Tag Archives: taxes

The “Liberty/Equality” Conundrum

In my classes, when I get to the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, I generally begin with a discussion of what Americans mean by “equality,” and the perceived tension between equality and liberty.

Clearly, if we are talking about the operation of law and civil government, we are bound to understand the call for equality as limited to those areas in which government operates, and not surprisingly, there is a pretty substantial literature exploring what it means to be “equal before the law”– to have equal civil rights and liberties.

It isn’t simply us lawyer types, either; political philosophers have argued for years–okay, centuries!–that government efforts to nudge us in the direction of egalitarianism–that is, in the direction of material equality— diminish liberty and are ultimately immoral, because advocates of redistribution tend to ignore the issue (near and dear to more libertarian hearts) of merit or desert.  Those who see it that way read the famous Marxist admonition: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” as support for expropriation — a system where productive and conscientious workers would be taken advantage of by the ineffectual and/or lazy.

Americans have a deeply-rooted cultural belief that people are poor because they are morally defective, and it didn’t start with the Tea Party. I once traced Indiana’s welfare system back to the 15th Century English Poor Laws- laws that prohibited giving “alms” to “sturdy beggars.”

So here we are, stuck, policy-wise.

We have a longstanding (and probably insurmountable) concern about the fairness of taking money from people who have (at least theoretically) earned it in order to help people who–for whatever reason–have much less. In more selfish eras (like now) that distaste for redistribution jaundices our approach to taxes for even the most traditional civic purposes. Paying more taxes than absolutely necessary (i.e., police, fire and maybe the sewer system)  is seen as state-sponsored theft, or at the very least, a deprivation of liberty.

As I previously noted, it isn’t difficult to find people arguing that efforts to narrow the gap between rich and poor (redistributive taxes) are assaults on liberty. If there is one thing Americans appear to agree upon, it is the pre-eminence of liberty over other values. What we don’t see discussed very often, however, is what we mean by liberty–and the extent to which government is responsible for ensuring that citizens can access it.

Liberty, at its most basic, is my ability to live a life of my own choosing, so long as I am not harming someone else–my right to live where I like, marry whom I love, choose or reject a church, vote for candidate A rather than B, raise my children as I see fit, opt to spend the weekend at a museum or in the garden….But there are a lot of people in my state (as elsewhere) who do not have liberty in any meaningful sense, that is, the ability to make these minimal choices, because every waking moment is spent simply trying to survive.

Every person struggling to make ends meet is not a “sturdy beggar,” trying to pull a con. (If research is to be believed, relatively few are.) But rather than trying to change this stubborn cultural meme, or reminding ourselves of the multiple ways we all benefit when societies are more equal, let’s ask a different question.

If a 10% increase in your taxes could be shown to provide public services  allowing every American to enjoy at least a minimal level of liberty/self-determination–would you pay it?

Or is the liberty you cherish limited to your own? If it’s the latter–I think that’s privilege you are valuing, not liberty.

 

Privatizing Libraries

What with the wild and weird Presidential campaign, and the focus on the Supreme Court in the wake of Scalia’s death, there’s much discussion about the operation of the federal government. But Americans have really been engaged in a much longer debate–largely uninformed–over the role of government in general.

And that debate has “evolved;” a recent column from the LA Times brought me up short. It began:

The list of responsibilities that a local government must shoulder isn’t an especially long one. Typically it includes keeping the streets paved and the streetlights lit, maintaining adequate police and fire services, inspecting buildings, sometimes providing water. One hallmark of almost every local jurisdiction is the free public library.

So the proposal before the Kern County supervisors to turn over the county library system to a private company operating out of suburban Maryland marks a major step. If you’re looking for a sign that local political leaders are intent on giving up all pretense of working for the public interest, look no further.

As the columnist points out, the proposal to privatize the library system is part and parcel of the long slide in spending on public infrastructure, the result of viewing the public budget as an expense rather than an investment. The Kern County supervisors are choosing between turning the library over to a private, for-profit company, or imposing a sales tax increase of one-eighth of a cent to fund the libraries.

How, one might ask, does a company make a profit operating a library? According to the story, LSSI, the company in question, cuts down the number of employees, “squeezes” those who remain, and replaces existing pensions with cheaper 401K plans. Even then, the proposal defies logic.

Chronic underfunding and repeated budget cuts have allowed the Kern County libraries to deteriorate physically, while the county spends money instead on an 822-bed expansion of its jail. Library employees are among the lowest paid public workers in Kern County, the advocacy group says.

Turning management over to a firm that will add its own profits to all the other expenses incurred by a library system doesn’t seem on the surface to be a path to improved library services. The money will still have to be found to improve and maintain the physical plant, acquire books and magazines, and upgrade the system’s electronic access.

Something more fundamental is lost when a system such as libraries becomes privatized. The sense that government exists in part to provide infrastructure and services that should be immune from the influence of private interests.

Free public libraries create and nurture community. They cannot be replaced by bookstores (as former Mayor Goldsmith once advocated) or other for-profit ventures. Their importance in the age of the internet has actually grown, as they have moderated the digital divide and curated essential access to credible information.

Government isn’t a business. It exists to provide public goods– services that the private sector cannot and will not provide. When we starve and diminish it, we lose that which makes us a community–an “us”–rather than an assortment of winners and losers who simply occupy a common geography.

Privatized libraries are a step too far. Far too far.

 

 

Bosma: The Grownup in the Room

Well, the usual suspects are all ganging up on Brian Bosma, the Speaker of the Indiana House, who has had the temerity to suggest that, if we want roads we can drive on, we probably need to pay for them.

As the Indianapolis Star reported

Hoosiers could pay more for gas and cigarettes under a road funding proposal being crafted by Indiana House Republican leaders.

The proposal also would provide for a study about turning I-65 and I-70 into toll roads.

House Speaker Brian Bosma provided some details about the proposal during a legislative conference Downtown on Wednesday. The funding plan would index the state’s fuel tax to inflation and gradually shift all of the 7 percent sales tax on gasoline to the motor vehicle highway fund, which is used for state and local road projects.

Bosma said the plan would create a sustainable, long-term solution for maintaining Indiana’s roads and bridges, but he acknowledged that some would consider it a tax increase.

Now, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue for alternative ways to raise the necessary revenues, or to ask for assurances that funds raised will be prudently spent– but those aren’t the arguments being mounted by Bosma’s opponents. They are opposed to anything that looks remotely like a tax. No matter what.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said the proposed tax adjustments would be a tough sell in the legislature, where many Republicans have pledged never to increase taxes.

This impasse is a stark reminder that there are two kinds of Republican in Indiana (as elsewhere): those interested in actually governing, and those (like our embarrassing Governor) interested only in pulling down a public paycheck for posturing and pontificating. And there are more of the latter than the former.

News flash, ideologues: there is no free lunch. There is no way to provide necessary public services, no way to maintain critical public infrastructure, without adequate funds. Taxes are “user fees”–they are the price we pay for civilization, our social “membership dues.”

Grownups understand that.

More Lessons from Canada

Yesterday I shared Canada’s approach to management of government contracts–an approach American government officials would do well to emulate. Today, I want to share two examples of good urban policy from our neighbors to the north.

First, from Vancouver:

In Vancouver, Canada, walking, cycling and public transit are now viable alternatives to driving. Todd Litman blogs on Planetizen that recent data indicate that Vancouver’s “automobile mode share” represents about half of all trips.

By contrast, in most North American cities, personal vehicles are used about 80 percent of the time. Litman is executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

Vancouver’s urban planners have worked to make the city easier to navigate without a vehicle. As a result, in addition to the obvious environmental benefits,  Vancouver’s residents spend less money on transportation than urbanites elsewhere, have more opportunities for active lifestyles, and are less likely to be killed in an automobile accident– Vancouver has experienced a sizable drop in traffic fatalities.

 

 

Can’t find Place Jacques-Cartier? Curious about the history of Mount Royal? Ian Hardy reports for MobileSyrup that Montreal’s CA$23 million  (US$18.4 million) “smart city” plan would provide easy answers via free public Wi-Fi. The 70 projects to be completed by late 2017 would include real-time updates about buses and subways and digital access for citizens to municipal data.

The city promises to deploy free wireless connectivity at 750 locations. It also would require all major urban development projects to include superfast, wired fiber optic Internet connections, the article says. In addition, Montreal hopes to attract companies and startups that specialize in innovation that improves how cities govern and interact with citizens.

I served in city government “back when”–in an administration committed to making Indianapolis a place where people would want to live, a forward-looking city with a great quality of life. That was back when we still had planners…back before the entire focus of state and local government became keeping taxes low by providing only the most essential services at the lowest possible cost, before we took to selling off public assets to make budgets work.

Before the word “government” became a sneer.

About Those Religious “Victims”

Speaking of religion and government–as I have been for the past couple of days–it might be well to consider just how much the pious victims of religious persecution are suffering financially in our (ostensibly) secular culture. An article in the Washington Post recently considered the fiscal relationship of church to state.

Well, sort of. The article actually reported on a study detailing the various tax benefits our religiously “neutral,” government extends to religious organizations, the vast majority of which are Christian.

When people donate to religious groups, it’s tax-deductible. Churches don’t pay property taxes on their land or buildings. When they buy stuff, they don’t pay sales taxes. When they sell stuff at a profit, they don’t pay capital gains tax. If they spend less than they take in, they don’t pay corporate income taxes. Priests, ministers, rabbis and the like get “parsonage exemptions” that let them deduct mortgage payments, rent and other living expenses when they’re doing their income taxes. They also are the only group allowed to opt out of Social Security taxes (and benefits).

What is the value of all this preferential treatment?

The article quotes the authors of the original study, who calculated the total subsidy at $71 billion. But the original study didn’t include the cost of a number of subsidies, like local income and property tax exemptions, the sales tax exemption, and — most importantly — the charitable deduction for religious donations.

The charitable deduction for all groups cost the government approximately $39 billion dollars in 2014, according to the CBO.  Since some 32 percent of all charitable donations are made to religious groups, the value of just those exemptions is around $12.5 billion.If you add that to the amounts reported in the original study, you get a religious subsidy of about $83.5 billion.

Next time someone whines about the war on religion or Christmas, or complains that government is insufficiently protective of “people of faith,” think about that.

I’d love to be “victimized” to the tune of 80+ billion dollars…