In honor of tax day, I want to be a contrarian. I want to speak in defense of taxes. No, I’m not thrilled that our money helped bail out AIG, but so far today I’ve seen three public complaints against taxes—one from people on the left and two from people on the right—using April 15 to raise questions about government spending they don’t like. Fair enough. There’s plenty I don’t like, too. But I think in the past decade or so conservatives have succeeded in making “taxes” a dirty word, as if the whole idea of people investing in the common good via our government was just a big scam.
A few things recently have reminded me of the importance of investing in the common good. One was the film “When the Levees Broke,” which I recently rewatched. Although the colossal failure of government regarding Katrina (except for the Coast Guard) might make people cynical about government, to me the film was a reminder that there are things we need our government to provide, such as adequate levees, which the Army Corps of Engineers clearly failed to do. There are things people cannot provide for themselves, like well-maintained highways, fair courts, and emergency relief.
This morning Quaker educator Joan Countryman (whom I interviewed for my book The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change-and When to Let Go) had a “This I Believe” essay on NPR. Best known for her work as Interim Director of Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls, Joan talked about the importance of education and shared how when she was interviewing prospective students for Oprah’s school one South African girl described an education as “my tomorrow.” Education could just as accurately be described as “our tomorrow,” and it’s not one of the things we can count on families to provide for their own children. Although I am well educated myself, I am completely unqualified to teach my daughter science, her favorite subject. To give her the potential to cure a disease someday, I need a trained science teacher to open that door for her. In fact, we all need good teachers, at some time or another—not only the people who taught me and those who teach my children, but those who maybe now are teaching the people who might take care of me someday should I land in a hospital. Most people get their teachers in public school, so investing in public schools seems to me to be a clear case of investing in the public good.
Could our money be invested more wisely? Sure. But when doing my taxes this year, I was glad to see that most of our money was going to the city and the state, where human needs are most likely to be met. I don't mind paying those taxes. It's an investment in our tomorrow.