I Don't Mind Paying Taxes - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

I Don't Mind Paying Taxes

Much to my surprise, a recent article that I wrote for one of my regular clients seems to have touched a very very raw nerve.

The article is a fairly simple one. After the fiscal cliff compromise to end the Bush-era tax cuts on those who singly make $400,000 or jointly make $450,000 per year, I was really curious as to who is in that particular income bracket. I don't know anyone making that kind of money, and I'm not even sure what professions offer those kinds of salaries. So, I decided to do a short article on who brings in $400,000 per year.

In fact, I found it fairly difficult to find good information on the subject. My usual go-to source for salary information--the Department of Labor Statistics--was not searchable for income, and even most top 10 articles about high-earning professions seem to top out at about $200,000. I'm now realizing that is because often people earning that kind of dough are probably self-employed/small business owners. It's harder to generalize their salary expectations.

In any case, my very simple piece that listed four professions (the President, CEOs, surgeons and specialists, and Wall Street bankers and lawyers) that can expect to see their taxes go up on every dollar they earn over $400,000 seems to have set off a firestorm. Commenters on both sides of the spectrum are calling each other lazy good-for-nothings. Atlas Shrugged (both positively and negatively) has been referenced multiple times. People have shown a basic lack of understanding of the progressive tax rate and have referred to government as thugs and those on welfare as leeches. In short, it's been pretty vitriolic.

If you're a long time reader of this blog, you probably can't help but notice that I have some liberal tendencies. But I try very hard to see things from multiple points of view. The conservative and/or wealthy commenters who are very resentful of having to pay more because of their success aren't wrong for feeling that way, and I certainly recognize that fact. I remember the first time I got a paycheck that I actually needed to use for rent. I was horrified at the amount that was taken out for taxes, and every time I collected my paycheck back then, I thought over and over again that I would be able to live much more comfortably if I saw every penny of my earnings.

As I've gotten older, my paychecks have gotten bigger, as has the chunk that Uncle Sam takes. There are times when it's annoying or a hardship.

But I ultimately don't mind that I pay taxes. Yes, the government mismanages money and uses my tax dollars for things that I hate. But our government also works remarkably well, when you compare it to the alternatives. I have decent roads to drive on and decent schools to send my kid to and decent programs to help him and other babies with delays and so on. I know that I can expect that the infrastructure of our society will generally work pretty well. It's not perfect, but looking for perfect in conjunction with anything created by humans is a fool's errand.

And now that I'm no longer working for $8.25 an hour at Barnes & Noble, like I was all those years ago, I don't really feel the bite of taxes like I did when I was struggling to make rent. I make only moderately decent money right now as a part-time at-home freelance blogger. The money I earn comes directly to me, which means I need to set tax money aside myself or else I'll be scrambling come tax time. Even though I manually transfer 35% of every paycheck over to a savings account, I still don't mind paying taxes. I see it as so much better than the alternative.

I know that it is difficult to see your hard-earned money go to something you despise. I know that it's really tough to live under a political system that you distrust and that seems pretty darn incompetent, for all intents and purposes. But I really do wish that everyone on both sides of the debate who is getting spittle-flecked with rage on my (and other) forums would take a moment to look at the alternatives out there. No, we may not be perfect, or anywhere in the same zip code as perfect. But we've got it pretty good compared to other places I could mention.

Ultimately, I'd love for the level of our debate to be toned down a notch or 17. Disagreement does not denote evil. I should not wince every time I get a new comment from either end of the spectrum. We're all people and we're all Americans. Surely we can find something in common to agree on.

Even if it's just that Atlas Shrugged is a really really long book.

Published Jan 18 2013, 02:55 PM by Emily Guy Birken
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frugal_fun said:

Many thoughts, no particular order or importance:

-I agree that the debate gets out of hand and taken far too seriously. We are all Americans and other countries don't really have the types of discussions we have. In a very real sense, we have a bunch of people who merely disagree on what constitutes a great country, not people who are trying to get all they can out of the state. That is a blessing.

-On the other hand, being far more conservative than I used to be; it is very frustrating that the media in general is biased very heavily towards the liberal. I don't think it's on purpose, I don't think it's evil, but I think it exists. It's not okay to rake the Republicans and their causes over the coals while pitching softball questions (if any at all) to the Democrats.  (I miss Walter Cronkite. :( )

At any rate, Jon Stewart is not nearly as funny as he used to be to me because I'm now tuned into the media basis. I don't "tolerate" what those crazy conservative evangelical Christians are saying, I understand it. As such, I can't laugh it any more as being uneducated or stupid, even if I disagree with it.

-It generally seems that many calls for civility are from people who would really rather the other side to just go away. That gets old very quickly.  (Yes, I'm looking at you again Jon Stewart, who mocks people for a living and then wonders why the world isn't more civil and reasonable.)

-With increasing wealth, it's easy to grow complacent about the government and it's effect on society. What about the people who have never made it beyond the Barnes & Noble jobs? We talk incessantly about income taxes, but there was never more of a regressive tax than Medicare/SSN. People at those income levels need the money pulled into the SSN system.

I'm not arguing about the roads/infrastructure or necessarily the schools (although I'd like to see those go to voucher systems). It's the money we take from the wealthy and the poor (steal, if we're really being painfully honest in terminology) to do the Great Society Money Tango.

We can have all the roads, etc without getting into social engineering. I think it's fair to have discussions about the social programs and accept almost all of them have had unintended negative consequences. Unfortunately, I've found that attempting to do so almost immediately gets you branded as a black hearted villain who Hates The Poor. :(

-I've stopped most of my Internet browsing other than a few select blogs because I get sucked into the "conversations" aka flame wars like you've experienced. I think it's easy to call people hideous names when you can't see their faces. Ironically, I think I'm going to be going back to getting papers (really) so I can just read the news and be done with it. I hope they keep printing them. ;)

January 18, 2013 5:43 PM

haverwench said:

One thing you didn't mention in this post is that, in addition to having to set money aside to pay your quarterly taxes rather than just having them deducted, you also pay more than other people earning the same income. Being self-employed, you are paying twice as much for Medicare and Social Security payroll taxes as everyone else. In general, my feelings about taxes are the same as yours--I'd rather pay taxes and get services than pay no taxes and get no services. But I do admit to occasionally feeling just a tiny bit peeved that I actually pay more in taxes now, while earning less per year, than I did back when I was on a salary. (Actually, the regressiveness of the payroll tax in general, which only applies to the first $106,800 of income, also bugs me--but since I've never been in any danger of earning more than $106,800 a year, it's not something I notice most of the time.)

January 19, 2013 1:13 PM

bobi said:

The best way to avoid taxes is to live at a minimum level and not have a lot of money. I've worked 30 yrs for a low-paying non-profit that greatly benefits my community yet I think I live well. I pay my taxes and since I have no kids, I believe I have paid well over my fair share over the years, but that's another topic for discussion, one which ironically, no one ever mentions. Nevertheless, I have to agree with your point of view, if more people just paid their taxes and quit complaining, we'd all be better off.

On a side note, I consider myself to be a seriously conservative person but unlike frugal fun find myself turning more liberal as I age. I'd really be interested to know what I'm missing about the people Jon Stewart calls out. Not only do I find him to be very humorous, I find the people he calls out to be sadly mis-informed or worse. If frugal fun has some insight on this topic, I'd find myself very interested in reading their conclusions.

January 19, 2013 6:26 PM

frugal_fun said:

" Not only do I find him to be very humorous, I find the people he calls out to be sadly mis-informed or worse. If frugal fun has some insight on this topic, I'd find myself very interested in reading their conclusions."

I'll see what I can do. *grin* Jon Stewart's "mis-informed" is someone else's legitimate point of view. We don't laugh at children for holding a different point of view than their parents. It's assumed their experiences and maturity level are different than the previous generation. I don't see why we can't give other adults have the same leeway.

There's also no escaping that why Jon Stewart is "calling out" people to  laugh at them and make a living as a comedian. What the audience gets out of the experience is "gosh, I'm smarter than those people over there". It's not really one that calls to our better nature, although for some reason I get the impression that he thinks he's got the high moral ground.

At any rate, I highly doubt anyone who has been "called out" has been moved to change their mind after being subjected to Jon Stewart's impressive wit. Mocking people encourages them only to dig in their heels, not change their way of thinking.

"Nevertheless, I have to agree with your point of view, if more people just paid their taxes and quit complaining, we'd all be better off."

This exactly my point about calls for "civility". Please other side, just go away no matter what you think -- it's annoying to deal with. :(

"I pay my taxes and since I have no kids, I believe I have paid well over my fair share over the years, but that's another topic for discussion, one which ironically, no one ever mentions"

I'll mention it then. :) You'll benefit from your taxes paid and no children as soon as you collect Social Security. Social Security absolutely requires young workers to pay into the system. Most people get back what they paid in absolute dollar amounts in the first few years. After that, it's all gravy paid for by the next generation. Raising kids is more expensive than the taxes you paid in over the years and yet you do and will benefit from the labor of other people's children.  

January 21, 2013 8:40 AM

bobi said:

Thanks for your input, frugal. You raise some interesting points. And I'm with you on the civility thing. What we need the most in this country is more tolerance and civility. I can't figure out where it went but it sure did get lost in the 'I'm right and you're wrong and there's no gray area' world we currently live in. But in defense of Jon Stewart (I really do enjoy the guy) many times he doesn't even "say" anything, just runs a few clips and lets the absurdity of someone's words speak for themselves-- and as much as I agree that we should give other adults leeway in their thinking (tolerance), you have to admit that some things that hit the airways these days are really out there and really are indefensible (legitimate rape?) I think many times Stewart simply points out the foibles we all have but sometimes can't see. My favorite clips of his are when he shows someone constantly contradicting themselves. Yes, we're all fickle to some extent but many talking heads and politicians only want people to hear what they say today and forget last week. And fortunately for most of them, the American public has short memories and is very forgiving.

January 21, 2013 10:51 AM

Emily Guy Birken said:

Thanks very much for the comments, everyone. You've definitely given me some food for thought.

Since it seems to have become a Jon Stewart thread, I thought I'd weigh in. You probably know from the several mentions on the blog that Stewart is very much a hero of mine. I love the mix of the satirical and the political, because I truly believe that writers (ahem) can create real and positive change.

That said, I do understand his critics when they say that he hides behind the fact that he's a comedian. Jon Stewart is much more than just a comedian. He's a social commentator, and the fact that his show airs on Comedy Central doesn't change that fact. It's difficult because there are not many successful and influential precedents for the sort of commentary/satire that he does. (In particular, I can only think of SNL's Weekend Update/political satire, The Onion, and Bill Maher). So Stewart is in a position where he has to make up the rules to his role as a commentator, and sometimes he dodges behind the fact of the comedy, rather than owning up to his very far-reaching influence.

That said, I have a great deal of respect for what he does, because I do want to see people called out on their hypocrisy. While I know that Stewart is definitely liberal and is easier on the left than on the right, he does not spare hypocrites in his own party. Look at how he was willing to skewer his own friend Anthony Weiner. He also regularly calls out Obama on various actions. I don't envy Stewart's job and his balancing act. But sadly, the work that should be taken care of by the general media and journalists--that is, calling out hypocrites--has been left to a social commentator played by a comedian.

January 21, 2013 4:40 PM

frugal_fun said:

Emily - sorry for turning this into Jon Stewart thread!! :)

Last post on it, I promise.

"That said, I have a great deal of respect for what he does, because I do want to see people called out on their hypocrisy."

I've changed my mind on how important this role is. Hypocrisy really is one of humanities "minor" crimes and ironically, a universal experience. The only people who have never been hypocrites have never really tried anything big  with their lives.

For instance, I thought the house I sold 7 years ago was my "last" house. We were going to raise our kids and die in that house. Then life happened. I changed my mind. I was in fact a hypocrite to everything I promised myself when we bought that house.  It happens.  Making comedy out of hypocrisy is easy enough really, because it's so pervasive. It's intellectual slap stick.

And to touch on Bobi's comment - To say that Jon Stewart just lets the clips roll and has no comment, well yes he does and no he doesn't. I watched a couple of episodes where I had some personal knowledge of the topic at hand (economic mostly). I cringed as the clips rolled because they were cherry picked for maximum comedic effect.  He's more than willing to do exactly what the big networks do, but in his case he's pursuing a laugh instead of keeping eyeballs glued to the screen. There's spin up there on the Daily Show, too.

Personally, I think it's vitally important to take Jon Stewart at his word: it's *not* a news show and he is a comedian making a living. Good comedy requires understanding the truths around us and Jon is as sharp as them come. However, real social commentary, I think, would have more to say at the end of the day then "Isn't this funny?? Be Reasonable People!"

The one thing I will guarantee is that people never have been or will be reasonable or even most of the time. "Reasonable" isn't a virtue in of itself - reasonable people have a ton of actual virtues that make them that way most of the time. And every so often, the even the most reasonable among us will not be that way. ;)

Phew! All that said, let me end on a more positive note about Jon Stewart himself. I have watched enough of the Daily Show to know that he does try to keep things balanced despite his own liberal tendencies. I think also he does fill a "intellect" vacuum for people. Most news coverage in the modern day is devoid of any sense of history or intelligent context. We all get the same frowny faces for genocide as we do for a rainy days from most news anchors.  Jon Stewart demands you keep up with him and that's refreshing. It would be nice if we could find a real news anchor rather than a comedian who was given the leeway to be the same. May in another life. ;)

January 22, 2013 5:28 PM

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