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Ruth Rosen: Talking Taxes

by Ruth Rosen
In the first entry for her regular column on Talking Points Memo Cafe (, Ruth Rosen shows us our taxes at work.

I don’t need to remind anyone that it’s time to pay your taxes. What we do need to figure out is how to explain to ordinary Americans why, in fact, we do pay taxes.

The Republican mantra - "shrink government and lower taxes" - is fundamentally dishonest. They want us to believe that we are heavily taxed by an oppressive government and get nothing in return. The truth is, our quality of life is far safer and more convenient because of government ordinances, regulations and inspections.

Follow me through a typical day and I'll show you what I mean. Government services and regulations may seem invisible, but they’re everywhere you look. .

I wake up and brush my teeth with water whose purity is inspected by government agencies. I pour some cereal and milk into a bowl. No creepy crawlers appear; both are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Federally mandated labels on the cereal box and milk container, moreover, list the ingredients contained inside.

I leave home and in the middle of the street intersection are city workers doing maintenance on the sewer system after California’s most recent ferocious winter storms. I get in my car, reassured that the smog device in my 20 year-old care recently passed the state's stringent test. On the way to the BART station, I look across the bay and see a breathtaking view of the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge. When I first arrived in California, before the state enacted stricter pollution controls, a brownish haze masked such magnificent vistas.

As I drive, I slow down for city workers fixing potholes. I pass the public library where I often do research. I stop at lights and signs that regulate traffic and keep drivers from hitting all the kids walking to public schools. I park and walk to BART, our rapid transit subway financed with public money. Although I grumble a great deal and wish BART worked better, I'm glad we have some form of public transition in this car-congested state. From the window of the train, I see cars locked in gridlock on an interstate freeway funded by the federal government.

In a café, I turn on my computer, remembering that a Pentagon agency created the Internet and that the federal government subsidized the development of the chips that now drive my laptop. To complete some research, I call a colleague at the University of California at Berkeley, the world's premier public university. The UC system has educated hundreds of thousands of undergraduates who, as educated and skilled workers, have energized this state’s economy. I also speak with an expert from the California state health department and an inmate at a state prison - both funded by the people of California.

By now, I have a headache. So I take some ibuprofen, tested and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

It's time for lunch, and I’m meeting a former student from China. I don’t even think about the hygiene regulations or public health inspections that allow us to enjoy eating in a restaurant without worrying about getting sick from contaminated food.

On the way back to Bart, I see police officers dealing with a car accident and hear the shrill siren of a fire truck racing toward some emergency. We stop to shop at a corner convenience store that's prohibited by law from selling liquor and tobacco to minors.

When I get home, I make a reservation for a vacation of hiking at one of our great national parks, paid for by tax dollars. I finish reading my students’ papers for tomorrow’s seminar. Rarely do I remember that it’s the taxpayers of California who pay salary and give me the opportunity to teach and write. And, It’s time to put those envelopes with my tax checks¬my dues for using all these services and infrastructure---into the mail.

The right-wing has been immensely successfully in persuading Americans to believe that they are heavily taxed and receive nothing in return for the loss of their hard-earned dollars.

What progressive politicians, intellectuals and activists need to do, however, is to remind everyone how many times, during a single day, you see your tax dollars at work.

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