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Towards the end of his lucid and useful piece this week on how – contrary to growing conventional wisdom – the vast majority of Americans pay federal taxes of some kind, George Hager raises the question of whether everyone should pay at least some federal income taxes. They should. Here’s why:
It’s hardly a news flash that Americans are increasingly disconnected from their government. Public confidence in the federal government is hovering near historic lows, with less than a quarter of Americans trusting that it will do the right thing most of the time. The share of Americans who label themselves “independents” (rather than Democrats or Republicans) is rising, which is another sign that Americans don’t believe that traditional political and policymaking institutions can work for them.
A representative democracy cannot function effectively when a vast cross-section of its people opt out. Indeed, public apathy exacerbates the very problem that generates apathy in the first place. Americans believe that, rather than serving average people, their elected leaders cater to the “fat cats” and political insiders who fund their campaigns. They turn away in disgust, giving the politicians even more leeway to ignore public needs and cater to the fat cats and insiders.
While we may not think government works well, we all benefit from what it does at the most basic level – from the military that keeps us safe, to the roads on which we travel, to the research that leads to medical and scientific breakthroughs. An income tax obligation not only can remind us all of the benefits we receive, but it can encourage us to stop tuning out and start getting involved. That is, those who pay income taxes will care more about how Washington spends those dollars.
To be sure, as Hager notes, while 47 percent of Americans paid no income tax in 2009, most of that 47 percent paid Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. But payroll taxes won’t do the trick for generating more civic engagement. Most Americans view those taxes as dedicated taxes for specific purposes. In fact, for many, Social Security and Medicare are not really “government,” per se. How else can we explain the cry of late, “Keep the government away from my Medicare?”
I’m not suggesting that everyone should pay lots of income taxes. I recognize the stagnant living standards at most income levels of late as well as the more recent rise in poverty and joblessness. I do think, however, that even a minimal income tax obligation would send people a message that many of them desperately need to hear: we’re all in this together and, if we don’t like the way things are going, we should change them.
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Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.