Government, society, and the tax bill

I got into a political debate on the tax bill today on Facebook, which I normally don’t do. But I was able to articulate some of why I’m so outraged by the tax bill and some of the thinking behind it, so I thought I’d share an edited version here.

The debate was instigated by a Trump supporter saying that every person should be carrying their own weight in taxes – he (yes, it was a white suburban man) didn’t feel he should have to pay taxes to help others.

My response was that I don’t believe that anybody makes their own success. Our society has systematically tilted the playing field in favor of those who start out with money (including my parents, and through them, me), and makes it easier for them to sustain their advantage and accumulate yet more money. This comes in several forms, using myself as an example:

  • Better education: Local property taxes made the public schools in my hometown of Wheaton among the best in the nation.
  • Better opportunities: I got an unpaid internship at Fermilab through my parents for my junior year of high school, and could afford to be unpaid because my parents supported me.
  • More activities: My parents paid for violin lessons, tennis lessons, and all sorts of cultural outings to expand my horizons.
  • Tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction and education deductions

While I was getting a great education and opportunities, somebody else my age might have been working at McDonald’s because their family needed the money to pay the rent on their crowded apartment. I used that head start in education and opportunities to go to MIT, and had the additional advantage that my parents paid my tuition so I had no student debt. My hypothetical counterpart could at best go to a community college, and would have had to take out thousands of dollars in loans to afford even that, which makes them much less able to take career risks later. After college, I am set for life (I trade on my MIT degree to this day), and they can basically never catch up.

The idea that everybody needs to “carry their own weight” belies that reality. It assumes our achievements and success are purely a reflection of our talents and our hard work. But my hypothetical example shows how far from true that is – we don’t live in a meritocracy where people succeed or fail entirely due to their own efforts.

I would like to live in a world where we have more of an equal playing field, so that everybody has a chance to “carry their own weight”. I want to give everybody access to similar opportunities, so that they can later pay back society by contributing more in their own way. This has the added benefit that more productive citizens earn more income eventually, which leads to more tax revenue, closing the deficit.

Along those lines, if we are going to run a deficit, let’s invest it in developing our citizens. We have seen little evidence that tax breaks for companies and rich people will result in increased investment or tax revenue, as Kansas found out. Meanwhile, we know that investing in people has a positive return on investment; for example, one estimate is that investing in preschool has an annualized return of 13%, in the form of “reduced health care costs, reduced crime, greater earnings, more education”. To me, it’s not even a political question, but an economic question, as it makes more sense for the government to invest its people and their education. That investment will provide a return not just in the form of more productive citizens, but also higher income and future tax revenue.

My debate opponent argued that leveling the playing field was not the purpose of government, which is another place where we differ. As one of my friends put it, “we institute governments as a way of performing tasks that we collectively want performed, but which are not profitable to perform or which we don’t want optimized for profit.” I see creating more equal opportunity for everyone as a collective task, where we will all benefit from unleashing the latent potential in all of those people who do not have a chance to develop their talents in today’s world. The US government is for the people and by the people, so the question is whether enough of us collectively believe in this vision to make it the responsibility of our government (the same applies to the environment, and to regulations to protect us from predator corporations (net neutrality), etc.).

My debate opponent continued by saying people who need help should be the responsibility of the families and of the communities – people should support each other privately at the micro-level, rather than through the forced mechanism of the government. I would argue that these communities are helping each other out, but they just don’t have much to give. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted, by Matthew Desmond tells heart-breaking stories of how people in these communities band together to help each other out, looking after each other’s kids, sharing food when they could, etc. And it’s not enough, because rich people with the resources to actually make a difference aren’t part of these communities, and aren’t helping them out. The only way I see to bridge those class and racial divides is through a collective institution like the government.

We, as a society, choose what we value and what we don’t. This tax bill reveals that Republicans value rich investment bankers over students, over teachers, over people who struggle to get insurance, etc. That’s a choice I don’t agree with. With my tax dollars, I would rather support somebody who is working two jobs and trying to make ends meet, than a rich white man who is living in a tax-free haven off his investment income. I want to support innovative entrepreneurs who want to start companies but can’t because their health insurance is tied to their company. This tax bill is designed to lock in the advantages of today’s rich and successful so that nobody else has a chance to compete with them.

What really frustrates me is when I hear people who got their start through advantages similar to the ones I listed above for myself then say “I don’t want to support other people because they must not be trying hard if they didn’t succeed like me”. I thought like that as recently as a few years ago, but as I read more of the experiences of people outside my bubble, I believe that most people are trying hard, but falling short because they are being held back by structural disadvantages. And if I have been successful by benefiting from those structural inequities, then whose responsibility is it but mine to start fixing them? I am looking to do more to address this at the micro-level (e.g. I’m on the advisory board of an Oakland education non-profit), but would also like my government to move in this direction as well

To sum up:
I believe society would benefit if we had more people having the opportunity to produce and add value.
I believe that the government should act to pursue that societal benefit, and increase the opportunities available to more people.
I believe that this tax bill moves in exactly the opposite direction, decreasing the opportunities of the 99%, to benefit the pockets of the 1%.

If you believe as I do, I found this document useful for outlining what actions you can take to help stop the bill from becoming law.

One thought on “Government, society, and the tax bill

  1. Shouldn’t really need to be said, but: yeah. When did the basic concept of action as a society become discredited? When did Social Darwinism become the state religion?

    My family relied on unemployment insurance and reduced-price school lunches for a while when I was young. If the the Libertarian paradise now under construction had been in place then, I probably would have gone undernourished during some critical years of development; I never would have made it to MIT to meet you. Likewise, obviously, for the decent public schools I enjoyed.

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