do a whole heck of a lot better job than 350 million individuals working on their own and for their own agendas. And remember: we're pioneering the BY/OF/FOR model of government here--so it's not just "the government" doing things with "my" tax money. I live in this society. I am an active participant in the government, through my vote and my voice. When we pool our resources, we can do amazing good. Let's hold our government accountable to working for the common good even as we pay the dues of civilization.

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