Monday, February 7, 2011

Taxes: an anecdote, with digressions into potholes and libraries

If Rhode Island is famous, it's famous not for you but for potholes. Last night the Baronette and I were driving down a street in one of the Less Desirable neighborhoods of Providence and encountered such potholes as I, a native, have never seen. The weather this winter has been hell on the pavement. We're talking covering-entire-lanes-of-traffic-or-more, literally over a foot deep, people having to take turns going different ways because if you go into this one you're not coming out potholes. Then, later on, we were driving down a street in one of the More Desirable neighborhoods and, lo and behold, there were no potholes.

The Baronette turned to me (while keeping one eye on the road) and said something like this: "I wonder how people who are apologetic for the power, for the current order, justify this kind of thing?"

I happen to know how they justify this kind of thing. Once upon a time, I worked briefly at a small business owned by a professional, educated, Subaru-driving, lesbian, NPR-listening,* capital-L Liberal of the first order, who also just happened to live on literally the wealthiest street in the city.

*I once mentioned that I didn't like NPR partly because they were too conservative (misleading word I know) for me, and she was shocked. "But it's the most liberal news source out there!" she exclaimed.

One day over lunch I brought up some work I was doing with a group fighting to keep the then-endangered branches of the Providence Public Library from being closed by the greedy assholes on its governing board who wanted to sell off the properties to developers. (The situation, by the way, is much better now; the branches are operated by a community organization whose interest is actually in keeping the branches running, and while there are still problems--like for instance the fact that the old board still owns the physical buildings and is putting up a stink about turning them over as they agreed to which means that urgently needed renovations have been delayed--they are slowly but surely being resolved.) I mentioned in passing, naïvely expecting a quick nod of agreement and recognition, that of course the branches that weren't threatened with closure were primarily the branches serving the richer parts of the city.

At this point, though, the Boss had something she needed to say. Like many, she was under the impression that the Providence Public Library system was operated by the local government,* and so she said, "Well, if there's a money problem, we** should get priority, because we pay so much more taxes."

You don't get more liberal than that.

*As most public libraries are. However, the PPL and the current PCL are both considered, with differing degrees of accuracy, private non-profits).
**The first person plural, which encompassed no one in the room but herself, was conjured up by her, unbidden.

When I wrote up my model recently, one of several inspirations for it was my having one of those weird realizations where it's not like you suddenly understand anything you didn't already, but you just suddenly put words in an order that clarifies things to you in a way new to yourself. In this case, my realization was that modern taxation grew naturally out of tribute; in other words, the system of requiring lots of people to pay (whether in money, concrete resources, or services) directly to the ruling forces has never fundamentally changed. Only the stated justification has: now, we're told that we pay taxes in exchange for government services.

So with that (obvious, but new-in-form) clarifying thought in my head, I responded to the Baronette's question (remember that?) with my story about my former boss. And I think it can be instructive to keep all of this stuff in mind when liberals talk about taxes, because liberals love taxes, and I think one reason why is that it's a way to quantify how much they feel like they deserve. Yes, they do a lot of talking about social safety nets or whatever, but if there's a money problem,* they should get priority because they pay so much more taxes.

*By the way, I feel honor-bound to mention that there was no money problem, demonstrably, inarguably, factually, in the case of the PPL, despite its board's claims.

Which amounts to saying that they've done more prostrating before power, that they have served power better. Meanwhile, they will go on and on about teapartiers who are "too stupid" to realize that under Obama their taxes have gone down rather than up, because they don't understand that there's more to taxes than what shows up on your pay stub.

Because your tribute will be extracted one way or another. What you get in exchange for that tribute depends entirely on your social standing and, more importantly, the whims of the people you're paying it to.


rob payne said...

Libraries always suffer during things like constant never ending wars. I didn't know you worked in a library, I took a library tech course years ago at a local community college, never panned out though. Nice post, enjoyed reading it.

Ethan said...

Thank you Rob! Glad to hear from you and nice to know you liked it.

I should clarify--I worked with a group trying to save the libraries from closing, I never worked at a library. Would like to though.

Randal Graves said...

If one can deal with other humans, admittedly a dodgy prospect where I'm concerned, the library's pretty swanky.

A former coworker here at the university is now employed by the Cleveland PL and the unofficial rumblings over loot have been getting louder over the years.

We have that here, but they'd likely slash a few academic programs instead of taking the scalpel to us.

Lucky for you guys, if they ever decide to slice n' dice Providence's library system, I'm sure you've access to a copy of the Necronomicon.

Ethan said...

Fuckers sold the Necronomicon years ago.

Soj said...

Leaving actual income aside (and taxes paid), it is true that the political power in "wealthier neighborhoods" is much stronger as well, for a variety of reasons, including length of residency (richer people tend to stay put while poorer people tend to move more often) and therefore more opportunities to develop organizations and networks to act as political power, not to mention that wealth is almost a prerequisite to run for office and therefore politicians COME from those self-same wealthier neighborhoods and have stronger ties to them, etc.

Your former boss I think was simply indulging in a little post hoc ergo propter hoc, that since her neighborhood has a greater slice of political power (including on whatever gov't department is responsible for maintaining streets) that causality must be identified somewhere, and for her, it's because of how much money she and her neighbors pay in taxes.

In other words, even if you could find a wealthier neighborhood which incontrovertibly paid LESS taxes than a poorer neighborhood, the richer neighborhood would still have streets in better condition. Your former boss would just have to find a different reason to explain it.

Ethan said...

Ah! Excellent point, which I think I overlooked partly because I overlook lots of important things all the time and partly because as far as I can tell it doesn't apply as much to the specific case I was writing about--the specific poor neighborhood has only been poor for about 25 years, and the specific rich liberal is one of those nouveau riche types, so the really deep historical ruts haven't yet formed in either case.

But as a general rule? Yes, and it's important to remember. Thank you.