It’s time to file your taxes again and if you’re like 40 percent of American taxpayers, you’ll do it this week.
Once you’ve completed the returns, or when someone else does them for you and you sign them, you’ll know exactly how much tax you paid the federal and Arizona governments last year.
Now try this experiment: On April 19, the day after tax returns are due (the deadline was extended three days this year because April 15 falls on a federal holiday) ask your coworkers or people on the street how much they pay in local, state and federal taxes each year.
No running home to get their records, you want them to tell you off the top of their heads and to be specific, you want a dollar amount – how much did they pay in sales taxes, in property taxes, in gas taxes and in income taxes? It’s an even money bet they won’t know, especially the amount of sales tax, the hiddenest of all hidden taxes.
If you want to really stump them, ask those who are homeowners to break down their property tax bill – how much of their bill did they pay to their K-12 school district, to the community college district, to the library district, to the flood control district, to the fire department (if they live in the county) or to the city?
Now that you’ve established that they don’t know or can’t remember how much tax they pay, ask them a simpler question: Is it too much, too little or just right?
If they don’t know the answer to the first question, how can they possibly answer the second? Yet they all will and most will tell you it’s too much.
Opinion polls asking the same question show that opinions about tax burden change with income level, those who earn less and therefore pay less tend to think their tax bill is just right and those with higher incomes and more burden (more than $50,000 in taxable household income) think it’s too much. Only about 1 in 10 think they pay too little tax.
Yet according to a USA Today analysis last year of total taxes paid, not just federal income tax, Americans are paying less in combined taxes as a percentage of their household income than they have since 1950.
And what do we get for this historically low tax burden? Crumbling schools, crumbling roads and bridges, crumbling inner cities and cruddy cell phone service, among other cruddy things (although the military is swell, best in the world).
Government is not the enemy. It’s us. It’s the manifestation of our shared purpose and sacrifice. We must have roads and ports and police and courts and jails and schools and armies and border guards and air traffic controllers and thousands of other things to make life tolerable, peaceful and prosperous.
We can’t do all these things ourselves so we pool our money together through taxation and employ a representative government to provide them.
Some of us, though, want more of one thing and less of another, which leads to disagreements. And so we have political parties and elections to figure out who gets what and at what cost.
At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. For some reason the past 30 years or so we’ve decided we all want something but we want it for nothing, hence the $14 trillion federal debt.
So when you file your return this week, think about what you’re getting for your money, or not, and whether it’s worth paying less for or more. And then be sure to vote accordingly in the next election.