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With taxes

Column by George Sibley

Government – October 2005 – Colorado Central Magazine

SO IS COLORADO’S REFERENDUM C a tax increase or not? Does TABOR give us “rebates” or “refunds”? A lot seems to ride on definitions in this election–but the truth is, your definitions probably follow from your politics, rather than determining them.

If you’re for C, then it isn’t a tax increase. It’s just another “de-brucing,” just like the de-brucings more than 7,000 Colorado school districts, cities, counties, fire districts, library districts and other taxing districts have already done; Referendum C is just a temporary de-brucing of the whole state. We won’t be paying any new taxes if it passes, we will just not be getting back some of that tax money in a–uh, rebate. Not to be confused with the refund we get back because the state and federal governments always try to take out more than we owe, so we’ll feel better about what we owe.

And if you are against the referendum? Well, I still don’t see how it’s considered a tax increase because it’s the same old taxes we’ve been paying for a long time; we just aren’t getting as big a refund–“rebate” being a distinction the antis don’t care to make. “Just say no; it’s your dough.”

What I’m missing in all this is any discussion on a fundamental question: how has “tax” come to be such a dirty word? It seems to me that something fundamentally bad has happened in a large complex society when everyone feels put-upon for having to pay for what they get from that large complex society. Even the pro-referenda efforts seem to be apologetic about “taxes,” assuring us that this is no additional taxation, that they don’t plan any additional taxation, that this is just a temporary thing to get the state back on its feet after a recession, and that we can then even lower taxes and go back to the disaster called “The Taxpayers Bill Of Rights” as though it were fundamentally a good thing.

Actually, I have no problem with the section of TABOR that probably got it passed because it was the only comprehensible and logical component of it: the idea that taxpayers should get to vote on any increase in their taxes. I can sure live with that–but only if people were truly educated somewhere along the line about how a society actually works, and works best, so that they would see taxes as something other than grand theft of what is rightfully theirs.

This educational component is what seems to be missing, because there are certainly a lot of otherwise intelligent people out there who seem to have no conception at all of the kind of infrastructure that underlies the relatively orderly society in which they earn their “dough.” Do they think that stability just happens? That smooth paved roads free of banditos occur in nature? That people are born with the knowledge that makes them acceptable employees of businesses? Those people probably grumpily assert that they could live just fine without parks and the other amenities that most of us think improve our quality of life, but do they really want to go back to the pay-as-you-go general inconvenience of toll roads, rent-a-cops, educate-your-own workforces, et cetera?

WHAT WE CALL “TAXES,” and equate with “death” as something bad but inescapable, might better be called “participatory investment,” because that is really what it is: if we want to participate in society, then we should feel just fine about paying into the infrastructure without which there really is no society.

I am, of course, aware that those entities to which we turn over our “participatory investment” do not always invest them well or wisely. But this challenge is not addressed by throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Back in the late 1960s, the Vietnam era, when I was newspapering in Crested Butte and successfully managing to make practically nothing in declarable income, I made a point of paying only half of my federal income tax, accompanying that pittance with a letter that would have passed Tom Paine’s standards, about how I was glad the federal government was investing some of my money in the common welfare, the domestic tranquility, the establishment of justice, et cetera, but I could not countenance the expenditure of the other half on military imperialism, so I was not going to pay that half willingly.

I, of course, paid it unwillingly. I would get a nasty phone call from some IRS guy who was paid to be nasty. But I was expecting it, so I was able to respond as nastily: “Read my letter, jerk; I’m not some deadbeat. I’ve told you what you think I owe, and told you what I’m willing to pay; you’ll just have to come take the rest.”

AND THEY WOULD COME take it, along with a fine that about doubled the pittance, but that was worth it for the thrill it caused at the bank. Fortunately, I was unencumbered enough then by real property for them to unload their full potential for nastiness on me. I am no longer so free, nor so poor, so I would only be able to exercise such fundamental American freedom at great expense, even though I still resent my mandatory investment in military imperialism, an embarrassing energy policy, and our bumbling stabs at homeland fascism.

But doing away with taxes hardly addresses the problem. What we need to do is elect some intelligent leadership that will put our investments toward life and liberty rather than death and fear. Personally, I would gladly pay more for “participatory investment” if the governments who got it truly invested it back in us through things like good health care, good environmental care, and the like.

Until we get that kind of leadership, we’re going to continue to be participating in some pretty bad investments. But holding our “dough” back from bad leaders sure isn’t going to change that, since we know they will persist in the bad investments and just cut back further on what little is left of our good investments in ourselves and each other. Vote “Yes” on C and D–and then next year, let’s try to vote in some intelligent leaders to manage our investments.

George Sibley writes from Gunnison, where he teaches at Western State College.