Burbank: Voting, and what it means to be an American

  • Thursday, October 20, 2016 11:58am
  • Opinion

By John Burbank

When your ballot arrives later this week, take a pause and before you vote, consider, what does it mean to be an American? As Americans, we are all in this election together. We are in this country, this economy, this culture, and this government together.

What is government? It is the comprehensive delivery of services upon which we all depend, including emergency responders to the wind storms last week, schools for our kids, health care for retired people and low-income citizens, protection from violence and terrorism, road maintenance, public utilities, food safety, the court system to protect private property and enforce contracts, and the regulation of the financial underpinnings of our economy. Literally every part of our daily lives, and of the private capitalist economy, is dependent on government services.

We don’t get these services for nothing. We pay for them, with our taxes. So let’s talk about taxes. According to the New York Times, pollsters have been asking Americans whether “it is every American’s civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes.” Every year, about nine in 10 Americans agree they should.

It is not just people’s opinions. It is their actions. Paying federal income taxes is done through a system of voluntary compliance. Sure, you might be caught by the IRS if you don’t submit your 1040. But the actual likelihood of this is so slim that some economists, weighing costs and benefits, claim that it makes sense for a “rational” person to evade taxes altogether. But we are rational people and 140 million of American households, that is, us, file our federal income taxes every year. Over four-fifths of total tax liabilities are paid on time. We do this because we all understand, intuitively, that if we want public services, we have to pay for them.

What people don’t like is tax avoidance. You pay no federal taxes, and you reap all the benefits of living in America. That’s what appears to be Donald Trump’s situation, which he terms as “smart” and we all know is just selfish.

It is also the habit of some of Washington’s largest companies. Microsoft has stashed away $124 billion in Ireland, Luxembourg, and Singapore. This maneuver enables Microsoft to avoid $39 billion in what the corporation should have contributed in federal taxes. Microsoft is joined by Pfizer, GE, and Apple as those corporations that have hidden over $100 billion each in tax havens, avoiding taxes in our country.

Compare that legal maneuvering to avoid taxes to the voting habits of Americans. Even in the face of the anti-tax rhetoric which politicians like to preach, Americans have increasingly supported taxation for government services. Thirty-five years ago, only about one in five state ballot measures to raise taxes passed. In the past decade, voters have approved half of tax-increasing measures on state ballots.

This public support for taxation increases at the local level. Last April, voters in the Everett School District approved both a levy and a bond for capital projects and technology. Last February, voters in Arlington, Edmonds, Lake Stevens, Lakewood, Mukilteo and Stanwood all approved school levies. Less than a year ago, voters in Gold Bar, Stanwood, Arlington and Warm Beach voted for property taxes to finance fire and police services, renovate fire stations, purchase equipment and fund EMS. Across the county, voters approved an increase in the sales tax to enhance Community Transit services.

These are our neighbors, our families and ourselves voting to tax ourselves so that our local governments, school districts, and fire districts can provide the fundamental services needed as foundations for our quality of life. We as citizens make the immediate connections to our shared local well-being – hence, we support schools, EMS, and fire protection.

We make the same connection with the federal government. We understand that taxes provide safety, security, education financing, regulation of food and drugs, environmental protection, disaster relief, national parks, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, occupational safety, negotiations with other countries, and the list goes on and on.

We get that. We as taxpayers pay for that. We are the patriotic ones. Not so for the people who avoid their taxes, or who applaud those who avoid their taxes, or the corporations which hide their money in tax-free havens in other countries. They are not patriotic. They are free riders.

John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, www.eoionline.org. Email him at john@eoionline.org.

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