The Tax Revolt's Legacy


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What's wrong with us?

Why does everyone in this country know the name of a self-mutilating pop star who died a few weeks ago, but no one knows the names of the 28 soldiers who were bombed, shot and burned to death in Iraq and Afghanistan this month? Why do we say that we want a racially tolerant country but then do everything in our power-including grilling a Supreme Court nominee on her association memberships as if McCarthyism were back-to make sure that racial divisions are made more salient?

But most of all, why do we want something without paying for it? In the last few months we've seen voters and legislators affirm that we want government to function effectively, but we don't want to fund the government to do it. The state budget deal that may get passed today is a slash-and-burn package that covers a $26.3 billion budget deficit because voters refused to do so on May 19, pushing the state the brink of bankruptcy and junk bond status. Essentially, the message voters sent to legislators was "we don't want to sign off on the sacrifice, so you do it for us." This was a very costly message to send, as billions more were added to the deficit since May and significant cuts to education, health care for children and the elderly and other essential services are inevitable now. Now we are all awaiting the bad news in the fall about how UC, and particularly Berkeley, will be affected by the state's fiscal disaster. The estimates were that UC and CSU would get cut by $2.8 billion, far more than the hit it would have taken if the May 19 measures passed. Students will feel this pain, without a doubt. These draconian cuts can be blamed on voters' reluctance to consider contributing more when times get tough ... or at any time, for that matter.

The so-called "tax revolt" that started with Prop. 13 in the late 1970s has had long-lasting effects on how we see the role of government. We have not seen government as an institution where legitimate representatives act in our interests since then. Instead, we view legislators as corrupt, incompetent and self-interested actors who can barely tie their own shoes let alone solve a budget crisis. By that reasoning, we should only reduce, never raise, taxes because giving money to the government is like giving crack to an addict and telling him to save it for next week. Republicans have been the champions of this extremely damaging philosophy, but I know plenty of Democrats who might say the same thing.

So I ask again, what's wrong with us?

There's nothing wrong with wanting to keep money we've earned rather than send it to Sacramento and Washington. What is wrong is wanting something for nothing. If we spent half as much time and effort at funding efficiency and watchdog measures that root out government waste as we do in fighting tax increases, many (but never all) government boondoggles would be eliminated.

The health care bill currently running through Congress is another example of how anti-tax sympathies have distorted public policy.

The Democrats need to pay for a $1 trillion health care package, and they know it can't be done without raising taxes. So how do you sell a plan like that to the majority of your constituents? Easy-tax those who can most afford it, and leave everybody else alone. The current plan, which is likely to change, would impose a 5.4 percent federal surtax on couples earning more than $1 million annually and a 1.5 percent tax on couples earning between $500,000 and $1 million. The tax drops to 1 percent for households earning more than $350,000.

Californians followed the same logic when they passed Prop. 63 in 2004, which imposed a 1 percent tax on those earning more than $1 million to fund mental health services. It's hard to feel sorry for millionaires, isn't it? Yet something about the tax-the-rich strategy doesn't smell right, because it's the easy way out. Politically it's the easy way out for Obama and the Democrats because they know this slice of the electorate is very small. It's the easy way out for most working Americans, who know they'll never be making more than $350,000.

Fundamentally it's too easy because we're not sharing the pain, and shared sacrifice is supposed to be a part of the American spirit. The best American accomplishments-winning independence, preserving the union, protecting Europe from evil, the civil rights movement-all came through shared sacrifice in blood, money and hardship. But millions of people drawing a line in the sand on taxes says to me that we've lost this sense of shared sacrifice. We should not just be taxing the wealthy to pay for health care. Everyone should put in what they can to make it work. Obama's pledge to not raise any taxes on those making under $250,000 now seems like a cynical play for votes that is handicapping policy initiatives.

If we were loyal members of an association or union, and one day that group ran into a fiscal crisis, most of us would not hesitate to pitch in to save it. Each person might donate what they could, depending on their incomes, to keep the group afloat. As citizens we have the same responsibility to our country.

Those on the hard line anti-tax side are not just responsible for the state's fiscal abyss, they are responsible for the loss of something precious and distinctly American.


Put down your anti-tax pitchforks and torches at [email protected]

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