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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Because it's the wrong question, that's why

by folkbum

The last couple of times I've posted about taxes, my conservative readers have asked a question in the comments that I have opted to ignore. They've also posed it on their own blogs, where I have continued to ignore it. But I doubt that my continued disengagement on the topic will stop them, so I may as well just lay out this once why I don't bother with it.

The most recent posing--and I mean that in more than one way--came attached to yesterday's quckie post:
How much is too much of someone's income to take [in taxes]? What should the top line total tax picture be in your mind?
Frequent commenter Sven, in response, rightly calls it a "silly question" and notes that the question is "predicated on the adolescent Randian notion that all taxes are theft." Worse, I think, is that it is a classic "gotcha" question--one designed to stop or derail conversation about important questions and instead put people on the spot so they can be criticized personally. It's a game, and a game that conservatives are particularly good at.

More importantly, though, that question is quite simply the wrong question to ask. Taxes are a means, not an end, and to consider only the means makes no sense. Let me make an analogy:

If you're just joining us, you may not know that I teach. But I do! When I sit down to plan a semester, a quarter, a unit, or even a single lesson, the first question I consider is not "How much homework should students do?" I think there are some pretty reasonable guidelines about homework we can all agree on--two hours is too much for a second-grader, ten minutes is not enough for a high schooler--but knowing an answer or even those parameters doesn't help me at all. No, the first thing I have to do is decide what I want I students to know or be able to do by the end of the process. Then I figure out the materials and activities to use to achieve that end, and somewhere near the end of the process, I can get a handle on how much of what we're doing can or should be done as homework.

You could also make a private-sector analogy: It's a pretty dumb thing to set a price point for your product or service before you've bothered to figure out what product or service you're going to sell.

The same holds true with governing. While we might be able to agree going in on some broad outlines about what kind of taxes are appropriate or not (like a top individual tax rate of 91% might be a little high--though, oddly enough, this country managed to have a massive post-war economic boom with exactly that rate in place), picking a number without first taking other steps is just stupid--no offense to Tim Rock, who answered that question yesterday as well as the last time it was asked.

Instead, the first task of governing is deciding what services ought to be offered. Lucky for us, we get to have a conversation about that sort of thing pretty often; it's called an election. We're doing one right now for president, for example. This is the time to set priorities and sort out what is and is not in the best interests of the governed based on their consent. (You'll recall that the last election featured a stunning loss for the crowd that wanted only to talk about that question of how high taxes should be.)

It's also important to have a conversation, after we've got a handle on what the government should be doing, about how the government should be paying for that. This is the part of the conversation that's often missing, though I have been suggesting for a long time that, at least here in Wisconsin, we should be talking about revenue sources and whether, for example, we should rely so heavily on the property tax. There is a collection of people as diverse as the Realtors and the teachers' union working as "The Wisconsin Way," trying to jump-start exactly that conversation; they are currently on tour talking to the public. (They will be in Waukesha November 8, and in Glendale November 27.)

Once we know what our priorities are, and what our revenue sources will be, we can set a level for taxes. If we provide more services, clearly the taxes will be higher--though, we hope, apportioned fairly. The process of setting priorities, that important first step, will help us in deciding what to not to fund if there is no way to do that fairly.

Opening the conversation with "How much in taxes is too much?" is to start at the end of what should be a longer process--and it shuts down that discussion instead of fostering it. This is the same reason I oppose such legislative idiocies as TABOR, tax "freezes," and revenue caps. More meaningful measures like pay-as-you-go rules or even, dare I say it, a balanced-budget amendment provide a much better legislative solution to out-of-control spending.

On a more specific note, when the MPS superintendent asked this week for a 16% jump in the Milwaukee tax levy, he did so by making clear exactly what services he wanted to pay for with that money--more math teachers, smaller class sizes, extracurriculars that will keep students in school, the return of art and music to high schools. People howling about MPS, like some in comments here at this blog, or in comments at jsonline or at any number of conservative blogs, want just to talk about the number, not the services forgone without the funds, or the services lost with any other cuts in MPS's billion-dollar budget. They're happy to play games over what's "fair" or "too much"--in other words, whine over the means--but not willing to take the time to talk about the ends.

That is why I ignore that question. When someone wants to engage me on a question of substance instead of trying to shut down the conversation, I'll happily play along. Until then, no.

Instead, maybe my conservative readers would rather take a shot at these questions, about ends, about MPS: If so many students are currently failing in a well-funded, well-organized, tightly-regulated school system staffed by generally very talented and compassionate teachers, what would you replace it with? What would you cut, change, rearrange, or do differently to achieve different results? If the superintendent's requests above aren't going to make a difference, what will?

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