On taxes and collective betterment

Rob Fitzpatrick blasts British pop star Adele in a recent blog post for complaining about her high tax rate on the millions she’s recently earned. Fitzpatrick reiterates the cliched argument that:

Tax needn’t be taxing, the advert simpers, and while that might be true, coughing up your hard-earned will never be anything less than grievously unpleasant.

He goes on to quote Adele from a recent interview for Q magazine in which she said:

“I’m mortified to have to pay 50%! [While] I use the NHS, I can’t use public transport any more. Trains are always late, most state schools are shit, and I’ve gotta give you, like, four million quid – are you having a laugh? When I got my tax bill in from [the album] 19, I was ready to go and buy a gun and randomly open fire.”

Fitzpatrick goes on to point out that the Beatles paid 95% on their earnings, the trains aren’t always late, and the schools are doing a great job! But like his cliched argument about taxes necessarily being unpleasant, he misses the point entirely.

Frankly I don’t know enough about the UK to speak on the particulars but this story is rather universal by now: Wealthy entertainer either gripes or avoids paying taxes; we are urged to see them for the greedy ungrateful bastards they really are. In Adele’s case she’s paying the taxes but simply griping about it. I happen to think she has good reason to gripe. Her millions pale in comparison to the billions reaped by large multi-national corporations like Google, Bank of America, Microsoft, and yet these corporations and their billionaire owners don’t bother complaining about the taxes; they simply don’t pay them.

Fitzpatrick’s tired point that taxes must be “grievously unpleasant” is based on the assumption that we can’t possibly have any say in how those taxes are spent. Study after study has shown that it’s not the tax rate, whether it’s the 95% paid by the Beatles or the 50% paid by Adele, but how those taxes are spent and whether or not people feel they have some influence in those decisions. Here in the United States we sit and watch as our nation’s infrastructure crumbles, the Post Office is on the verge of insolvency, and nearly every state in the union is bankrupt while we funnel trillions of dollars overseas in unnecessary, illegal, and immoral wars; and bail out the kleptocrats at home. Whether you’re a millionaire pop star or a minimum-wage-earning barista at Starbucks you have good reason to be angry at the taxes you pay and how they are spent.

When I interviewed Noam Chomsky a couple years ago he made a great point. He said the fact that we revile April 15th isn’t some law of nature. It’s not very difficult to imagine a day in which we come together to celebrate the fact that we are all pitching in for the common good, to invest in ourselves, our infrastructure, and for the collective betterment of society.

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