Who Wants Taxes Cut?
by KARL F. ZEISLER
PERSONALLY, I am a high-tax man. I believe taxes should be much higher than they are, and I believe the “demand” for low taxes and economy in government comes from interests opposed to me and to other individual citizens. Don’t get me wrong. I am not and have never been on any public payroll. I do no business with any governmental agency and never expect to. Furthermore, I am a taxpayer; I pay income taxes, state sales taxes, local property taxes, nuisance and luxury taxes on the things I buy, and in addition I pay a rate that would astonish most Americans to the Dominion of Canada on the income from some bank stock I inherited. So what I have to say about taxes is not influenced by any salary or business I might get by boosting them. I should inevitably pay my full share if my advocacy of higher taxes bore fruit.
The other day in my state the legislature soundly defeated a measure to permit — not force — schools to extend their curriculum to fourteen grades. The objective of the bill was to enable smaller communities to offer home-town educational facilities to boys and girls who cannot afford college. It was in answer to the widespread complaints of businessmen and industrial employers that the average high school graduate cannot spell, make change, or read instructions. Yet its defeat came about largely because the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a farmer, asserted that the people were paying all the taxes they could hear, and that if this business of expanding the burden of supporting the public schools went on unchecked there would be a taxpayers’ revolt. He neglected to say which taxpayers would revolt — whether parents, farmers, businessmen, property owners, industrialists, or bondholders.
Taxes are the prorated cost of things we can buy only from government. We get about what we pay for. We should get more and better fire and police protection, education, sanitation, recreational facilities, food inspection, control over fraudulent transactions, and reduction in the risk of our investments if we paid more taxes. Yet by listening to the low-tax people all these years we have cheated ourselves out of the essentials only government can give us. It is time we examined the economy-in-government interests and determined whether we as individuals should listen to them or decide for ourselves how much government service we actually need and want and can afford to buy.
Granted that government has accumulated a lot of frills, and that government regulation of the New Deal variety is onerous; nevertheless we owe too much of our well-being to monopolies we have placed in government to deprive ourselves by joining in the low-tax hue and cry. When you consider, for instance, that the farmer-legislator who blocked the extension of educational opportunities in my state serves the people in a key post for $3.00 a day, do my fellow citizens have any reason to complain of the leadership they are employing?
And what does the low-tax lobby really gain by “saving” the money it would take to attract legislative leadership of the caliber called for by these times and their problems?
Take education. A nation can’t rise above the level of its average citizen any more than a river can rise above its source. And the source of citizenship in America is “free” public school education. Are you satisfied with the public schools in your community and the job they are doing, whether you send your children to them or pay the tremendously higher cost of private schooling?
Are your public schools, in the town in which you live, instilling the ideals of Americanism, training boys and girls to fit into community life at the highest level of their ability, giving bright pupils the opportunity they deserve and doing what can be done for the dull ones? Are they giving adequate social readjustment to the incipient delinquents, maintaining standards of pay and advancement and community recognition and social security to attract the most competent teachers, and planning ahead to provide adequate buildings in the proper locations for the growth of your community? If you are satisfied that your school system is meeting all its obligations, you can rest assured that your tax rate for education is higher than the nation’s average.
Recent disclosures by Selective Service regarding rejections of men for military service point an accusing finger at the low-tax lobby. They show that the percentage of rejections is highest in the areas where public school education has the lowest tax support, while the lowest rate of rejections comes from the sections of the country where school taxes are highest and schools are doing the best job. In other words, we arc sacrificing our most effectively trained youth in this war because those areas willing to foot the bill for education are producing the men most capable of defending the country. Must we suffer this drain on “superior” offspring in all our wars because the tax lobby is powerful enough to cheat certain sections of America out of educational facilities they could afford? Is property more valuable to the republic than its potentially most productive citizens?
The Army and Navy are skeptical of the product of the low-tax interests’ school system. They have had to put candidates for pilots and navigators and engineers through simple arithmetic courses, and some draftees through all the three R’s, to equip them to fight. It isn’t only the hillbillies who have had to be taught to read and write in this war of machines and technology and precision. Comic-strip techniques, visual education in the form of indoctrination movies, hipped-up textbooks, and all forms of brain-jogging devices, including the undraped female form, have been pressed desperately into service to get training across to soldiers and sailors who can’t read ordinary texts and get sense out of them, or listen to lectures and retain precious information.
The progress of this war against the enemies of civilization was slowed by the prolonged training needed to make up for the failure of our tax-starved public schools to educate.
Any schoolman can tell you why the schools fall down on their job. Poor salaries and slow promotion keep teaching standards low. Niggardly school budgets make for bargain education, the one thing America, of all nations, can’t afford. Money doesn’t inevitably buy the best in schooling, but the best schooling naturally costs money. High enough taxes for adequate school plants and competent teaching staffs can spell the difference between education and a futile waste of time.
Nor does this mean that a marble-front building complete with swimming pool and cafeteria is essential to teach children reading and writing and the fundamentals of democracy. A modest one-room rural school can turn out Grade A citizens if it has a capable teacher, but the tragedy is that one-room rural schools usually get only enough of the tax money to hire inferior teachers.
What should education cost? I don’t know, but I know we have paid too little and got only what we paid for. As a parent I would gladly pay twice as much in school taxes if that would assure my youngsters of the kind of education I think they deserve and know they aren’t getting. If the Army and Navy can afford effective education, I can.
TAKE municipal government. Have you ever been bawled out by a traffic cop for going north on a southbound street or parking in a restricted zone? Are you satisfied that traffic rules are sensible in your town and traffic officers trained to make drivers want to observe them? If so, you live in a rare community — and pay for it. The point is that if you pay enough taxes you can hire traffic engineers to lay out a sensible system, and intelligent traffic officers to make traffic safety and law observance compulsory by virtue of logic rather than invective.
Municipal government today is a science. Colleges give graduate courses in it and men have devoted their lives, for no great reward, to studying and practicing it. A town can be run so that all the citizens enjoy the benefits of competent, skilled administration, regardless of whether the mayor is a Republican, a Democrat, or a Socialist. It isn’t even essential to have a streamlined charter or a city manager; towns with good old partisan aldermen can and do hire experts to run the fire, police, health, and water departments — when the people insist and provide the wherewithal.
Perhaps you have heard the sirens scream and heeded the boyhood urge to follow the fire trucks. A warehouse is smoking. Hose is whipped out and water played on the building. But as a layman watching the process, are you satisfied that the firemen know their business — that they have studied that building in advance to know where fire is likely to occur, how the drafts will sweep the flames, what kind of material is stored inside, and how best to quench the blaze? If so, again, you live in a rare community — and are paying for it. There are fire schools, and modern methods of fighting fires, and marvelous new equipment — and still most towns pay only for horse-and-buggy fire fighting. Too many taxpayers would rather watch a good fire than pay the cost of a really competent fire department. Yet they pay the difference in insurance rates.
Suppose an epidemic of typhoid should break out in your town. Whose responsibility is it to see that it is checked and the sources eliminated? Who inspects your hospitals? Who guards the health of the school pupils? Public health protection is so cheap that it makes ridiculous other bills we foot ungrudgingly. Few towns, and still fewer rural communities, pay for such protection. It would add a few cents to taxes, perhaps; and the real-estate organizations, the chamber of commerce, the landlords, the merchants, the industries, all scream to high heaven at the very mention of higher taxes. A factory or an apartment building isn’t much affected by a typhoid epidemic, but you are, and you can buy protection from it with your taxes or you can listen to the low-tax lobby and think those people are saving you money.
Be a little bit suspicious next time you hear or read some argument for keeping taxes down and for running the city on a business basis. Who’s making the argument? What have they to gain by lower taxes and what have you to lose?
Of course, cities have extravagance and waste and graft and payroll padding. Show me a business that operates with 100 per cent efficiency and no nepotism and I will show you cities that have achieved equal perfection. But don’t nurse the myth that all business wears a halo and all government is full of graft. Moreover, a government can’t be run as a business is run. Business operates for profit; government operates for service. Some government employees may loaf, and lots of them probably do, but most of them are loyal, hard-working, and eager to do a good job if they have the opportunity.
You can live in a city with snarling traffic cops, street congestion, juvenile delinquency, underpaid teachers, dirty streets, and pinochle-playing firemen; you can have graft and patronage and crooked assessments. Or you can have a spick-and-span city with intelligent policemen, trained firemen, alert teachers, adequate parks and playgrounds, a minimum of crime, safe milk and water, efficient city services and able, courteous city employees under sound civil service, and competent department heads, free from political interference. It all depends on whether you want to pay low taxes or high taxes, whether you listen to the low-tax lobby or decide for yourself that you want decent surroundings in which to bring up your family.
HIGH taxes, I admit, are a temptation to the grafters and the machine politicians, but a city deserves nothing better if its people are unwilling to assume their responsibilities as citizens to keep the government on the up-and-up. Low taxes, on the other hand, invite the chiselers, the incompetents, the misfits, and all the evil influences which seek to avoid their fair share of the cost of living communally.
We live in counties without being particularly aware of the fact. We pay taxes to county governments which maintain courts and roads and law enforcement agencies and collect dog taxes and issue marriage and fishing licenses and record deeds. Counties are an anomaly in the American system of government; they were borrowed from England, which has no state governments. In most of our states we have counties with no administrative head, and we have a legislative body which represents townships and cities with little responsibility to the county as a unit. It might be a worthy reform to get rid of counties altogether. In our scheme of things, however, only counties can plan and regulate land use and build traffic arteries, or extend health protection and provide school supervision over rural areas and villages, or police rural zones and maintain parks and administer the numerous licensing and supervisory functions that fall between the municipal and state levels.
Most important of all, counties alone can govern in that twilight zone of rapidly spreading suburban areas around cities where municipal government and municipal services do not extend. These fringe areas are our greatest governmental problem; often they are populated by people who want the advantages of both country and city with the obligations of neither. Consequently they have inadequate schools and improper sanitation, no zoning or building restrictions, haphazard road maintenance, poor fire and police protection, and no planning of their development.
Having fled their municipal obligations, these fringe dwellers might be left to stew in their own juice except that they are a health, crime, fire, and property-value menace to the cities they surround, and no particular asset to the country on which they encroach, with their garage homes which never quite become either garages or homes, their chicken coops, their septic tanks, and their manure piles. Moreover, they inevitably, as low-assessment property, pay less than their share of the increased burden they put on government.
Possibly counties, provided with adequate tax revenues, may find their proper function and fulfill it. Some of the wealthier ones containing large cities, and some with stable agricultural resources, have shown the way.
State government has been seduced by tempting offers of Federal aid and, in accepting Washington money with strings attached, has yielded many of its prerogatives and lost much of its initiative. Statesrighters properly resent this tendency, but some good has come of it. State standards have necessarily been raised, and the states have been forced to look more critically on their functions and to appraise them more realistically. State government is in a transition period just now.
Sound, enterprising state government, under inspired leadership, and freed of the shackles of underpaid, underqualified legislators, could unsnarl intercity traffic jams, improve education, raise standards of local government, develop natural resources, preserve wildlife, encourage new industries, make beauty spots and recreation areas available to all the people, improve sanitation and public health, abate mental ills, regulate business transactions to ensure fair dealing, encourage better housing, develop airtravel facilities, promote planning, better the farmer’s opportunities, and do a host of other things, between the municipal and Federal levels, that have the support of the people.
But it is axiomatic that the farther a government is from the people, the more remote it is from meeting its responsibilities. A state with an honest, sincere administration, adequately supplied with revenue, can do wonders, as has been demonstrated by Frank Lowden, Alfred E. Smith, Hiram Johnson, and Tom Dewey. Notably these able governors first set the state’s financial house in order, swelled its revenue, and then set out on comprehensive improvement and expansion programs. A recipe for better state government might be: First find your governor, then give him ungrudgingly the taxes he needs.
WE COME at last to that tax-consuming behemoth, the Federal government. Am I daft enough to open the purse strings to it? Well, the states need never have been seduced by Washington if state and local governments had had the wherewithal to do their jobs, from relief through the whole gamut. The lowtax lobby at home must share the blame for starving local and state governments and forcing Washington into the picture. And when we are willing to pay enough to have schools, cities, counties, and states function properly, much of the embroidery on the Federal system can be trimmed. Low taxes have merely forced many of these functions into the lap of the government which has access to the most revenue — and is farthest removed from the people.
The Federal government can reward us with better services in proportion to its income just as city government does, provided we are alert to our citizenship responsibilities. Some services can be bought only in Washington, such as the FBI, the National Park Service, the ICC, the Post Office Department, the FCC and the CAA to regulate radio and aviation, to say nothing of the Army and Navy.
We’d all pay higher taxes if they meant attracting into Treasury the most competent economic and tax authorities, into Interior the ablest conservators of natural resources, into Justice and the Federal court system the best legal minds, into Labor the most skilled practitioners of industrial relations, into Agriculture the wisest dirt farmers and ablest food and soil scientists, and into State the best diplomatic brains to help us keep the peace. For government now can’t compete with business and endowed institutions in engaging top men in every field. We pay just enough to train thousands of good men, only to have them attracted into better-paying fields where many of them are retained by interests opposing the public interest. This is penny wisdom.
Finally, I favor higher taxes because I am convinced you and I can’t afford the penalty of low taxes. We suffer hidden as well as all too apparent disadvantages from starved or subsistence governments at all levels. I know I don’t pay enough in taxes, and what I do pay is largely wasted because I don’t get in return the services to which I feel entitled as a citizen and a parent.
We citizens have been propagandized into a mistaken low-tax philosophy by powerful interests which profit by low taxes. Their argument that government is graft-ridden, wasteful, unscientific, and unfair in its assessment and collection of taxes would disappear if we all paid enough to buy good government. You don’t mind being gypped out of a couple of dollars at a carnival, but you certainly insist on getting honest value when you buy a hundred dollars’ worth of clothing or furniture. The same idea applies to taxes and government.
The low-tax lobby is well intrenched and will be hard to beat. It has influence over most of the vehicles of public information. It has the advantage of seeming to defend the people from being victimized by spend-minded politicians. But it is a lobby opposed to your interests and my interests as citizens of a democracy.
The individual voices of the citizens must be raised to be heard above the voices of the corporation, the business, the institution. We need to say loudly and repeatedly that our children need a better education, our block needs better police, fire, and health protection; that we want to spend our vacations in better public parks; that we want our gasoline supply conserved, our game and fish protected, our passage to and from the city made safer, and our grandchildren’s peace made secure. Low taxes, niggardly budgets, and penny-pinching won’t buy these things. High taxes won’t guarantee them, either; but if we all pay high taxes we shall do a better job of insisting that the money is spent for what we can buy only from government for our own — and the nation’s — benefit.