Monday, November 13, 2006

Taxes Don't Tell the Whole Story

The Journal Sentinel has an article today titled "Tax Rates Don't Tell the Whole Story," which essentially serves as an outlet for taxpayer groups to complain about politicians using property tax rate decreases for political leverage.

These politicians, the taxpayer groups complain, should be decreasing the rate in light of rapid property value increases in recent years. So, it's argued, for them to try to capitalize on the move politically is deceptive.

I can see where the JS is coming from with the article. It is important to inform readers about exactly what makes up property taxes -- that is, the property tax rate times property value.

But what I'm still waiting for is the article that talks about how taxes don't tell the whole story.

In Wisconsin -- particularly, it seems, the southeastern portion of it -- the political mindset has become structured around the idea of taxes. And, when referred to in a political context, the people here are almost always "taxpayers," as opposed to citizens.

I've written before about how this conception of the public reinforces an individualized business-like relationship between the people and the government. Each tax payment is an individual transaction between person and government -- and if you're not getting something directly back for it, you're getting screwed. There is little to unify taxpayers aside from the fact that they're all required to pay taxes.

Conversely, to think of the public as a collection of citizens suggests not merely a group of individuals, but rather an inherently unified body. In this sense, each tax payment is not an individual transaction between person and government, but instead an investment in the community at large.

That's why I, along with many liberals, prefer to think of taxes as a part of public finance, rather than as a standalone entity. Thinking like this often elicits accusations that liberals favor raising taxes, but that's just not the case. Sure, we can reduce taxes, but the real questions to consider are how, where, and, most importantly, at what cost, and to consider those questions is to consider public finance as a whole.

Responsible tax reductions are those that stem from the implementation of specific policies that create operational efficiencies on the service-side wherever possible (e.g., health care reform), as opposed to setting arbitrary caps on revenue and expecting efficiencies to naturally flow from them (e.g., TABOR).

In the end, it's not a bad thing to have some straight up tax talk. If nothing else, it keeps the relationship between citizenry and government honest by serving as a reminder that in addition to citizens working toward a public good, people are also individuals who are striving to make ends meet at home.

But to focus primarily on the tax talk is just as detrimental as no consideration at all for the individual. A balance is best, but that's not something we have -- at least for the most part -- in the public discourse or mindset in Wisconsin right now.


Blogger Sven said...

Dude, didn't you get the memo?

November 13, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

Ah, good 'ol Magaret Thatcher. I think she and Reagan were sharing notes in the 80s.

November 13, 2006  
Blogger Sven said...

Here's some tax-cut snark.

There's an interesting counterintuitive theory - I'm not sure I buy it completely, but interesting nonetheless - that Thatcherism and Reaganism were both actually products of the 60s counterculture. Not, as commonly argued, as a reaction to the 60s, but as an extension of the individualist, non-conformist [and selfish] mindset. In other words, Thatcherism and Reaganism was marketed as a kind of rebellion against the demands of "society," and hippies became yuppies.

The theory is explained in that show I keep bleating about - The Century of the Self - by the same guy who produced The Power of Nightmares. It's also a theme touched upon in Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool.

November 13, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I've read Frank's Conquest of Cool, and I do recognize that argument from it.

I also had a friend in grad school who did a paper on the revitalization of the Grateful Dead's popularity in the '80s as part of a broader yearning for (or, perhaps, commercialization of, if you agree with Frank, which my friend didn't) the Sixties ideals in the more market-friendly '80s. My friend viewed this as maintaining a line of dissent through the dialogic qualities of the Dead's music as opposed to simply capitulating to rampant consumerism like Frank probably would.

There's a lot of truth to the argument in terms of culture, but, when it comes to political power, I think it's more an issue of Reagan, Thatcher, & Co. consciously capitalizing on the language and tendencies of the countercultural Sixties as opposed to truly embodying the same spirit.

November 13, 2006  

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