Tax Day is that day that calls on all of us to think about what it means to be a citizen of the United States and what our obligations are to each other. It goes beyond the oversimplified arguments about government being too big or being too small. For me, it is more about what it means to have obligations to each other as citizens who share a social contract about how we are going to get along. That social contract, which has been memorialized in the Constitution and all of the laws and regulations derived from it, including the tax code, are the formal structures that shape our sense of community.
Beyond this formal structure, what does it mean to share a common destiny with all of the obligations and commitments implied in that? If taxes are a way to “settle accounts” between us, through the instrumentality of government, how are we to interpret current budget talks and conversations about tax reform? Square in the middle of this are fundamental concepts of justice, opportunity, and equity. One taxpayer’s tax burden is another taxpayer’s chance at a job training program, a decent public education system or treatment for a deadly disease. As Barney Frank has said, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”
You don’t have to look at polls to appreciate how contested the issues of size of government and taxes are. While a majority of Americans accept the idea of higher taxes for some public goods, most people do not want their taxes raised. Compared to other wealthy countries, the United States tax burden is ranked 32nd among countries with higher tax rates. Compared to rich countries like Germany and Norway we pay significantly less, but we also pay less than less wealthy countries like Slovakia, Turkey, and Poland. The real question isn’t how much we pay comparatively, but how much those taxes yield for us.
Of those 31 countries that pay more, the majority of them use tax money to extend life expectancy, support education, and sustain a more outcomes oriented safety net. We have the highest per capita health costs, declining high school graduation and a growing underclass. We don’t seem to be getting value for our money compared to other countries.
Many Americans say that government is inefficient and does not spend money effectively. But, if you look at Medicare, our government program for the elderly and long term disabled, health care costs, including administration, are the lower than any commercial health insurer. Our government can be efficient.
Let’s remind ourselves that we are all in this together and that when we all get better (financially, medically, socially), we all get better. Let’s take a look at how much we pay as a country and what we get as a country, in terms of the health, education, economic opportunities and environmental outcomes from our taxes. Let’s understand why we get so little compared to our competitors and allies in the global economy and commit ourselves to overhauling and simplifying our tax code, improving progressivity, and getting value for our expenditures. Let’s turn the rhetoric down and increase the transparency and accountability we have to strengthen our contract with each other and to promote justice and the well being of us all, including those who have the least.