Thursday, May 17, 2012

Taxes are Participation

Senza uno sforzo collettivo a cui tutti devono partecipare in base alle proprie possibilità, metteremmo a rischio la nostra economia e la base stessa della convivenza civile.

That was the Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, during a visit to one of Italy's tax collection agencies.  These agencies have been hit with Molotov cocktails and letter bombs over the last week, and in response to the terrorist attacks security is tightening.  Monti met with employees and officials of these agencies to show his support.

Italy's economy is in a terrible way.  The whole eurozone is in a crisis, Italy has frightening debt, and its economy is in recession -- which is related to the austerity measures imposed in order to pay down Italy's debt.  It's working, but at the cost of high fuel prices (think we've got it bad?), public spending cuts, and higher taxes that hit the law-abiding workaday citizens hard.

In many Italian cities, tax collectors actually go door-to-door to collect back taxes.  They are often ringing the doorbells of the poor and working class who are feeling squeezed dry while the few successful capitalists profited from boom times and are insulated from paying for the losses.  This is the social arrangement under which "the first world" is expected to operate.  This is what we consider "developed" and "civilized." 

Monti's statement, translated by me, is that "without a collective effort in which we all participate as we are able, we put our economy and the very basis of society at risk."

An American politician would be accused of communism for making a statement like that.  It is an eloquent statement, but to whom is it addressed?  Is he lecturing those who suffer the most under austerity?  Might he also be lecturing those who enjoy a system that privatizes profit while socializing losses?

A society cannot flourish without shared resources.  In the United States, where political literacy is on the wane and conversation largely impossible although we still uphold some concept of "democracy," this sentiment is usually interpreted as an attack on private resources.  No, not at all.  Acknowledging the importance of shared resources, and shared investment in those resources, is not equivalent to saying "property is theft."

A world in which everybody is in it for themselves and everything is privatized (i.e. operated as a for-profit concern) is expensive, inefficient, and barbarous; and it certainly cannot be democratic.  I have always liked Noam Chomsky's statement that paying taxes should be viewed as a patriotic act, an important way of participating in society.  It flies right in the face of the common narrative about taxes and the public sector, a narrative influenced by libertarian complaints and the confused ideology of the "Tea Party" phenomenon.

What still eludes many American voters -- in spite of the efforts of the Occupy movement, which has mostly faded from the media gaze -- is that a few of us who have vast private resources are eluding payment, while the rest of us pay.  One of our candidates for president is a man who has unapologetically expatriated large personal savings, and has worked in a finance sector among large companies who do the same with their profits in order to evade taxation.

...alle proprie possibilità...

It's really simple.  Society cannot be paid for mostly by the poor and the working class; it does not add up. It depresses the economy and creates human suffering, and this suffering can be measured in crime, domestic terrorism, divorce, addiction, and depression.  We aren't paying higher tax bills, as people are in Italy.  We pay in the form of a decrepit and unjust society, a place of crumbling infrastructure, a place where we bail out institutions of private profit but close down schools, we pay by having to contend with the social waste created by this arrangement with fewer and fewer public resources.  And with a political system in which money is equated with free speech, so that the wealthy can spend unlimited amounts to influence elections, it is assured that we will continue to pay and pay and pay to support our true masters.

Everyone needs to pay and invest in a good society, including this aristocracy we have created for the rich.  This is a central message in Elizabeth Warren's candidacy for the Senate in Massachusetts, and it is an important message for us all.

This is about participation, and those who profit on a large scale from our shared resources without participating need to be called out.  The reactionary rhetoric -- which calls this "class warfare" and "communism" -- needs to be rebuffed as stupid or dishonest.

The alternative is to admit that society does not interest us and embrace barbarism.

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