Commentary
11:24 am
Wed April 6, 2011

The Price of Civilization

Last night a gentleman who appeared to be in his late sixties approached me after Michigan Radio's Issues and Ale event in Royal Oak.  He appeared frustrated. "My father always taught me that taxes were the price we pay for civilization," he said.

"Why don't people seem to realize that today?"

The answer is that taxes are, indeed, the price we pay for a civilized society. Whether he realized it or not, his father was echoing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said exactly those words back in 1904. That doesn't mean all taxes are good. What it does mean is that without our tax money, we wouldn't have any schools or roads or policemen or local and national parks.

However, about thirty years ago, politicians began telling us that we were the most overtaxed generation in history, and we came to believe it. The truth is that Americans pay a far smaller proportion of their incomes in taxes than people in most modern countries.  We even pay far less than we used to.

Back in the Kennedy Administration, the top federal income tax rate was 91 percent. Nobody pays even a third of their income to Uncle Sam now. We do pay additional state and local taxes.

But thanks to the anti-tax fever, our politicians have cut taxes, and then cut again. However, they haven't cut services very much.

That's because voters don't want to give up anything they are getting, they just don't want to pay for them. Oh, they are willing to have other people's benefits cut, just not theirs.

So local and state governments have used up their rainy day funds, shoved expenses off to future years and engaged in accounting tricks. But now that's not working any more.  Local governments are running out of cash, fast.

Governor Rick Snyder is proposing  to slash revenue sharing payments, and make some of it dependent on cities doing more to further cut expenses, or as he puts it, adopt best practices.

The impact of all this has many communities and many school districts teetering on the brink of insolvency. Democrats say they are outraged at the governor's plans to slash services.

However, I don't hear them saying, "look. Times are hard, but good schools and roads are a necessity. So those of us who are still working are going to have to pay a little more to maintain them, to keep things up till we have a better future."

Last night I challenged State Senator Bert Johnson about this. A liberal Democrat whose district includes Highland Park and the Grosse Pointes, he represents some of the poorest people in the state -- and some of the wealthiest. He took exception to my charge that Democrats hadn't been willing to support tax increases.

"That information is on a number of websites," he said. Well, that isn't the same thing as loudly calling for those who can afford it to pay. Communities and people all over the state are in the process of finding out that there really is no free lunch.

The question is whether we want our needs and those of our children neglected, or whether we are willing to pay the price of having a civilized society.