If you’re like a lot of Americans, you may consider paying your taxes to be a thankless task.
Maybe you feel that you pay too much and get too little in return. Maybe you object to some of the programs your tax money supports. Perhaps you have a gnawing feeling that other people are reaping more of the benefits your tax dollars pay for than you.
Well, consider yourself thanked. Last month, the Northampton League of Women Voters and the website governmentisgood.com paid to insert a thank-you card of sorts to Northampton taxpayers in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. The two-sided flyer listed some of the things the city government was able to do last year, thanks to taxes: educate 2,700 kids, dispose of 5.8 million pounds of trash, put out 75 fires, maintain 150 acres of recreational fields.
The flyer included a quote from former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”
Douglas Amy wants to see more people like paying their taxes—or at least acknowledge how indispensable taxes are to a functioning society. A professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College and creator of governmentisgood.com (and author of a 2011 book by the same name), Amy has made it his mission to clear the good name of government and the taxes that pay for it, and persuade Americans that their lives are a lot better off with both of them.
A large part of Americans’ anti-tax sentiment, Amy says, stems from widely held myths about taxes. Topping the list: the belief that Americans don’t get a whole lot for the taxes they pay. In Government is Good, Amy cites a 2005 survey in which 52 percent of respondents said “government programs have not really helped me and my family.”
“People underestimate how much they get from government,” Amy said in a recent interview. And that’s somewhat understandable; unlike a transaction in a store—you hand over your money and immediately get something in return—“you don’t usually see a tangible thing you get for taxes,” he said.
What we get for our tax dollars may feel intangible, but it’s crucial. In his book, Amy takes readers through the numerous, largely invisible tax-supported government benefits they enjoy during a typical day, from the government-monitored clean water they use to make their morning coffee and government-inspected eggs that allow their family a salmonella-free breakfast to the government tax credit that helps pay for their kids’ childcare and the government-maintained highways that allow them to drive to work, the government-guaranteed bank where they safely deposit their paycheck, and the government-maintained sidewalk that allows their kids to walk home safely from a playdate.
Indeed, Amy noted, one reason it’s easy for people to overlook what they get for their taxes is that so many of those benefits come in the form of problems and crises averted; we don’t necessarily think about government meat inspectors when we bite into a hamburger, but we are certainly benefiting from their work. “Government largely prevents bad things from happening,” Amy said. “When government is working well, it’s largely invisible.”
That lack of awareness of the benefits of taxes may come naturally, but it’s also fiercely reinforced by a political agenda, Amy added. “The Republicans keep telling people they don’t get anything for their taxes, and we can just lop off large parts of the government,” he said; in the last presidential election, GOP candidates were practically competing to come up with the longest list of expendable government branches. More often, though, they avoid naming specific programs they’d cut, opting instead to decry alleged government waste, Amy said: “They say they’re going to cut the fat. They don’t say, ‘We’re going to cut health care programs for children.’”
Similarly, he said, government bashers encourage an environment where Americans believe that government benefits go to “the other guy.” And they have specific ideas about who that other guy is: in a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 41 percent of respondents thought the largest portion of the federal budget went to foreign aid, and 40 percent thought it went to welfare programs. In fact, Amy writes, those two programs account for less than 3 percent of total government spending. (See sidebar for more information on federal spending.)
“It’s very easy to make government the scapegoat” for economic and societal problems, Amy said. It’s also a convenient way to draw attention away from private-sector decisions—the disappearance of pensions for retirees, cuts to worker healthcare coverage—that have left so many families insecure.
While Amy lays the blame for this anti-government sentiment largely at the feet of Republicans—he cites Ronald Reagan’s 1981 quote, “Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem,” as seminal—he doesn’t let Democrats off the hook for buying into anti-tax rhetoric. During their presidential campaigns, he noted, both John Kerry and Barack Obama talked about the need for “tax relief,” as if taxes were a burden on the public, not a necessity for a functioning society.
So how to change the conversation about taxes? Amy begins by addressing what he calls the persistent myths about taxes, starting with the notion that Americans are overtaxed. The average middle-class family in the U.S. pays less than 5 percent of its income in federal taxes, Amy writes, citing figures from a Congressional committee. And Americans carry a much lighter tax burden than citizens of other Western democracies. In 2009, taxes accounted for 24 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product—less than the portion of the GDP in Canada (31 percent), the U.K. (34.3), Italy (43.5) and Denmark (the leader, at 48.2), among other nations.
Interestingly, while Europeans pay significantly higher taxes, those countries don’t have the anti-tax movement seen in the U.S. That, Amy said, is because it’s clear to them that they get many benefits from their taxes, like subsidized daycare, universal healthcare and retirement benefits.
Those programs, he said, “create all kinds of securities that we don’t have. Most Americans worry about whether they’re going to be able to send their kids to college, they worry about whether they are going to be able to retire, they worry about what happens if [they] get really sick.” Europeans, in contrast, derive an enhanced sense of well-being from government-supported social programs. American viewers may have been confounded by the tribute to the British National Health Service in the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics, but to Brits it was a moment to celebrate a proud part of their national identity.
In the U.S., Amy said, “we try to do the minimal possible in so many government programs.” And that creates a vicious cycle: repeated cuts mean the quality of services suffers, leading critics to complain that government programs are ineffective.
Amy doesn’t deny that there are reasons for people to view government with some skepticism; there are certainly cases of corruption and inefficiencies, for instance, although their prevalence is overstated. But he urges people to separate concerns about problems in leadership and policy from the very real benefits government, as an institution, brings to each of our lives.
“People are somewhat suspicious of government, in part because of the role special interests play in shaping government policy for their own interests,” Amy said. But the solution isn’t to starve government; it’s to make government more accountable to the people—for instance, through reforms to eliminate the influence of corporate money in the electoral system.
It also requires an acknowledgement that we simply cannot function as a society without a healthy, well-funded government. As Amy writes in his book, “Having a few more thousand dollars in our pockets will not help us deal effectively with a deteriorating public school system, police and fire department layoffs, unclean air or polluted water, unsafe food, being laid off from our jobs, threats from terrorist organizations, and so on. These kinds of problems can only be addressed collectively—through collective institutions like government that allow us to pool our resources and efforts to most effectively address these threats to our well-being.”