Reviving #ThePublicGood, part 5: Taxes and the role of government | #TOpoli #onpoli #cdnpoli

quote-taxes-are-the-price-we-pay-for-a-civilized-society-oliver-wendell-holmes-jr-238085

With today’s lesson, we focus on one of the most loaded topics in public conversation: taxation. Strap in, it’s going to get a little bumpy.

It’s easy to hate the idea of taxation, I know. And god knows, there’s a lot invested in cranking up that hatred. We’ll examine the reasons for that investment in due course, but for now, let’s just focus on first principles: taxes are the price of civilized society. We don’t live in Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, wherein all are at war with one another; in return for a measure of security and as a step up from anarchy, barbarism, and incessant war, we agree to surrender a degree of our autonomy to this larger thing called “society.” It goes back a ways — farther than Rob Ford, David Miller, or Mel Lastman, in fact. Farther back than Agnes MacPhail, Nellie McClung, John A. MacDonald, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, the Magna Carta, Jesus Christ, and maybe even to the point where humankind started to record history. It’s a robust and resilient thing, civilization is, but it’s not unbreakable.

And what is the fundamental characteristic of civil society? It is a collective commitment to pool our efforts, to live by common norms and rules (more on that later), and to combine our efforts to accomplish, as a group, that which we cannot accomplish on our own. You know — roads, hospitals, civic infrastructure, collective defence, electricity, running water, clean air, and other things conducive to the public good. We act together to do things for the collective benefit.

And how do we accomplish those things? By pooling our resources. By paying taxes. That, in its most basic terms, is what taxation is. We determine collectively, through the democratic process and our elected representatives, what our social priorities are, we pool our resources, and then we allocate our pooled resources in accordance with those priorities. In other words, we “tax” and “spend.” It’s not right or left. It’s not socialism. It’s not capitalism. It’s not liberal or conservative. It’s not evil, it’s not confiscation, it’s not theft, and it’s not dictatorship. It’s government. It’s what government does. All the frippery and bullshit that’s been thrown at it just clouds the issue.

So now that we’ve established what taxes are and what they’re supposed to do, let’s talk about their role in democratic governance. Healthy, livable and functional communities, I’d respectfully submit, are not built by people who focus on keeping taxes low. Let’s make our biases clear straight off. Emphasizing low taxes at the expense of everything else isn’t just shallow thinking any more. Given the failures of far-right governance and the damage inflicted by years of devotion to so-called “austerity,” I’d submit that it verges on sociopathic.

Make no mistake, dear friends. When you cut taxes, you kneecap government’s ability to act in The Public Good. And that’s its role.  Government is there to enhance the public good by working to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s not there to make a profit, it’s not there to strengthen the brand, it’s not there to generate returns for shareholders. There will be more about the fetishizing of The Market and The Private Sector later, but for now, let’s just focus on government’s core function.

And it’s here that we must re-emphasize the non-partisan nature of this little project. It’s not as if I’ve made my feelings about the Toronto mayoral shitstorm a secret, although I’ve been trying to dial it back for a while, but let’s be clear: this is not about Rob Ford. It’s easy to get caught up in the crack, the coarse boorishness, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, and the other non-stop embarrassments, and lose sight of the fact that it’s the whole small-government, private-sector-market-fetishizing, low-taxing, union-hating mindset that’s toxic. It’s a mindset that rejects the whole notion of the public sphere as such. That’s what’s captured the mantle of “conservatism,” and that’s what needs to be pushed back.

The pushback starts with the shallow and destructive fixation on “respect for taxpayers.” Forget about the current administration’s spectacular failures and hypocrisy in that regard for a moment, and let’s focus on the misdirected emphasis and the attendant enfeeblement of any collective commitment to The Public Good. When you reduce the relationship between people and government to one of taxpayer and tax collector, you’re inevitably setting up a dynamic of resentment, hostility, smallness of mind, and meanness of spirit. It’s a very sad, angry and limiting view of citizenship, of our collective well-being, and of public life. This isn’t conservatism. It’s destructive, atavistic bullshit.

You want evidence? Well, let’s work those critical-thinking skills, shall we? Just ask yourselves whose interests are served by such a poisonous agenda. From this, healthy communities, committed citizens, and well-appointed public spheres do not spring. It’s fine if you’ve got the resources to buy your own infrastructure and retreat behind the walls of your private enclave, but I’d submit it’s not too healthy for the rest of us.

We are citizens, not just taxpayers. Not residents, not customers, not voters, not consumers. We are more than that. It is with the idea of citizenship that we express our sense of community and our aspiration to  work together for the greater good. As citizens, we have obligations to one another, and to something bigger than our individual interests — and it is through our collective action and our contribution to public resources that we fulfill those obligations.

I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious (strangled derisive laughter — ed.), but I haven’t got much time for people who bitch about “goddamn government wasting my tax money.” News flash, folks: it’s not your money. It’s society’s money, to be spent in accordance with duly determined public priorities. You get to have a say in that determination through your elected representatives and the democratic process, but you don’t get to take your ball and go home if you don’t get the results you want.

You can bitch and moan and begrudge every nickel you pay in taxes, or you can have a healthy society. I know which way I’d go.

ETA: I’d be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the guidance of my wise friend Alex Himelfarb here. He’s more eloquent in his sleep than I’ll ever be wide awake.

ETA: Trish Hennessy also. She and Alex are the finest civic and moral guides a fella could ask for.

 Related posts:

Why @dreahouston is a goddess and the rest of us mere mortals | #onpoli #CanQueer #PrideTO #homophobia

785281161

Populist-homophobe Tim Hudak has shown up to the Pride VIP reception at the 519. @dreahouston goes in for the kill:

via Populist-homophobe Tim Hudak has shown up to the Pride VIP reception at the 519. @dreahouston goes in for the kill:.

H/t @goldsbie.

Related posts:

Maturity, citizenship, @jerryagar1010 and more on the "all taxes are evil" theme | #onpoli

At first glance, this might seem at odds with my resolve not to engage with trolls. But in fairness, I haven’t really paid that much attention to him, so it’s not really fair to assume that this guy’s a troll. Benefit of the doubt and all that.

So, first principles, Jerry. Let’s unpack some of your assumptions. Please — explain to us exactly what’s wrong with using “taxes and tolls in order to pay for government,” and how embracing the idea demonstrates a lack of creativity? And just what is it “not an answer” to?

Y’see, I’ve always viewed community and society as a means for people to pool their resources and work together to do things they can’t do individually. That’s how we manage to have nice things like roads, hospitals, fire departments, libraries, schools, police services, water treatment, public sanitation, electricity, public health, recreation centres, transit systems, and public spaces. Maybe you think of it as the “nanny state.” I’ve always thought of it as “infrastructure.” (I dunno, maybe it just sounds better.)

And maybe I’m just naive, but isn’t that supposed to be the natural function of government? It raises revenues and gathers resources via various forms of taxation, and then it allocates those resources in accordance with publicly determined priorities. We get a say in that determination by voting and by talking to our democratically elected representatives and public officials. Am I missing something here? You make it sound as if there’s something inherently wrong with that.

Now, not to dump all this on Jerry, but isn’t that the problem at the heart of all the “tax-and-spend” rhetoric? And in a larger sense, with a one-dimensional viewpoint that sees people only as “taxpayers” rather than as “citizens?” Isn’t there something a little suspect about a worldview which reduces our relationship with society (and by extension, with each other) to robbery? If you consistently view government as an inefficient and malevolent force that just steals your hard-earned money, then aren’t you just setting yourself up for a lifetime of resentment and victimization?

It’s OK, you don’t have to answer right away. Let’s move on. You were talking about creativity, I think. So tell me, since you don’t like taxes and tolls, what’s your creative solution to paying for public infrastructure?

Lotteries?

Casinos?

Private investors?

PPPs?

Geez, I’m ready to smack myself in the forehead. How come nobody’s ever thought of those things before?

Back to the “adult conversation” theme. I’m all for creative solutions, and reasonable discussions about what government should be doing, and how it should go about it. But simplistic repetition of slogans like “taxing us to death” and “nanny state” and “government monopolies” strikes me as … childish.

(h/t @cityslikr, @kvonbling, @trishhennessy and @VassB)

Related posts:

Public space, public amenities and the public good, or corporate colonization? | #onpoli

20100724davisgrossman

So I’m driving along the lakeshore this morning and my daughter, who’s loved going to the waterpark and the waterslides and such, notices the signs and landmarks leading to Ontario Place. Which is going to be, if not closed, then transformed into an innovative provincial landmark. In any event, the Ontario Place grounds, Cinesphere, waterpark, rides, attractions and restaurants are out of business this summer for “revitalization.”

Which is a drag, but, well, you know — shit happens.

But keep going and it’s pretty much impossible to miss the signs for the Honda Indy. And later this summer, we’ll probably be hosting the air show

Not going to talk at length about noise or extravagance or inconvenience, because this isn’t about pissy downtown elitists wanting their peace and quiet or anything, and, well, tourist dollars.

No, for the moment I just want to compare and contrast. If I understand this right, then spending public resources on the public good is a bad thing, so in the name of fighting the deficit and tightening our belts and living within our means, as the austerity prophets like to browbeat us, we’re closing public amenities like Ontario Place. Private events with corporate sponsors up the wazoo, on the other hand, are a good thing — despite whatever noise and inconvenience they may imply, and despite their obvious encroachment upon public space.

(Hey, it brings in money. What are you, some kind of effete downtown socialist?)

Related posts: