Friday, December 12, 2014

Whatever happened to "We the People?"

By Ove Overmyer

You would have to be living under a rock not to know we are living in very troubled times. Our local communities are under siege. Race relations in America might be at an all-time worst, public safety for all is in question, the War on Terror is out of control, ISIS is knocking on your door, extreme weather and climate change is keeping cartographers busy, demonizing poor people is becoming a sport for some GOP legislators, cyber security attacks on Hollywood and our big banks—the list goes on and on.

If anything, these difficult times require thoughtful analysis, and not knee-jerk reflexive, feel-good social media diatribes that add nothing to our public conversations. Contrary to popular belief, name calling, taking sides and creating petitions to ask elected officials to resign is unproductive and not really educating anyone with respect to changing hearts and minds. It may feel cathartic for the moment, but these expressions of hate and division are exactly what keep us from progressing as one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. It does, however, highlight the deep divisions that still exist in our communities-- especially when it involves notions of race, nation of origin, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity and equality.

Since the midterm elections last month, the melodramatic lunacy in Washington has reduced both conservatives and liberals to a puddle of tears. Locally, our communities are being torn apart by political operatives who would rather focus on what makes us different rather than what makes us human. And for the record, after what just happened in Congress last night with respect to the offensive mark-ups of a bill that provided a big bank bailout and relaxed campaign finance provisions, which by the way will make it harder for the average citizen’s voice to be heard, can only be described as reckless and gut wrenching for the majority of American people who care about democracy.

The fact is, not everyone in your community wants you to have the same opportunities they have had— and they are the same folks that refuse to pay their fair share of taxes to keep our systems of government operating at substandard levels. And please, if you are reading this and absolutely hate government and think it cannot improve the quality of our lives, point your boney finger at corporate lobbyists, elected officials and the bureaucracies that have produced these results—not the hard working rank-and-file working families that deliver these services on a daily basis. Many of them do not even make a living wage and will live out their golden years in destitution.

And certainly, I don’t have to intellectually dig down very deep to tell you how I feel about what our biggest challenges are either— or how we can go about raising the standard of living for everyone who lives in our beloved communities. Our world’s biggest social ill today is income inequality and lack of meaningful gainful employment. This happenstance is the root cause of our inability as a nation and a world citizen to get a handle on global health disparities, world banks, educating our children, poverty, homelessness, lack of living wage jobs, and the list goes on.

photo: Ove Overmyer
In order for us to build strong communities, we need to advocate for a progressive tax structure that is in proportion to the means and ability to pay for the vital services we demand and cannot do by ourselves as individuals. Unfortunately, since the Great Recession of 2008 we have seen systemic defunding of public services and at the same time, our tax dollars and priorities have favored multi-national corporations and banks (in the form of tax breaks) -- the same minority of wealthy people who are basically insulated from any financial harm whatsoever.

We need to invest in public infrastructure and the public systems that support private sector growth. We need to right-size government services to create strong communities. We need to invest in public education—I do not want to raise my children in an uneducated community that does not put a premium value on creating successful outcomes for future generations. I also don’t want them around stupid people.

Calling yourself a taxpayer does not give you victim rights

For generations, conservatives and many Republicans have casted American people as tax victims. They moan that we are just “taxpayers” bearing up under the obligation to pay into federal and state coffers. Some are stoic in the face of the inevitability of the old saying “death and taxes,” while others burn with resentment like the libertarian Tea Party stalwarts who think not everyone deserves the same breaks as they do.

All of these stories reflect a complete miscalculation to the reality of our local communities. Yes, it true—Rochester, NY and Monroe County for the most part are extremely generous and giving communities based largely on the benevolence of nonprofit, religious and charitable organizations. But when it comes to supporting public systems that assist poor and working families, all you need to do is see a County government slashing child care subsidies and witness the vile rhetoric coming from Spencerport residents who object to “city kids” (code for non-white) attending public school in their suburban community.

What is missing from this picture is any sense of a larger meaning of what it means to be socially responsible in the first place. Where do we draw the line? Most other things that require effort and sacrifice-- family, service, charity, and volunteerism-- have virtuous, or at least redeeming, meaning associated with them. That meaning helps us face life’s challenges with a sense of a larger purpose that makes these acts worth the investment. That is the definition of community.

The political right’s NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitudes and the stories they tell about paying taxes that support public systems of good reflect a chronic disconnection from our role as responsible citizens; they are devoid of any civic meaning. The real meaning of taxes and being socially responsible supports services that underpin our public life and connect us to one another through our communities, our states, our country and our collective future.

When we lose sight of this, taxes are seen as merely depriving us of our individual property. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as stewards of common good, as citizen managers of public systems and structures that secure the city, state and country we live in, then taxes and our volunteerism are our contributions to something much more important than our individual being. We all need to be telling a new and meaningful story about our civic responsibilities that celebrates the concrete opportunity it offers “we the people.” 

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