Sunday, November 25, 2012

Why we pay?

In "Tax Time ... Why we pay", Jill Lepore (New Yorker, Nov 26) starts with Oliver Wendell Holmes' "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society" and elaborates for about 3500 words.  Yes, we look to governments to pave the roads and fill the potholes (which they have trouble doing where I live), but Holmes' glibness is exactly what we do not need as we approach a fiscal cliff. 

Governments in the U.S. do a million things way beyond the standard "public goods" discussions.  (And even these are dated; anything that can be metered can be privatized. And metering is cheaper than ever.)  If there is going to be a useful discussion it cannot be hobbled by aggregating to "taxes, yes or no".  Rather if there is going to be a move from a twenty-percent-of-GDP federal government to the twenty-five-percent version, questions have to be addressed in terms of the many pieces and programs that get us from twenty to twenty-five.

But the recent election and its aftermath indicate that we do not have the deliberative democracy whereby we examine the many items that move us from twenty to twenty-five (or beyond).  We are seemingly unable to discuss whether to privatize the post office and Amtrak, whether to pare farm subsidies, or a thousand others.  That's the problem.

Lepore ends with, "Taxes are a pact. The pact needs renewing."  No.  The much bigger problem is that we are not anywhere near having a discussion of which items our taxes should be used to fund.  Holmes-Lepore help us ignore this basic problem.