Opinion Columns & Blogs

To stay great, we can’t do things ‘on the cheap’

When I was young, public employees, the folks who provided for the public good, often were called public or civil servants, and their profession was called the civil service. It was clearly understood that in our great nation some people were willing to give up the pursuit of the almighty dollar in exchange for a reasonable salary and a little respect.

Somewhere along the line this understanding has been lost. Public employees, the real backbone of our state and nation, have been devalued and at times denigrated. The notion of a valued civil service has faded from the public’s conception of our nation.

What has also been lost, apparently, is the notion that taxes are what we willingly pay to maintain the public good. Instead, there is an effort to portray taxes as somehow evil, something to be avoided if at all possible. From lobbyists seeking corporate tax breaks to tea party rallies, taxes are attacked. And, naturally, there also are attacks on the importance of the vital public services that our taxes pay for.

I have been thinking about taxes, of course, because they were due last week and after procrastinating as long as possible I completed my IRS tax return.

I have always waited to the last minute and I’m not sure why. One thing I know, however, is that I do not resent paying taxes, whether they are federal, state or local. The direct and indirect services I get for my taxes are well worth the expense.

In fact, in thinking about what we receive, paying taxes has to be just about the best investment there is. Let’s make a little list of just some things we get back.

First, of course, there is safety and security. We have a national defense and security system that is second to none. Locally, we have professional law enforcement, fire and EMT personnel who are ready to help whenever we call.

And, there’s an entire food safety network. We never really worry about food-borne illnesses. Between the federal, state and local food-safety inspectors, we are protected. And we never really worry about the health impacts of air and water pollution. Again, federal and state laws and enforcement provide for our safety.

Perhaps most important, our taxes pay for an education system with dedicated professionals. Taxes make a good education available to everyone, and not just those who can afford to pay. We all benefit from an educated public. It is the best way to insure our nation remains strong, generation to generation.

And then, there is our transportation network. Since the Eisenhower-era interstate highway program, we have lived in a nation with a safe and well-maintained transportation network. This tax-paid network brings goods to our stores from far and wide and insures we can drive when and where we wish.

My few examples, of course, leave out a lot, and with a little thought, you can add your own ideas to what is a very long list.

So, given all we receive in return for our taxes, I’m wondering why there is such an anti-tax feeling in our nation. Why do so many folks resist paying the salaries of public employees and contractors that provide us with so much?

We have a great nation, with abundant natural and human resources and a free-enterprise system that encourages people to innovate and create, generating value and reaping a substantial return for that effort. This system has created the wealthiest nation on earth.

And we have a civil government that supports this system with infrastructure, education and safety, and acts as a regulatory check against abuses (think monopolies, pollution and the like). Despite many problems over the decades, it has been a very workable system.

The key to keeping this system going is to make sure that the civil-government side of the equation is adequately funded, and that means enough taxes to pay for what we need and a tax system to insure the tax burden falls fairly. It simply does not work to demand all the benefits but then refuse to pay for them.

So, I think we need to tell our elected officials to have some courage. A great nation requires a great civil service and, therefore, requires enough tax revenue to pay for these public needs. If we are to remain great, we cannot continue to do things on the cheap.