Sunday, November 2, 2008

"Joe the Plumber" needs a reality check

The thing about people like "Joe the Plumber" is that they don't understand or appreciate what they've got. A staunch Republican friend of mine was the first to complain when they started fiddling with childcare subsidies in our area. Her logic was that if taxes were lower, she could buy childcare herself - a legitimate argument - although she probably wouldn't have been able to afford it. People like "Joe" think good schools, public safety, and clean air magically happen by themselves and are not shy about complaining when things go wrong. Sure, there is room for discussion and improvement about the best way to provide public services, but it appears that Joe the Plumber, who doesn't even pay his taxes, thinks the only good taxes are no taxes.

Someone, somehow, somewhere needs to remind Joe Q. Citizen that government funds services that individuals usually can’t pay for or provide for themselves. No amount of money is going to protect a gated community from groundwater contamination without sufficient protection of water resources, which requires collective action which costs money which is acquired through progressive taxation.

There’s a line in the 1936 film My Man Godfrey where the wealthy head of the household says that he doesn’t mind paying taxes but that he can’t afford to pay the government when his family spends so much, or something to that effect. The amazing thing about this line is that it would never be uttered in any movie today. Cynicism about taxes has become so commonplace and so strong that hardly anyone condemned “Joe the Plumber” for not even paying what he owes now. For “Joe,” there is complete disjuncture between taxes and public services. The “Joes” of the world ought to spend a week in a place where things don't work to understand and appreciate what they have. Or better yet, have visited post-Katrina New Orleans or have crossed the Mississippi over a bridge in downtown Minneapolis.

Taxes may be a necessary evil, but note the importance of that one word, necessary.

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