Use Our Taxes to Better Serve Nation's Interest
Published on Tuesday, February 6, 2001 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Use Our Taxes to Better Serve Nation's Interest
by Steven Conn
Memo to President W: I don't want a tax cut.

To admit such a thing out loud is, I realize, as profoundly un-American as admitting to being a liberal. Tax-cutting has so dominated the political debate that one might get the sense that not to cut them would be unconstitutional.

Let me be clear: I'm not so wealthy that I don't miss the money that comes out of my paycheck. The wild-ride prosperity of the last several years largely bypassed the academic world where I make my living, and so I live modestly but comfortably on a perfectly middle-class income.

I'll also admit to feeling certain frustrations at tax time. I have two kids now, and their needs grow faster than my salary ever will. It might be nice to take home more of my pay.

So while mine could well serve as one of the poster families for tax cutting, here's why I don't want a tax cut.

The debate over taxation over the past generation has largely degenerated into a set of complaints that we all pay too much. Paying our taxes has come to be seen as something we are all forced to do at the point of some bayonet wielded by jackbooted IRS agents. Politicians, especially the current generation of Republicans, have stoked this sense of indignation by portraying taxation as something done to us rather than by us. The only thing more un-American than being a liberal, after all, is being a tax-and-spend liberal.

Obscured more often than not amid the cries over oppressive taxation is the more complicated question of who gets taxed, how much, and for what.

As we all ought to know by now, the tax "reforms" of the Reagan administration shifted the tax burden dramatically off the wealthy and off large businesses and placed it squarely on the shoulders of the middle class. Not coincidentally, after those adjustments, we witnessed the largest shift of wealth from the middle to the top tenth in the nation's history.

What deserves our outrage even more than the inequitable way in which taxes are apportioned, however, is how those taxes are spent. That can largely be summarized in a single word: defense. While military spending no longer eats up quite as much money as it did during the Reagan spending bonanza, when roughly 60 cents out of every income tax dollar was spent at the Pentagon, the defense budget remains gargantuan.

As a result, what we get for our taxes are things like Star Wars - still alive and kicking after $60 billion and no appreciable results. Or the estimable Osprey tilt-roter aircraft whose failures seem only to generate yet more spending - or a dozen other bloated, wasteful programs that do little to make the lives of Americans better. No wonder people feel angry about paying taxes.

In the face of this, however, the response ought to be not to cut taxes but to reassess what we do with them. Democracy can be defined as a process through which citizens with a variety of conflicting interests and concerns come together to work out what constitutes the public good. Taxes, in a democracy, are how we pay for that vision.

In this sense, the whomping tax cut that President W. has proposed, and which Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has sort of/kind of/not really endorsed, represents nothing less than a failure of vision and an acknowledgment that we don't much care about defining the commonweal, much less funding it.

There are countless ways in which taxes might be used now to further the national interest for the future - endowing a national system of medical education; restoring a degraded environment; rebuilding America's educational infrastructure. My point isn't to advocate any of these but to suggest that history will not look kindly on a nation that, when faced with urgent problems to solve and possessed of money with which to solve them, decided instead to send us all off to the mall with a little more money to spend. We can do better than that.

In the debate over tax cutting, President W. seems to have forgotten the first rule of economics: You get what you pay for. If we are unwilling to use taxes to pay for equitable health care or first-rate public education or clean water, then we should not be surprised when we don't get any of those things. The quality of the society produced by our democracy will be measured by how broadly we can dream about the common good, and how willing we are to pay for those dreams.

Philadelphia native Steven Conn ( is an assistant professor of history at Ohio State University.