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I actually like paying my taxes every year. It’s true.
In 2011, I earned about $70,000, and after accounting for the tax-free money I put away in my retirement account, I paid a total of $13,700 in federal, state and city taxes, or about 23 percent of my earnings. I am okay with this figure. I feel good about this figure. People ask me to imagine all the things I could do with the money I’m paying to our government. “You could use it to pay off your student loans,” they say, or “that’s like a down payment on a house!”
I realize this. I want those things. I want the American Dream of being debt-free and buying a split-level in the suburbs, or Victorian in the country, or a pre-war apartment in the city with room enough for the kids, the one-eyed cat, and the three-legged dog. Yes, I want that split-level, or Victorian, or pre-war apartment paid off when I am an old person, and I want to be able to travel the world, eat rich food, and do as many selfish, indulgent things as I please.
Here are other things I want: I want our broken health care system to be fixed. I want funding for women’s reproductive health care. I want benefits for veterans, care for the elderly and access to education to those who can’t afford it. I want the same justice system that awarded my father his disability payments after his employer refused to provide them to him after he suffered a serious injury at work to be able to continue to provide justice for other people who seek it. I want to wake up every morning before the sun rises and go running in the park, and walk home after the sun has set without worrying about feeling safe in my community. After an entire day of doing all the selfish things I can afford, I want to go to bed, close my eyes, and sleep soundly because I know that while I dream my selfish dreams, there are brave men and women who are awake whose job it is to keep me out of harm’s way. I want all of these things and so much more. I want these things for me, I want these things for you, and although $13,700 is far from enough to make all these things happen, it’s a fair price to pay to keep my community safe and to help my community thrive. And I do feel safe, and it’s thanks to your taxes too.
This is the social contract, isn’t it? We’ve all agreed to not kill each other, and to protect one another from harm. I love this country that we live in, and I want all of us to prosper. I think that these are goals that we all share, and I am happy to pay my fair share help us get to a place where everyone in my community is safe and cared for.
Real talk: There are people in this country who do not feel safe in their communities. There are people who feel like they are not being protected, who do not sleep soundly at night because they are worrying about food and shelter and unaffordable health care and an ineffective education system that can’t help them rise out of the broken communities they survive in every day. These people will tell me that I am idealistic and foolish. They will tell me that the social contract is broken, that governments misappropriate and misuse taxpayer money, or that they’ve worked hard for their money and that they deserve to keep as much as that money as possible because they can do more good with their money than our government can. I will not deny these people their right to have misgivings about paying taxes, because being able to repudiate a system that fails you is one of the few privileges we have in this country. I am not here to tell you why you should pay your taxes, I am only telling you why I am happy to pay mine.
I am not here to argue about tax reform, or how the wealthy aren’t paying enough taxes. Those debates are happening on other websites among more knowledgeable people who can speak about delicate tax issues with far more eloquence than I can. I am here to say that although the system has not been perfect, it has worked for me, so I am happy to keep up my end of the bargain by paying my taxes. If the system ever fails me, believe me, I will march, occupy, hold hands, petition, and demand our leaders to uphold their end of the bargain of keeping my community thriving.
There are places out there that are so tax-averse, that are so untrusting of their local governments, that they’ve splintered the collective well-being of their communities. In early 2010, the city of Colorado Springs—like so many other cities across the country—found itself facing a large budget deficit after the recession caused sales tax revenue to take a dive. Voters rejected a proposed property tax increase that would help close the budget gap, and as a result, the city ended up slashing basic services to fix the budget. Garbage cans were removed from parks, public restrooms were closed, busses stopped running on evenings and weekends, and then there were the lights—more than a third of streetlights in Colorado Springs went dark. Residents who wanted streetlights in their neighborhood turned back on could take part in a “streetlight adoption program” and pay a fee for a year of service. Some residents gladly paid.
“A gentleman came up to me and actually thanked me for the adopt a streetlight program,” Colorado Springs City Councilperson Jan Martin explained to a reporter on This American Life. “He had just written a check to the city for $300 to turn the streetlights back on in his neighborhood. And I did remind him that for $200—if he had supported the tax initiative—that we could have not only streetlights but parks and firemen and swimming pools and community centers. That by combining our resources, we as a community can accomplish more than as individuals. And he said he would never support a tax increase. It’s because of a total lack in trust in government—I’ll take care of mine, you go take care of yours because we don’t trust the government to do it for us.” The program has now been eliminated “due to council direction,” and residential streetlights are being reactivated.
I am happy to pay my taxes because I want us all to have the streetlights, and parks, and firemen, and swimming pools and community centers.
I am not naive. I know that the money I pay is not simply going to keep my community lit, housed, fed, educated and healthy. The money I pay has also helped pay for bullets and bombs that have killed innocent people in wars I have not believed in. It is funding the pensions of Members of Congress who don’t believe that we need to take action to preserve our environment for future generations, who want to eliminate funding for reproductive health programs, and prevent gay marriage from becoming legal. It is going into the pockets of executives at billion dollar companies that not only don’t pay taxes, but claim multi-billion dollars worth of tax benefits through “fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting.”
I wish I could see exactly how my tax dollars are being used, but that’s not how our system works (could you imagine having to sort and read up on thousands of services every year and decide where you want every one of your tax dollars to go? Nightmare scenario). The community that I am investing in is also made up of people who believe in the righteousness of our wars, or eliminating certain public programs, or that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. I accept this because when I say I want all of us to be taken care of, I really do mean all of us. United, we stand, right? We all deserve the capacity to thrive. Public transportation got my parents to work, low-interest federal student loans put me through college, and streetlights have always lit my way home. Yes, I have thrived in this country, so yes, I am happy to pay my taxes.
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