I came across an irate letter in the LA Times this morning complaining about the burden of being asked to pay sales tax on online purchases. It turns out, though, that paying sales taxes for online purchases is not really this guy's beef, and I don't have anything to say about that issue either. What really steamed the letter writer was that he is already paying $4979 in state income taxes, and all he gets in return is "a broken government that refuses to make hard choices."
Is that really all he gets in return? In the very next paragraph we find out that this guy has two kids in school, so it turns out that what is REALLY getting him steamed is that his kids are going to have to put up with more crowded classrooms because we can't afford to hire more teachers. And he is certainly right to be unhappy about this. But he seems to be missing a connection here. Somehow this guy does not see that that one reason he might be dissatisfied with the level of services his kids are getting, is that he is only paying $4979 in state income taxes (even granting that he also has to pay property taxes and sales taxes), and that all these taxes have to cover not only educating his two kids, but also courts, prisons, roads, parks, fire and police protection, and every other service that state and local governments provide.
I wonder whether someone in this person's situation, complaining that taxes are too high and services are too low, is aware that it actually costs the state about $7500 per student annually to educate each child (so the cost of his kids' education even at this inadequate level is more than triple what this letter writer's family is paying in state income tax). Is he aware that California is now 47th in the nation in per pupil expenditures? When I see a statistic like that, it makes me think that anyone who suggests that our state government should be spending even less on education is acting in a highly irresponsible way. Parents unhappy about the condition of the schools should realize that they might still be a gigantic bargain compared to what most people pay in taxes, and that one reason schools are so shoddy is that taxes are too low. Maybe they ought to wonder whether their kids' education is being subsidized to an extent by other taxpayers. Now I don't have a problem with subsidizing other peoples' education, because we all benefit from an educated workforce. What I do have a problem understanding is the kind of thinking shown even by somebody with two kids in school: the common attitude that taxes are too high, government spending is all going to some wasteful projects that don't benefit me, and the level of services I am getting from government is too low.
We ought instead to consider the possibility that in fact, taxes are too low, government spending is also too low, and that if we tax and spend more, we might actually be more satisfied with the level of services we are getting. We need to get beyond the stale debate that just sees all taxes and all government spending as bad. We need to re-frame the debate, as the Obama administration seems to be attempting, into one over the kinds of investments in our future we need to make, whether that is education or infrastructure or anything else we think is important. Once we recognize that we need to invest in things like good teachers and less crowded schools, then we need to be grown up enough to realize we have to pay for them.
(LA Times photo of Fairfax High School, Los Angeles)