If you’re not among the 7% or so of Americans who were expected to file for an extension, Tax Day 2022 has come and gone.
While no one really enjoys paying taxes, April 15 – or as was the case this year, April 18 – marks an important annual moment in the life of our democracy, and a day on which we all ought to take a measure of pride and satisfaction in playing a small part in one of humanity’s oldest and most important experiments in representative government.
By doing our civic duty, each of us has helped make possible the public structures and services — schools, roads, airports, the armed forces, emergency services, courts of law, parks, environmental protection, food and water safety, just to name a few – that enables an incredibly diverse population of 330 million souls spread over 3.8 million square miles to coexist with remarkable amounts of liberty and happiness.
A famed Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed, “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.”
Sadly, however, this is not a sentiment that’s holds much currency with many Americans these days.
It’s true that Americans have always been a mostly cussed bunch when it comes to taxes. Heck, resistance to taxes – some of it actually pretty irresponsible, when you take a close look – helped spur the break with the British Empire and the founding of the country. But, especially in recent decades, a drumbeat of relentless propaganda from the political right deriding government and the very idea of intentional public solutions to the challenges we face as a society has helped push anti-tax sentiment to a much darker, more cynical, and troubling place.
It’s one thing to grumble about paying taxes the way most of us do about physical exercise or adhering to a healthy diet, but it’s quite another – as is increasingly common on the political right – to embrace preposterous conspiracy theories, treat public servants as the enemy, and even deny the very legitimacy of the federal government and the taxes that make it possible.
And this is scary stuff. As we see in so many other parts of the world, without widely respected tax laws (and the structures and services they pay for), society can quickly descend into a kind of dog-eat-dog kleptocracy that’s dominated by lawless billionaires, the autocrats they install in power, and the militias/gangs they command.
So, what to do?
Remembering, repeating, and sharing the following five truths would be a good place for caring and thinking people to start:
1) American taxes are extremely low. Among the world’s 35 higher income nations, U.S. taxes are a third lower than the average and equate to a smaller share of gross domestic product than all but three others: Chile, Ireland and Mexico.
2) Taxes are critical for maintenance of a healthy economy. A functioning market economy is utterly dependent on an array of tax supported public structures – from courts of law to enforce contracts, to transportation systems for the delivery of goods and services, to an education system that prepares workers.
3) Taxes can and should be fairer. If there is a chief flaw in our tax system, it is the way it has grown increasingly regressive in recent decades. North Carolina, for instance – a state in which the system is still better than some that don’t even include an income tax – the richest one percent pays only about half as much of their incomes in state and local taxes as low- and middle-income people. As a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute also makes clear, a big part of the problem has been the “growing erosion of state corporate income taxes has been a prime source of revenue weakness over this time.”
4) The IRS is absurdly and dangerously underfunded. The growing unfairness and inadequacy of the tax system has been greatly worsened by a decade of large, GOP-initiated cuts that have caused the budget and staff of the Internal Revenue Service to plummet and the amount of unpaid taxes – particularly among the rich – to soar.
5) Taxes are essential to preserving life as we know it. At this moment of global environmental crisis – a point in time at which rapid climate change and the increasing ubiquity of poisons conspire to threaten the foundations of the biosphere that makes human life sustainable – there is little hope for fashioning an adequate response without a new and greatly expanded commitment to publicly funded research, infrastructure, and enforcement of environmental protection laws.
The bottom line: As with so many other aspects of modern American society, the U.S. tax system is flawed and under great stress, but still among the world’s most functional. Preserving and strengthening it ought to be a top national priority.