The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Friday, August 14, 2009

Why We're Fighting Over Universal Healthcare: Conservatives Don't Understand Taxes

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I recently had an online conversation with an avowed conservative (and medical doctor), and the topic turned to paying taxes. Specifically, about not wanting to pay taxes for any kind of public healthcare plan. "It's not a question of whether we should give health care to people. The question is: who is going to pay for it? . . . The Democrats want to TAKE what is NOT RIGHTFULLY THEIRS, and use it as they wish", he told me.

And then it hit me: this isn't selfishness; there is a very real psychological disconnect between liberals and conservatives as to what taxes DO.

As citizens, we as a country pay our taxes for roads, bridges, fire departments, military, police, basic and applied research, and all the other services people expect in any funcitoning country. These are examples of STRUCTURAL capital investment, and that money is returned multiplied many times over through jobs, services, and productivity. In addition, our taxes already go for HUMAN capital investments, such as education, medical and social services, and support of the arts and cultural history (museums, etc.). These also repay the money spent multiple times over.

Some conservatives hate paying any taxes at all; I find these to be outliers, not normative; in fact, they are irrational, because they are essentially saying they don't want a functioning society. No, most conservatives believe that taxes must be paid, but seem to be disconnected from a full understanding, not so much consciously as unconsciously, of how tax money is used. The arguments I hear most from conservatives concerning "good" taxes are those that pay for roads and bridges, fire departments and police. Structural capital investments. Things they can see, touch, use.

The arguments concerning "bad" taxes are for education, healthcare, social services, and arts and culture. Human capital investments. Things that they can't directly see, touch, or use.

To a conservative, the "good" taxes have tangible effects, and it is obvious on the face of it how they benefit society,and have a multiplier effect on the rest of the economy. The "bad" taxes have an intangible effect, and it is less obvious how they benefit society, if at all.

And here is the realization I came to: conservatives tend to dislike paying for human capital investments, because they have intangible effects, and thus are harder to measure. They're too "fuzzy", too hard to pin down, not concrete. And yet, these same conservatives will readily acknowledge that a good education system is good for society, that the arts are important for the whole community, that medical care is essential, and social programs to help the needy are necessary for a healthy and functioning society.

There is a very real psychological disconnect there. Structural capital investments are good because they benefit society, but human capital investments are bad, because... they benefit society. Oops. Malfunction. Computer crash.

I believe that's the real difference between conservatives and liberals. Liberals see human capital investments as concrete and measurable, long-term investments that pay off both today and down the road. The "fuzzy" is completely rational, not something to be distrusted or ignored. They can see the benefits to society, and realize that just like structural capital investments, you have to cough up the money to pay for them.

A liberal understands that government is the only way to make sure we have good roads and bridges (the laissez-faire capitalist isn't going to build a road, unless it directly benefits his business), and government is the only way we will have public education, cultural museums, and healthcare that benefits everyone, not just those wealthy enough to afford it or lucky enough to have a gold-plated plan through their employer.

The free market works wonders in some areas, primarily consumer goods and services; it works horribly when it comes to capital investment, whether structural or human, on any scale other than that which directly affects a given company or industry.

Railroads were subsidized by the government; they would have only been built short distances, and between factory and resource supplies and distribution centers, without it. Same goes for any road you want to name; no government, no road, unless a company wanted it for their own purposes.

Schools would not exist were it not for public taxes, with the exception of private schools, limited to those who could pay. Can we say 15th Century, anyone?

And healthcare that benefits all in society, not just the wealthy or the lucky, requires government, which requires taxes. The free market just doesn't serve the public good. And unless you want to live in a version of a Mad Max movie, the public good is what it's all about, for all of us.

And that's why I am perfectly sanguine about paying taxes. And making darn sure that EVERYONE who benefits from the system pays a fair, progressively-indexed share of taxes to support it. Yes, that means people earning more pay more, and those earning less pay less. How, given this argument, is it "unfair" (or God forbid, "class warfare") to say that those who make more should pay more? After WWII, and well into the 1950's until Kennedy reduced them, the highest tax bracket was 90% on anything over $3,000,000 per year. That's NINETY PERCENT. During one of the most productive growth periods in our country's history. So stop the bull that high taxes on the richest will harm the economy; it was when the taxes were lowered on the rich, and raised on the middle class, that the economy started hitting the skids. And when things like schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, and the rest of our nation's structural and human capital started to erode.

In a very real sense, the "cut taxes" crowd are indirectly responsible for crumbling and overcrowded classrooms, outdated schoolbooks, inadequate quality and quantity of teachers, and an overall quality of education that is a disgrace by comparison to just 50 years ago, when our country topped the world in student achievement. And it's not a far reach from there to lay indirect blame on the same conservative voices for the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis in 2007. One is human capital, the other structural, but when the money isn't there because some wish to avoid taxes, it affects both kinds of investment. Because conservatives can't see the logical fallacy inherent in trying to prevent the government "TAK(ING) what is NOT RIGHTFULLY THEIRS", they continue to fight to lower taxes, especially on the wealthy. And just like not paying enough in taxes to keep bridges maintained kills people, so too does relying on profit-driven, private insurance for your healthcare expenses instead of having a publicly-run, non-profit universal healthcare system.

That's why when Sarah Palin (followed by thousands of others, including Joe the Non-Plumber) laughed at and mocked Obama for saying that paying taxes was patriotic, claiming that such a sentiment was un-American, I found that grossly offensive. I love this country deeply, and I am not some pie-in-the-sky free-markets-yay! person who thinks that government is nothing but an inefficient behemoth that just sucks up my hard earned money and blows it on waste and graft. I understand that NOTHING we take for granted in this country, the museums, the roads, the schools, the fire departments, or the medical care, would exist without paying a good amount of taxes.

If you consider yourself a conservative, then the next time you want to complain about the government "taking" your taxes and say it is not "rightfully theirs", stop and think about what you just said. If you really believe that, then act on it. C'mon, don't be a hypocrite. You're a conservative! You're no wussy liberal!

Here's all you have to do:

Don't call the fire department when your house catches on fire. You're not paying for that communist apparatus any more!

Don't call the police when you have a break-in. None of that socialized protection service for you!

Don't drive on the roads or walk on any sidewalks. As a good conservative, you don't mind walking through mud and brambles.

Don't use the Internet. Lots of tax dollars went into creating that hummer!

Don't cash your paycheck. Your employer probably benefits from some kind of government program or funding. Traitors!

Don't call a lawyer, doctor, or other professional. (A) the phone lines were paid for by taxes and (B) they probably got part of their education on the public dime. Commies!

Don't eat food from a grocery store. Those sneaky FDA guys use tax money to make sure it's clean and disease-free. Real conservatives like dirt, fecal matter and bug guts in their sausage!

Don't water your lawn. Everyone knows that the government puts flouride in the water to brainwash conservative into thinking that water pipes are paid for with tax money, instead of laid by mole-creatures late at night like any sensible person would believe.

Don't read a book or newspaper, or watch any kind of educational TV program. (A) your education was paid for by taxes and (B) that book was made possible by government programs subsidizing the paper industry and (C) broadcast media are made possible by taxpayer money and managed by the FCC. And besides, there's nothing good on TV because it's all liberal media anyway, and Ann Coulter is looking pretty wrung-out these days on Fox since you got HDTV.

Don't take any medications. That FDA again! Gotta keep their commie hands outta your life! Plus, a lot of those meds only exist because they were largely funded by basic research dollars provided by government grants.

Don't use any electricity. Another socialist conspiracy; government pretty much runs that whole show.

And I'm sure you'll find more things you need to divest yourself of in life, as you realize how many other things are being paid for with your tax dollars.

Oh, yes, here's another: Don't breathe the air. Billions of dollars a year goes into limiting pollution and keeping the air clean. As a good conservative, it is beholden on you avoid breathing at all costs. I know, but think like a Patriot here, a good Patriot who doesn't pay taxes!

Oh, don't worry. As a liberal, I tend to be more generous-minded than that. I might tell you to keep away from my national parks, forests, rivers, and streams, but by all means, enjoy the air. I paid for it, so I have the right to share.

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