Sunday, March 20, 2016

Guest Essay: Government and taxes are not the problem

Ove Overmyer
By Ove Overmyer
Rochester— For many decades, well before the Ronald Reagan administration, conservatives and libertarians in the United States have been demonizing and attacking government and I believe not enough has been done to defend its reputation. So, listen up my Conservative, Republican and social media friends. I have some thoughts I want to share with you.
Most sane people recognize that despite its problems, government plays an essential and vital role in promoting a quality of life we could never afford on our own. While pundits bicker over cause and consequence, one question remains, “How do we right size our priorities?”
Let me begin by saying when we recklessly ridicule, reduce and under-fund America’s great democratic experiment like most conservative talking heads do on a daily basis, we are hampering our ability to transform people’s lives, solve problems and to effectively address our most pressing social, economic and environmental concerns.
To see what is at stake in this battle over government and the size of it, we need only consider how efforts to limit government and to privatize public institutions in this country have caused us to fall behind many other advanced democracies in providing a basic standard of living. Most western European countries, for instance, have larger public sectors and do much better in a wide variety of areas, including happiness quotients, retirement security, poverty reduction, child care availability, affordable higher education, pollution control, limiting workplace injuries, creating affordable housing, crime control, infrastructure investment, healthcare access and much more. If American history has taught us anything, when we invest in public services everyone flourishes—even rich people.
Moreover, it certainly doesn’t help local communities prosper when your local television news station irrationally propagates an anti-government narrative every night at the dinner hour. WHEC-TV 10 series, “NY Exposed” is nothing more but the same rhetoric we hear from corporate America—a free market economy will fix everything, any tax is a bad tax, unionized workers are worthless and your state legislators are corrupt, lazy or incompetent. The Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., parent company of the NBC affiliate in Rochester, is subscribing to the worst common denominator by appealing to your most primitive emotions—mainly promoting anger, fear and resentment at your neighbors while at the same time telling you they-- "the media" are on your side. Let’s get something straight—this media company is motivated by two things only— find an identity in our market and drive up revenue for its investors. It's major concern is to turn a profit for its ownership at any cost even if it has to skirt FCC regulations in the process and divide our community along political, racial and socioeconomic schisms. They do not report the news-- they manufacture it.
While national GOP leaders foolishly continue to tell their constituents that “big government” is the problem, you should have expected an outsider like Donald Trump to fill that void. This is why the national GOP Party is imploding—the old Ronald Reagan talking point “government is too big” and “government is the problem” accounts for the rise of a “non-politician” like Donald Trump—and now the self-destructive GOP is in virtual collapse which puts all of us at risk. And by the way, the "government" didn’t poison the residents of Flint, Michigan—Governor Rick Snyder’s austerity budget and the move to privatize the delivery of water did.

Death, taxes and citizenship 

If you believe conservative and libertarian arguments, then you probably believe Americans are cast as victims of a corrupt system. As the narrative goes, we are taxpayers bearing up under the obligation to pay into federal and state coffers. Some are stoic in the face of the inevitability of “death and taxes,” while others burn with resentment like the old Tea Party folks. We dread the task of hauling out that folder of receipts and calculating just how much of our income we have to hand over to Uncle Sam.

Here is the problem. What is missing from this picture is any sense of a larger meaning in the act of paying taxes in the first place. Most other things that require effort and sacrifice-- family, service, charity, and volunteerism-- have virtuous, or at least redeeming value associated with them. That meaning helps us face life’s challenges with a larger sense of purpose that makes these acts worth the investment.
The stories we tell about not paying taxes reflect a chronic disconnection from our role as citizens; they are devoid of any civic meaning. The real meaning of taxes pays for the things that underpin our public life and connect us to one another through our communities, our states and our country.
When we lose sight of this, taxes and government are seen as merely depriving us of our individual property. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as government stewards of a common good, as citizen managers of public systems and structures that secure the city, state and country we live in, then taxes are our contribution to something bigger than our individual selves.
I believe with all my heart that government is one of the best inventions known to civil societies. It keeps America safe and should create ladders of opportunity and frameworks where the American people can succeed and create their own version of the American Dream. I know this first hand—I worked in a public library for 18 years and I saw how it can transform a person’s life. If government is given the tools necessary to allow all Americans the opportunities they deserve, we’re all going to be better off. That doesn’t restrict people’s freedoms as conservative talking heads would suggest—it will enhance it.
We all need to be telling a new and meaningful story about the positive aspects of government that celebrate the concrete opportunity it offers “we the people.” The problem is, without good government practices and the public systems and structures that taxes pay for, the America we know and love would cease to exist-- even for rich folk, advocacy journalists and to my most ardent conservative friends on the other end of the political continuum.

Image by Ove Overmyer, ©2011.