Think of taxes in taste terms. We’ve been conditioned to think of taxes in disgusting, bitter terms something like bad-tasting medicine to be avoided whenever possible.
But consider another possibility: taxes are the delightful taste of a healthy democratic economy that works well for all of us.
Think about what taxes pay for. Start with life-protecting things we don’t see, like potable water and sewage pipes that keep us physically healthy. Go above ground to roads and bridges. Then think public schools and public universities that compete comfortably with private institutions and make education available for a wide segment the residents in this country. Shift then to the invisible, like the basic research provided by government grants and the military that have made the medical and computer revolutions possible. Add your own ideas and your list will fill pages.
In short, government uses our taxes to create the infrastructure all of us use. In the process of building and maintaining it, government creates thousands of good jobs. Without that infrastructure, private companies couldn’t create their millions of jobs, and they couldn’t bring us the delicious foods that sustain and please us. Nor the furniture and cars and gadgets that provide good flavor to the rest of life.
Just as eating your vegetables is easier when you understand the health benefits, taxes take on a surprisingly fine taste when you think of the necessities they buy that none of us can live without.
People in the United States haven’t always railed at the taste of taxes. Public investment was huge, of course, during World War II. Then after the war tax revenues brought us interstate highways, space exploration, the GI Bill, veterans’ housing, greatly expanded education frontiers and much more. Do we reject these measures that added a lively, positive flavor to our democracy? But then, after the 1970s, we gave in to the oft-repeated mantra that taxes are, at best, bitter medicine. Tax cuts became our favorite junk food.
Ironically, only the wealthy have received substantial tax cuts over the long term. Wealth for the Common Good, reports that since 1960, the richest one percent has seen their effective or actual tax rate go down by half, while middle class Americans have seen their actual tax rate slightly increase. That statement alone is the true bitter, bitter taste for the great majority of us if we let ourselves think about it.
We’ve been wrong about taste before. Cigarettes and cigars were sold on the pleasure of taste alone. Their horrific damage was hidden or denied. And we’ve allowed our taste buds to crave sugar-saturated, empty-calorie snacks that undermine our health. Too many of us suffer from obesity and resulting diseases like diabetes. Our children are increasingly the victims.
But our tastes our changing. As a society, we’ve begun outlawing smoking in public places. We’re learning that, as in the case of smoking, the tastes the advertisers are selling us too often are killing us.
Similarly, we can shift our thinking about the taste of taxes. Think not about what they won’t let you buy, but rather about what they have “already” bought and will buy for you in the future. “Think about the jobs they create. Go back to your menu of what taxes pay for and let your taste buds play over it. The taste of taxes will grow on you.
President Kennedy exhorted us to think about what we can do for our country. One thing that every one of us can do is to shift our thinking about taxes. Paste this on the fridge where we keep our food fresh: “Taxes are the flavor of a healthy democratic economy.” Then call your legislators and share the good news with them.
Clark Taylor of Needham is a retired professor of the College of Public and Community Service,
UMass Boston. He is working on a book called “Seeds of Freedom: Liberating Education in a Guatemalan Village.”