Of Glass Houses and Stones, or Musings on the Midterm Elections and the Role of Government

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

We are mere weeks away from the midterm elections, and the current debate clearly revolves around that all-American topic: the role of government in our lives. Whether the discussion is framed around health care, taxes, defense, the environment, the economy, or the Department of Education, the question, as I am increasingly seeing it, is not so much how much these various items should cost, but whether or not government should be funding them at all.

This is the crux of what it is to be an American: somehow creating workable balances between the individual and the community, and between local, state and federal authority. It’s always been a difficult task; lately, I believe it has become impossible.

Ours is not a unique situation; every country, and every society, struggles with the issues of how much the collective should provide to each individual within its boundaries. The results of the Great Recession have only intensified these debates worldwide, as fewer resources are available against ever-increasing needs. Do we burden our children in order to provide for our elders, or do we accept putting our decrepit members on the first available ice floe as a tolerable solution? Is it our job to police the world, or should we opt to direct all of our military dollars towards protecting our borders? Is it a shared duty for us to educate all of our children, and how all-encompassing should that responsibility be? And is it acceptable to pay retail for our medical expenses and retirements, getting less purchasing power for every dollar because some of us find it objectionable to band together and support each other?

These are serious questions, encompassing major philosophies of government and the role it should, and does, play in our lives; they deserve equally sober discussion. This same debate is raging in most countries in the industrialized world right now, with greater or lesser degrees of success; they are no different from us in this regard. Where they do differ, for the most part, is in what they believe to be the basic purpose of government: to protect the weakest members of society. And they are taxed accordingly in order to provide health care, child care, and pension benefits.

Many in this country would have you believe that taxpayers in countries which provide these types of services and payments are crushed under tax burdens far in excess of our own; I disagree. We pay so many categories of tax in this country at so many different levels that it is nearly impossible to determine what actual percentage of our income goes to one of the many governments that has jurisdiction over me and mine. By the time I factor in federal and state income tax, Social Security and Medicare taxes, real estate taxes, sales taxes, gasoline taxes, telephone taxes, alcohol and cigarette taxes (if I drank or smoked), the American burden is truly overwhelming. I may be paying out less per tax category than I would pay overall if I were living in Europe, for example, but I pay more overall categories of tax, so my aggregate tax bill is no less.

So, in these days of apparently needing to cut all sorts of social programs even as my overall tax burden grows, how are my tax dollars being spent?

They are being spent on choices. We choose to throw so much money at our military that we shortchange almost everything else. We choose to lower federal tax revenues, forcing the federal government to borrow, borrow, borrow, and then pay an ever-increasing percentage of tax collections towards the interest on those loans. We choose to favor business at the expense of the individual, and then seem surprised when the individual can no longer afford the goods or services provided by business. At the same time, we throw our collective health into the hands of insurance companies who are far more interested in their own bottom line than in my good health, or yours.

We are in the middle of an unsustainable model, and we clearly cannot continue along the same path. At the same time, the middle is where we need to be. Historically, this country has worked best when we drove down a middle path, neither too left, nor too right, but striking workable compromises along the way.

We must have frank and open debate. The current trend of demonizing those with whom you disagree must stop. When seeking to find consensus, it is unwise to point fingers and state untruths about the other side, as we all reside in this glass house together. The choices we make may be different than those of the Swedes, the British, the French, or the Canadians, but to lump these countries together and say their systems are horrible is dishonest. Their longstanding debates concerning national priorities are ongoing, and these countries continue to craft their policies to mirror their priorities, even in the face of falling tax revenues.

As we head into the voting booth on November 2, we could do worse than to follow their example.