There’s a telling word we Americans like to use to identify ourselves: “taxpayer.”
When we complain about our government, taxpayer — not citizen — is the term we typically invoke to legitimize our concerns. “Citizen” isn’t a word that leaps nearly so readily off the American tongue as taxpayer. In fact, citizen seems a word many Americans prefer to run from.
Nonetheless, 2022 seems the right moment in our history for more taxpayers to turn themselves into citizens. I think it would strengthen our republic.
This taxpayer-only identity thing gets mixed up with the fanciful notion that individual freedom always trumps — pardon me — everything else. Many Americans have forgotten that successful nations are those where citizens also accept a duty to the common good.
Yes, a measure of irksome selflessness is required to be a fully functioning citizen. Citizenship imposes broader burdens on us than paying taxes. As President Biden reminded last week, citizens owe certain obligations to their nations, such as getting vaccinated during pandemics. “It’s the patriotic thing to do,” he rightly said.
Why? Because healthy citizens are fundamental to maintaining economic strength and security. Yet we failed to do that.
The United States comprises only 4% of world’s population.
Yet we have 15% of the 5.3 million dead from COVID-19, more than 803,744 Americans. This failure cannot just be laid at the feet of feckless government. We’ve done this to ourselves, first by mask refusal, then vaccine refusal.
Too many of us opted for the common bad instead of the common good. Now everyone’s paying the price.
Americans who believe their relationship with their government begins and ends at the doorstep of the Internal Revenue Service usually say they resent burdensome American taxes.
But here’s the awkward thing: Hardly anyone in the developed western world pays less in taxes than Americans; we rank 32nd in tax burden among the 41 wealthiest western nations. Yet no one feels more unfairly taxed than we.
This tax-victim delusion is what allows the wealthiest nation on Earth to suffer the weakness and destabilizing societal dysfunctions of an undeveloped one.
Taxpayers in socially successful nations do pay much higher taxes. But they get something for it: free or heavily subsidized child care, college tuition, health care, eldercare, affordable housing — at lower cost in taxes than Americans pay when they privately buy these things.
It’s worrisome that so many Americans have come to see themselves as taxpayers only and cannot get to the “citizen” part of the deal. It’s a difference in mindset that matters, a cultural flaw that may prove a fatal weakness to our democracy.
A cramped vision of citizenship that turns citizens into mere taxpayers is a recipe for a society where personal irresponsibility toward others, ill will, political gridlock and mis-governance thrive.
Don’t misread me. Taxpayers are entitled to know how their money is spent. People in my line of work have felled unthinkable numbers of trees in service of government accountability to taxpayers. Journalists long have been the taxpayers’ best friend.
For 40 years, though, something less high-minded has been going on: a political grooming, at the behest of the wealthy, urging the rest of us to accept that we’re on our own and should, in effect, settle for being victimized taxpayers.
I speak of the inhumane “Reagan Revolution” against FDR’s humane New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society.
“Reaganomic” efforts to persuade ordinary Americans that they’re overtaxed are not, and never were, aimed at reducing their taxes. The eternal goal of anti-taxers is to prevent the wealthy from being fairly taxed. Decades of misleading, anti-tax drumbeating has succeeded. Budget cuts have eviscerated vital social services such as public health.
A tragic national reckoning with a miscalculation of this magnitude was inevitable. The coronavirus pandemic is providing it.
The pandemic shows that there’s been a change in “our core beliefs about what we owe one another,” physician Anita Sreedhar and journalist Anand Gopal recently observed in the New York Times.
Now, they write, “people are conditioned to believe they’re on their own and responsible only for themselves” — thanks to 40 years of political duplicity and budget slashing of social services such as public health.
Americans now have the lowest life expectancy among the wealthy countries. Is it just a coincidence that between 1980 (when Ronald Reagan was elected) and 2019, American life expectancy increased by three fewer years than it did in other wealthy nations? Hello?
The poor, meanwhile, resist the vaccine. “Rich people see it [COVID-19] as the only threat they face. To poor people it’s just one more thing” threatening them, Sreedhar and Gopal write. The lives of the American poor are an never-ending pandemic of ill health.
New York City offered money to poorer residents to get vaccinated, but Sreedhar and Gopal note that the poor reacted with suspicion. One resident summed it up: why was the government so eager to give money for vaccinations when it wouldn’t give poor people money for anything else that’s killing them?
There’s an obvious answer: If the poor don’t vaccinate, the threat to the rest of us rises.
Which, once again, validates the wisdom of investing in the common good.
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.