What is a fair tax-burden?

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When I purchased an old Victorian house in 1986 in the ritzy, historic Old North End neighborhood, the county assessor — or his agent — showed up.

He looked around and then announced that my annual real-estate taxes would be increased to about $700.

That’s all? I asked in amazement. Perhaps it should be more, I said, having just moved from Boston. He chuckled and left, thinking I was deranged. I thought he must have been laughing at the bow tie I was flaunting as a freshly minted professor.

And then I learned a simple lesson: You get what you pay for — fewer taxes, fewer services.

Garbage wasn’t collected by the city, and when we had a big snowfall, Tejon Street wasn’t plowed for days. So, why do taxpayers believe that they can demand city or federal services and pay no taxes?

Perhaps Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (On Death and Dying, 1969) was right, after all. We first deny that any taxes are needed, comparing ourselves to the Founders. The more taxes, the more waste can be expected. There is nothing that government does right. Denying it taxes, it’ll learn to live within limited means. The road to small government is strewn with denial that government is needed at all. Can’t we just all get along? We all own guns anyway, so peace is bound to be maintained.

But when taxes are collected, when paytubs show that take-home pay is much less than expected, people begin to get angry. I don’t mean being frustrated or upset, I mean angry enough to demonstrate and march (The Tea Party). But anger is an exhausting emotion, especially when worrying about daycare and mortgages. It’s a lot of work, and for what?

Then bargaining sets in place: cut taxes for the rich, change the tax rate, retain the Bush’s Administration tax cuts, declare a tax holiday for the weekend. For bargaining to be effective at least two willing parties must engage in the process. Who are you bargaining with, the government, the IRS, your local mayor? And what is your trump card? Unless self-employed and willing to go underground, you can’t avoid paying taxes because they are deducted by your employer. So, you are in no position to bargain, after all, except when the city turns off street lights.

When there is no one to bargain with, when no one is listening or cares, we become depressed. Helplessness sets in. Why keep on fighting a losing battle? Alcohol or pot looks enticing, just like watching mindless TV. Should I even bother going to work? Once taxes are deducted and bills are paid, what is left? Our Great Recession is about to become the Sad Depression.

Just as we learn to accept the death of a loved one or a pet, we accept the reality of taxes. Only taxes and death are definite, it is said. We realize at some point that public goods must be paid for somehow. Unfortunately we cannot ask the Canadians to pay for our roads or the Mexicans for our bridges. The French will refuse to pay our defense bills, and the British won’t pay for our parks. Only New York is lucky enough to have Mayor Bloomberg pay for social programs from his own philanthropic foundation. CS must collect taxes to provide government services; Mayor Bach isn’t rich enough.

The question, then, isn’t whether we should or shouldn’t pay taxes, but what is a fair tax burden. Currently we have a progressive tax system — the rich pay incrementally more than the poor. Some think it’s a fair way to redistribute wealth and income. Some think that a flat tax, say 5 percent across the board, is fair. There are others who think that we can do away with taxes as we know them and have Value Added Tax on consumption, like some European countries. As for effective tax spending, there are enough MBAs on the government payroll and millionaire members of Congress to ensure that.

Since Washington seems like a rudderless ship adrift on an ocean of confusion, perhaps we should grant all Americans a federal tax holiday till the end of year. In an era where no economist has a handle on the future, why not experiment for a while? A complete personal tax relief is no crazier than what we see coming out of Washington.

And while we are at it, let’s ask the entire Congress to resign. Democrats and Republicans alike decry taxes, deficits, and spending while garnering pork for their districts. They display a level of hypocrisy unmatched by any other profession. Is being a politician a profession at all? Outside of money and an inflated ego, what qualifications are required?

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS and has low esteem for all politicians, especially those who vie for re-election. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com Read previous columns at sassower.blogspot.com