Really Talking About Taxes


Yesterday I participated in a workshop on Active Listening.  This is a way of listening that actually involves LISTENING instead of just waiting for your turn to talk.  One person talks for 3 minutes and the other person asks open ended, non-leading questions and repeats back what she or he has heard.  The topic we used to practice our listening skills was taxes.  Questions included, “When do you feel good about the taxes you pay and when have you felt something was a waste of tax dollars?” or “What was your first experience of taxes?” or “If you could wave your magic wand, how would you fix our tax structure?”  These kinds of large questions led to very rich conversations.  The people in the workshop were generally in agreement about the need for a progressive tax structure, getting the 1% and corporations to pay their share. Most of us even vote to tax ourselves more to have recycling, public swimming pools, parks and good schools, but we had some areas of disagreement.  Dog parks—should they be public?  Performing arts—should everyone be able to see the symphony for free at least a few times a year?  If everything is to be paid for by taxes, what is the role of individual initiative? 

We had to end the workshop, but I felt we could have gone on for hours.  Many people said afterwards, “I didn’t even know I thought all these things” and one person said, “I haven’t thought this much since college.”  This gave me an idea:  April 17 is TAX DAY.  Maybe TAX DAY should be a holiday in which people are encouraged to discuss the common good, just as MEMORIAL DAY is a day to remember those who have died in wars, and the Fourth of July allows us to reflect on how proud (or not) we are of the United States. 

Many organizations have some impressive efforts underway to help people feel good about the taxes they pay, to remind everyone how our lives are made possible by taxes, and to advocate for fair and just tax policies.  Just to mention a few:  I Love Taxpayers from the Community Coalition in Los Angeles (where one of our very own team members, Aurea Montes-Rodriquez, works),  DEMOS Taxes Matter which is a six day series on taxes, and National Priorities Project Federal Income Tax Receipt.

Occupy Wall Street has really called attention to the vast gap in our country between rich and poor, so that “We are the 99%” can now be seen on bumper stickers, posters, and even advertisements to shop at small businesses. 

The economy has started to grow again.  In the last quarter of 2011, the Commerce Department reported that the economy grew at a rate of 3%, which is much higher than the 1.8% of earlier that year.  Personal income jumped.  Americans earned $13 trillion, $3.3 billion more the previously thought.  Is this good?  Actually, no, because more than 1/3 of those gains went to the 15,600 super rich households in the top one-tenth of 1%.

In fact, in the last two recoveries most of the gains have gone to a tiny percentage of people.  45% of Clinton era growth and 65% of Bush era growth went to the top 1%.  According to economist Emmanuel Saez, the top 1% pocketed 93% of the economic gains in 2010. In fact, 375 of the gains went to the top one-tenth of 1%, and no one below the richest 10% saw any gains at all. 

When adjusted for inflation, the bottom 90% have experienced a $4800 drop in income from 2000, bringing the average income of the average person down to $29,840. (This research is all compiled by Robert Reich). 

The tax structure plays a key role in how this has all happened and how it can be fixed.  But it won’t get fixed without engagement.  In fact, the situation could continue to get worse.  I re-read something Frederick Douglass said in 1857,

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

So, on Tax Day, let’s talk about setting some limits on the tyranny of the anti-government, anti-tax forces by proposing some demands of our own—demands forged by thinking people thinking and talking together. 

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