In defense of taxes

If someone told you they loved paying taxes, it’s safe to assume you’d probably call that person crazy. Who likes having less money to spend? Or more precisely, who likes feeding their hard-earned dollars into an essential black box, without the opportunity to ever keep track of where they go, what they’re used on, or who’s spending them? Taxes are the reason you can’t afford the computer you want. They’re the reason you have to wait to repair your car. Basically, anything you’ve ever wanted to do but not been able to do you can blame on having to pay taxes, so it comes as no surprise that any politician who calls for raising taxes, regardless of the reason, is immediately booed into oblivion.

I recently read this LA Times article which talks about how the aging infrastructure in our city is leading to unavoidable catastrophes like the water main leak on Sunset Blvd, and how without the money to pay for the necessary improvements, we’ll have to expect more and more frequent incidents of this sort. Los Angeles needs upwards of $5 billion to catch up on road and sidewalk repairs alone. That’s a hefty sum, but it’s not out of reach. In fact, earlier this year, Mayor Garcetti toyed with the idea of imposing a half-cent addition to the sales tax which would have raised over 80% of that amount. What’s crazy to me, though, is that he decided not to put the proposal on the ballot. Apparently, Californian’s hate taxes so much that this proposal to add one half of one percent to the sales tax, an amount that, for the average Angeleno, totals only $26 per year, had very little chance of passing. Sadly, I understand the logic. In 2012, Measure J, a ballot measure that would have paid for better roads, better side walks, and accelerated construction of rail lines by simply extending an existing half-cent sales tax failed to pass, despite the fact that people were already paying the tax, and will continue to pay it for another three decades, regardless of the outcome of Measure J. That’s right, people balked at the thought of having to continue to pay a half-penny tax that they’re already paying, thirty years from now.

Now, I totally understand not wanting to pay taxes on controversial issues, but I struggle to believe that there is anyone in this world that, when faced with an expense of $26, would choose to simply deal with our tattered roads instead. To do so would be an act of unbelievable selfishness, but that’s okay, because I don’t think this is what’s happening. What I do think is happening is a big ‘ol gaff in the presentation layer.

Whenever these types of issues arise, I find myself wondering why I seem to be the only one willing to pay more to get more. That’s right, I said it: I’m willing to pay higher taxes, and it’s because I know the more money I pay in taxes, the more smoothly my city will function, and the prouder and happier I’ll be to live here. So if I’m willing to subject myself to higher taxes, why isn’t everyone else? No one can answer that question for sure, but I imagine a lot of it has to do with trust in the people you’re paying the money to.

I’m quite fond of Mayor Eric Garcetti and his staff. I feel comfortable being taxed, because I believe that the people I give my money to are spending it wisely, even if I don’t physically see the results. But for a lot of people, the situation might be different. Maybe they’re not a fan of our current government. Maybe they’re not a fan of government at all. Or maybe it just takes them more time to build up trust than it does for me. For these people, feeding money into a black box just doesn’t cut it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not willing to pay for the things they want. Au contraire! The whole reason they’re adverse to taxes in the first place is that they prevent them from buying things that they want. Instead, I believe the issue is in the pitch itself.

Take a look at Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a website where people who want to get something done find other people who, despite having no affiliation with the project and often no affiliation with the people themselves, choose to spend their own money just to see that project funded. If you take the way people behave around tax season and apply it in the context of Kickstarter, the company should have folded years ago. And yet the Kickstarter community thrives! Over a billion dollars have been voluntarily pledged on the site. A billion dollars! What gives?! At their cores, both Kickstarter and taxes are people using money that they could spend on something else to instead selflessly pay for projects that benefit large numbers of people. And yet, they seem so fundamentally different.

I’ll tell you one thing that’s different right off the bat: taxes certainly don’t come with a fun, colorful interface that lets you not only follow funding and development progress for active projects, but also to browse all kinds of new and exciting future projects. But what if they did? What if every tax dollar you spent could be matched against live data showing the amount of money being raised via the tax, and the projects it got divied out to? And what if said projects could be followed by anyone with an interest in doing so? What if paying taxes worked just like Kickstarter?

I believe in people. I people that when given the proper information and the opportunity to hear a story, many people would willingly choose to pay for things like transportation infrastructure because those things will have transformed from political buzzwords to real, felt needs of a living city in which we are all communal owners. The only thing that needs to happen is a shift from the traditional “us vs them” attitude toward a more positive “all of us together” attitude, and that my friend is just branding.

If you have to take money from someone, the worst way to do it is with a vacuum cleaner. Instead, tell them a story, and you might be surprised to find that they were willing to help all along.

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