Monday, June 05, 2006

The low-tax religion

Gov. Tim Pawlenty got enthusiastic support from Minnesota Republicans in his bid for a second term, easily snagging the party's nomination.

I don't mind Pawlenty running again. He's been a modestly competent governor, and his refusal to renew his "no new taxes" pledge shows he's capable of learning. Although the opening of his speech gives me pause for its raw partisanship:

"I can tell you what your worst nightmare is," he told the 1,072 delegates. "It's one of the big-spendin', tax-raisin', abortion-promotin', gay marriage-embracin', more welfare without accountability-lovin', school reform-resistin', illegal immigration-supportin' DFL candidates for governor who thinks Hillary Clinton should be president."

Retch.

That aside, what bothers me is all the self-congratulation over lowering Minnesota's tax burden.

The delegates jumped to their feet and cheered again when he cited a report that showed Minnesota's tax ranking has fallen to 16th-highest in the nation, the lowest in 50 years.

What they're referring to is this report, issued last week.

I don't like paying more taxes than necessary. But I'm really getting irritated with the belief among some conservatives that low taxes are some sort of absolute good in and of themselves. They're not. Taxes serve a purpose, providing important societal services that for one reason or other don't lend themselves to privatization. Low taxes are great if it means we're providing those services efficiently; low taxes are a problem if it means we're providing those services shoddily or not at all.

To see what that means, just look at what the lowest-tax states in the union are: In order, they are Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. Those states, not coincidentally, also have some of the worst public-school systems, fewest services, and the most social problems.

Do we really want to turn Minnesota into a northern version of Mississippi, simply so we can "enjoy" low taxes? I sure don't.

In the late 1990s, my wife and I lived in Florida. Florida brags about not having an income tax, but the state doesn't run for free: the trade off is that just about every government service comes with a fee or is funded out of property taxes -- one of the most regressive taxes available. That combined with a large retiree population means education spending, for example, doesn't really come close to matching needs. The result is overcrowded and underfunded schools. My wife and I looked around, and vowed not to have children as long as we lived in Florida. And we didn't.

High taxes are not an absolute good; they can be wasteful and, when they get too high, become a drag on the economy. But low taxes aren't an absolute good, either: they can exacerbate social disparities, increase crime and shortchange entire generations of citizens.

I've lived all over the country, and found that I prefer high-tax, high-service states: they're simply better places to live and raise families thanks to the investments they make in their citizenry. And I encounter far less of the "I've got mine" attitude that can be prevalent in low-tax states, especially retiree havens like Florida.

Thus the real question is not "how high are my taxes?" It's "what are we getting for the taxes we pay?" Taxes are too high if we're not getting enough bang for our buck, or we're paying for things that we as a society don't want; taxes are too low if we're not getting the services and social investment that we want.

So let's have a discussion about what we're willing to pay for and what we're not. But please, let's get away from the "low taxes are always good" religion. They're not, and phrasing the argument so simplistically can do real damage to the long-term quality of life here in Minnesota.

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3 Comments:

Blogger JP said...

Best paragraph I've read in awhile..

"I don't like paying more taxes than necessary. But I'm really getting irritated with the belief among some conservatives that low taxes are some sort of absolute good in and of themselves. They're not. Taxes serve a purpose, providing important societal services that for one reason or other don't lend themselves to privatization. Low taxes are great if it means we're providing those services efficiently; low taxes are a problem if it means we're providing those services shoddily or not at all."

I may have to quote you on that one. ;)

6/05/2006 6:34 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Feel free.... :)

6/05/2006 8:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the best aticulation of middle of the road american common sense.
Is it not true that tax cutting republicans of today are reactionary product of the tax hiking democrats?
reactionaries are like flares, sooner of later they will run out of steam and ideas.And then will the Rovian idea of the
permanent republican majority dissapear.
GK

6/06/2006 8:51 AM  

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