Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “taxes”

Universal Healthcare – It Baffles Me

This is the third post in a series of fundamental changes we can and should make to have a lasting effect on our society. Last week I covered gun control and made many friends in the past week from the NRA. Now I want to turn my attention to healthcare.

I was born and bred in England, so please excuse me. You enjoy Downton Abbey, The Beatles, and got excited over young Prince George of Cambridge, so don’t pretend we don’t know what we’re doing.

images-3There seems to me that there are certain entitlements if you play the game. By playing the game, I mean work, pay your taxes, and don’t break the laws. In return, your country protects you from foreign invaders who want the rights to Downton Abbey and free season tickets to Manchester United games, give you a sound education so that you can step up in life, and take care of you when you are sick.

The protection and health care are part of what you invest in a social infrastructure as part of paying your taxes. Your soccer tickets are your own problem, but life isn’t perfect. As much as we complain about the National Health System (NHS), and it is far from perfect, there is no such thing as a person going without medical treatment, or losing all their savings to help a family member receive the treatment they need to stay alive.

How is this possible if Brits don’t pay more taxes than Americans? The answer is that the pharmaceutical companies and the medical supplies companies don’t make the astounding profits that are made in this country.

images-4It is greed that is preventing good-standing Americans from receiving what is theirs. Every American is entitled to access to healthcare. It baffles me how this is not accepted. There is no family in America (correct me if I’m wrong) wherein every family member is perfectly healthy and has no need of medical help.

It is a universal need and should therefore be universally accessible.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  For more about the author, check out his website.

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Our Real National Pastime – Tom Rossi

Here in the United States, whining about taxes is probably more popular than all of the major sports, combined. Forget about baseball – tax-whining is our true national pastime.

What’s amazing is that the distribution of whining, like so many things, is so illogical. In fact, tax-whining is positively correlated with a person’s or a corporation’s wealth. So, the more you have, the more you whine. It’s sort of like a team in Major League Baseball complaining that, in their run up to winning the World Series, too many strikes were called on their batters.

The favorite topic of tax-whiners is that the top income brackets pay all of the taxes while the bottom half of the so-called “middle class” (nobody want to be labelled “poor”) pays nothing. They love to go on about the 47% – the “takers.” That number was made up, by the way.

As justification, the tax-whiners always point to one statistic… the statistic that makes them look right. Here it is, in graph form:

Income_and_Tax_Shares_TPC_2010

But this is only part of the tax story. People pay taxes on much more than income. They pay taxes on property, gasoline, and sales tax on purchases of goods. The truth is that, when you add all those taxes up, the bottom 20% of earners pay about 17% of their incomes in taxes, while the top 20% of earners pay about 29%. That’s a significant difference, and I’m sure it frustrates those who live inside a calculator.

total-tax-bill-income

But it’s nowhere near the claims that are made, usually by Republicans and Tea Party types. And we should pay close attention to the effect that these percentages have on people. For someone who makes $250,000 per year (for example) paying 29% in taxes means that they are left with $177,500 to live on.

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For someone earning 13,000 per year, paying 17% in taxes means that they are left with $10,790 to live on. That’s less per year than what the $250,000 earner has left per month. And, as I’ve argued before, the more money a person has, the more benefits he or she gets from taxes.

To the whiners, I say this: I realized that the prospect of paying an extra $500, or so, in taxes for a year might mean you have to put off buying a house for another month. Or it might mean that your kids actually have to go to public school. Or it might mean you have to buy the Lexus GS instead of the LS. But a difference of even $100 to a family on the receiving end of this shotgun economy might mean that their kids get “new” shoes (maybe from the Salvation Army) when their toes poke out through a hole. Or it might mean that they can afford to heat the house to above 55° in the winter. Or it might mean that they can pay the electric bill for another month or two.

These are two different worlds. What I’m talking about is called “Marginal Utility Theory,” and it’s a part of standard, old-fashioned, neo-classical economic theory. It just gets ignored because it is essentially an “inconvenient truth.” Without putting you to sleep, what this boils down to is that $1000 means nothing to the well-being of a millionaire, but it could mean the world to a poor person, or a poor person’s children.

President Obama and others are in the process of attempting to re-balance the tax code which has, in recent decades, come to favor the rich and the corporations. And now, we have an influx of veterans that often have an incredibly hard time finding a good job – or sometimes any job, for that matter. This is happening while government programs are being cut left and right.

If you really want to “support our troops,” if you are really “pro-life,” then realize that your tax dollars are helping people who really need it. And their health and well-being will come back to benefit you in ways you may not be able to imagine.

stop-whining

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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A Bookcase In The Digital Age

I have a steady relationship with my kindle – no I haven’t updated my Facebook status, don’t bother checking. I take it with me everywhere I go, with an assortment of books ready to read. I also have an off/on affair with my public library which truly softens the blow of having to pay taxes.

However, when I go into someone’s home, one of the first things I look at is their bookshelf. I hope there is no judgment in my peering. I feel the books tell a story, not only between their covers, but of this person’s life. It tells me what they love, loved, and maybe aspires to love.

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And it is not only other people’s book collections. When we recently moved house, one of the first areas I set up was our bookcases. It somehow made this new house our home. Wherever I live, and with whatever digital advancements yet await, I will always have the bookcase as the foundation of my house, of my identity.

So I was delighted to discover this quote from Laura Miller: 

Of course, you don’t have to buy a book to read it, but the act of giving someone a book of his or her own has an undeniable, totemic power.

As much as we love libraries, there is something in possessing a book that’s significantly different from borrowing it, especially for a child. You can write your name in it and keep it always.

It transforms you into the kind of person who owns books, a member of the club, as well as part of a family that has them around the house. You’re no longer just a visitor to the realm of the written word: You’ve got a passport.

–Laura Miller in her Salon essay, “Book owners have smarter kids.”

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I know it is not the same, but we are now a two-kindle family. Generous friends bought my eldest a kindle for his birthday. I have just loaned him a book from my device and also gifted ebooks. It is not quite the same, but for the sake of the trees, I’ll live with it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the weekend beckons and its time to curl up with a good book.

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

Occupy Movement Endorsed by Washington – Roger Ingalls

After listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address, I couldn’t stop smiling. Similarly, I grinned during the last few months of the presidential election. The Occupy Movement is routinely portrayed by mainstream media and conservatives as a failure; however, reviewing the political chatter during the recent elections and the President’s speech on Tuesday, the Occupy influence is front and center.

Prior to the Occupy Movement, there was no media or political focus on the destruction of the middleclass, tax breaks for the wealthy, tax loopholes for corporations or the disparity between the 1%ers and 99%ers. The movement brought attention to all these topics and they were the main sound bites throughout the entire election season. Fast forward to Tuesday and a significant portion of the President’s time was dedicated to Occupy topics: 1) rebuilding the middleclass, 2) increasing wages for many Americans, 3) returning a fair tax burden to the wealthy and big business, 4) closing tax loopholes for corporations and 5) stopping corporate off-shore cash hoarding.

Poll-favoring-raising-taxes-on-rich

When comparing the Tea Party and Occupy Movements, the latter has been much more beneficial to Middle America. The Tea Party has done nothing but create gridlock in Washington, slowing economic recovery. They’ve also placed political handcuffs on Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner. He’s ineffective because the fanatical right is holding the larger conservative party hostage. Even though the Occupy Movement hasn’t received due credit, its original talking points are on the tongues of politicians today. In addition, a fairer tax burden was realized in January when taxes were increased on the wealthy; an original Occupy demand.

The media is no longer discussing the Occupy Movement but Washington’s politicians are endorsing it through action and sound bites.

Please, Stop Whining About Spending! – Tom Rossi

The words “tax” and “spend” get thrown around a lot by our beloved politicians – especially by the Republicans. The simpletonistic, cave-man assumption we are all to follow along with is: “Taxes bad, spending bad. Ugh! Atouk zugzug Lana!”

The idea actually is pretty simple – government spending necessitates taxes, and the more taxes, the less money in your pocket. Fair enough, but also myopic.

Everyone, except a handful of fringe lunatics, agrees that some spending is necessary. In general, Democrats believe we have to spend money on some kinds of public health programs and things like that, while Republicans always seem to think we need a more military might.

Right there, something should become obvious – not all spending is created equal. What surprises me is that the anti-spending crowd is opposed to moderate spending now, that would prevent mega-spending becoming necessary later. Now we’re talking about my favorite word: infrastructure.

America’s infrastructure is in a sorry state. That isn’t some nutty, liberal viewpoint, it’s the opinion of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Here’s the report card they gave the U.S. in 2009:

2009 Grades

Aviation D

Bridges C

Dams D

Drinking Water D-

Energy D+

Hazardous Waste D

Inland Waterways D-

Levees D-

Public Parks and Recreation C-

Rail C-

Roads D-

Schools D

Solid Waste C+

Transit D

Wastewater D-

America’s Infrastructure GPA: D
Estimated 5 Year Investment Need: $2.2 Trillion

Why do I always harp about this? Because these elements are the life’s blood of America. The individual pieces of our infrastructure are aging and deteriorating, and it will eventually cost us… big.

Even the most hardcore of bottom-liners have to see that our economy will utterly fail if our water, transportation, flood control, energy, waste, and educational systems and facilities start to falter with increased frequency. And, at this point, we’re not even talking about preventative maintenance. We’re trying to keep up with massive failures.

How do you treat your own home, and your own car? Car owners know that skipping their oil changes at “Jiffy Lube” to save $35 will most likely lead to a ruined engine, at a cost just slightly higher than $35.

Homeowners know that “saving” the expense of fixing a little leak in the roof that appears one day will certainly mean a nightmare, where the entire roof will have to be replaced and the house will probably suffer water damage.

Fixing water pipes or levees before they burst, fixing bridges before they fall into the river, and repairing roads before they completely shut down transportation can save ten times what these repair jobs cost.

And the dollar-cost isn’t anywhere near the whole story. Any of these infrastructure failures causes huge logistical catastrophes, as well. Imagine what it would be like if the bridge or the freeway you take to work was out of commission for 6 months, or if you had to go without running water for as long.

floodCapture

Another big reason to start investing more in our infrastructure is that it would create many, many jobs. We could put Americans to work physically fixing America. Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? And it wouldn’t be giving away money for the sake of it, it would be directly improving our country in so many ways.

I’m tired of all the anti-spending ranting. We need more spending, not less. We just need to focus our spending on constructive activities.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Hatchets vs. Scalpels – Tom Rossi

Isn’t it a good idea to reduce the size of government? Well, I need to lose some weight. Maybe I’ll cut of an arm or a leg.

Think I’m exaggerating? The Republican dream is worse than cutting off your arm to lose weight. It’s more like cutting out half your liver, one of your lungs, and most of your small intestine. Half your brain must already have been cut out if you think this is a good idea.

Republicans want to cut the bread and butter of the majority of America’s citizens. They want to cut education, social services of many kinds, including services to disabled people, public safety, public transportation, food inspection, and environmental regulation. Some of these are actual sources of many people’s livelihoods, and others protect lives or livelihoods.

But worst of all, and so obviously, politically stupid as to amount to political suicide, is that Republicans want to cut Social Security (and/or privatize it) and Medicare. This would stab a large, jagged, rusty sword into the hearts of Republicans chief constituency: our growing population of those near or past the so-called “retirement age.”

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This group has largely supported the Republican party over the past several decades based on social issues: opposition to abortion, gay rights, etc. And, to some degree, this constituency has gone along with the ideas of personal responsibility, as opposed to having a government safety net to keep you from falling down the elevator shaft if you make the wrong choices. But cutting the sources of income and health-care for the top third of our demographic might be just the shock that would shake these voters loose.

It would be done on the promise that the United States would return to general prosperity if we just set free the incentives of huge, almost tax-free profits, while eliminating those annoying health, safety, and environmental regulations that are surely what are holding our economy back. The idea must be that the children of this age bracket would become so wealthy, with their shiny new corporate jobs that they would be able to buy houses, groceries, and box CD sets of the Beach Boys for their parents.

c1po1_250

Even if the theory were to magically work out, there would be a long lag time between dropping tax rates on the wealthy (even more), deregulating, and any theoretical benefits to the middle class. That lag time would be years, at a minimum. But, really, it would be eternal.

Let’s get real. If incomes are cut and/or costs for things like health care were to go up, a thing economists call “aggregate demand” would fall. In plain English, that means that people would have less available money to buy things. If they buy less, profits go down, not up. That means, according to conventional thinking, that they would hire fewer people, and maybe fire a few. That means that if you’re counting on sonny boy (or, uh, daughtery girl?) to finance your retirement, he’d have to prioritize that over replacing his kids’ shoes at least once a year.

There is certainly waste in our government which could and should be sought out and reduced as much as possible. But this ideology of cutting down the forests with machetes will do much more harm than good. We have been going down that path, farther and farther, for the past 40 years… and things have gotten worse or stayed flat for the middle class, while the very wealthy have raked in the cash and the improvements in standard of living.

We have to return to a reasonable balance in our country. Cutting off a limb is no way to achieve balance.

einstein

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Do Progressives Want to Punish Success? – Tom Rossi

If you denied a request by your ten year old son for permission to buy a CD or go to a rock concert with his older brother or something, and then he went and asked your spouse and he or she said yes, you would probably punish your son for gaming the system. Your son would probably say, “But Mom said it was okay!” But you would know what was really going on.

The argument against taxing the (very) rich is most often that it would be “punishing success.” Well, we do punish some kinds of success in this country. We punish successful (and unsuccessful) burglars, bank robbers, drug dealers, con artists, murderers, embezzlers, and many other criminals.

Some of today’s wealthiest people fit into one of those categories, certainly. But many more, often acting through corporations, fit into the “play one parent against the other” archetype. What corporations do is lobby our government, often in ways that closely resemble bribery, to change the law more to their liking.

Tax laws, for example, are a favorite target of corporations and the super-rich who run them. They left the official rate high, (so they could continue to bitch, whine, piss, and moan) but they created a wonderful set of loopholes that mean that practically no corporation actually pays that rate.

In fact, the whole purpose of a corporation is to absolve the executives of any responsibility for its actions. A corporation legally insulates its operators, as long as it doesn’t violate what’s left of the law. But there is no law against creating ridiculously risky financial instruments and artificially inflating their value, essentially riding updrafts of hot air while pretending it’s solid ground.

Why is this not illegal? Because corporations and associations of very rich investors spend millions to kill financial reform. This is why nothing has really changed since the crash of 2007. The people calling for the heads of bankers and hedge-fund managers are the powerless – people whose net worth is measured in hundreds of thousands of dollars or less.

So, do we want to “punish” success? We absolutely want to punish the con artists who sent America into this pit. We also want to punish the success of those who have bribed their way out of paying for the function and infrastructure of the very country that has allowed them to become rich in the first place.

The success that allowed these corporations to become big and rich enough to sell out our country cam during the decades when the taxes they and their investors paid much higher taxes. Those taxes allowed America to become what it is – a land full of healthy, well-educated (on average) people with the means to physically travel to the places they are needed.

A lot goes into these factors, especially the health part. But taxes aren’t really punishment. As I’ve said before, it’s simply a matter of paying for what you get. You want a great country? Pay for it. It doesn’t come free. Conservative dimwits are fond of saying, “Freedom isn’t free.” Well neither is greatness. And private enterprise just isn’t effective at providing certain things like public health and education – two keys to a successful society.

The other side of the “punishing success” hogwash is that progressives or liberals want to “reward losers.” Let’s compare these punishments and these rewards… The punishments we’re talking about might mean buying a smaller yacht. The reward might mean paying the rent for a couple more months on the two-bedroom apartment where your family of five now resides.

So, to paraphrase what I’ve said before, please stop whining. If you’ve lost your job, been foreclosed on, and have to eat dog food to survive, you’ve got lots of good reasons to whine. It’s your right. But if you whine because you only get to keep $35million after taxes, kindly do us all a favor and shut your ridiculous, spoiled cake hole.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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Is the Tea Party Taking Over… Again???? – Tom Rossi

Here we go again. The press is all excited about the Tea Party because they ousted Richard Lugar as the Republican candidate for the Senatorial race in one of America’s reddest states, Indiana.

The Tea Party has garnered support from plenty of everyday Americans. These are mostly the people who look at their paychecks and see the amounts subtracted for various taxes and get extremely upset. All they can see is money being taken away from them and this is their primary concern.

What if, just for the sake of argument, we were to grant the idea that taxes are good for nothing and simply represent a “taking” by a government that is totally detached from the people? Then, what if taxes suddenly disappeared, with no measurable effects on daily life (somehow). Would people keep that money that had once gone to taxes?

The answer is no. Labor (whether it be skilled, unskilled, blue-collar, white-collar, or whatever) is a rare example of a principle of conventional economics that actually describes the truth. Labor works on supply and demand.

To keep the numbers simple, let’s just say that Joe the software engineer gets a salary of $100,000 per year. Under the “old” way, he paid $25,000 in taxes, after taking a few deductions, and so takes home $75,000. But now, after taxes have been done away with, he gets to keep the whole $100,000, right?

Wrong. Why would Joe’s company, Frustrating User Interface Incorporated, continue to pay him $100,000 when he used to be willing to work for $75,000 in take-home pay? They wouldn’t because they wouldn’t have to.

Companies pay the minimum that they can to get the labor that they need. It would be incredibly foolish to do otherwise. Workers determine the level at which they will accept a job by their calculated take-home pay – the net, not the gross. That’s the “supply” price for a worker’s labor.

Because of this, if taxes were eliminated, corporations would use the usual tricks, eliminating (then re-creating) positions, claiming hardship, etc., to knock their workers salaries down to the same old, “willing to work” levels. Joe used to take home $75,000, and now, without taxes, it’s the same.

Of course, the real story would be much worse than this. If taxes are significantly decreased, lots of people who work in the kinds of services that would be poorly provided by purely private enterprise would lose their jobs. This would flood the market with available labor (the REAL plan of the corporate masters) and salary levels would be pushed down even further than in the previous example.

And we would have no libraries, a lot fewer schools, little fire protection, and so many other deficits in our way of life.

If you’re proud to be an American, proudly pay your taxes. You are contributing to something imperfect but great.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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A Serious Economic Agenda

I think I was exposed this weekend to the so-called Weekend Chat Shows. I won’t do it again (though I’m most perturbed that the soccer season is over and the NBA is coming to a close). I’m fed up with the way that we, the so-called informed population, allow our politicians and pundits to play out whatever fictional version they advocate to promote their own agendas.

Blaming President Obama for the economic meltdown a month or so after he took office is obnoxious – that many of the public bought it is truly stunning. Even today, when the President is still basking in the public’s praise regarding the assassination of bin Laden, a Republican politician, when asked if this gives Obama the Presidency in 2012, said Obama still has to account for the state of the economy.  As if these Republicans weren’t around for the previous eight years, or for that matter, in power.

I do not believe that the recession is about everyone having a hard time. Houses in Berkeley are selling quickly and financial coaches all agree that there is money to made in a recession. A recession is more about a sharpened distribution of wealth than wealth disappearing from the economy.

Neither do I think it is about Republicans or Democrats. There is a structural problem in our economy that needs and can be addressed quickly. Over the next couple of weeks, I want to focus on some of the following aspects.

1. Education  – a 21st century economy requires a 22nd century education system. It begins with creating a work force that is competitive and highly esteemed. The average teacher in California earns just under $69,000. I don’t believe they work more or less than the rest of us. Their challenges and pressures are simply different.

2. Taxes – Everybody pays their taxes and they are proportional to how much each person earns. There can be some flexibility for differing circumstances, but to allow the rich to pay less taxes proportionately than the poor is absurd. The fact that so many of the working and middle class accept this is unfathomable.

3. Energy – Moving away for an oil-based economy, or at least cutting it drastically has repercussions not only on energy, but also foreign policy. As the head of the multinational oil company said in The Accidental Activist – true change will only come when the public are challenged at the pumps.

We might not hold all the answers, but our worst enemy is apathy. Let the discussion begin…

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Tax Mysteries Uncovered – Part 3

This is the continuation of the discussion started in part 1 and continued in part 2 of how people benefit from the services paid for by taxes and the simple principle that the people who benefit the most should pay the most. I have called this a corollary to the well known saying: “You get what you pay for,” and turned that around to: “Pay for what you get.”

Let’s look at some very basic government services (paid for by taxes) that benefit individuals or individual families as well as businesses – police and fire protection.

Of these, fire protection is the simpler example. People with more money generally have bigger, nicer homes and personal property (furniture and so forth). In addition, some people own more than one piece of real property – a second home, a business, etc. These all need to be protected from fire and, therefore, they add to the tax burden.

Owning more or better things also means more that the police are called upon to protect from theft, vandalism, and other types of property crime. What’s more, you can be sure that the police will put a lot more effort into investigating a stolen Lamborghini than a stolen skateboard.

People with more and better property obviously have more at risk and more that needs protection. But in addition, protecting this property actually costs more per person, and therefore more per taxpayer. So if you have more to protect, shouldn’t you pay more for the protection?

The government has also, with tax dollars, subsidized power-generation projects such as hydroelectric dams. I, for one, wish they hadn’t done this, but again – the people who have benefited the most from these projects are the ones who have used the most power. Large homes and businesses use a lot more power than a middle-class, three-bedroom tract house.

Also, remember that what you buy, you buy from businesses that depend on all these services and infrastructures as well. Their use of public services lowers their costs and, ostensibly, lowers the price you pay them for whatever you buy. And the more you buy, the more you benefit.

Anyone who has enjoyed success in this country has done so on the framework of its infrastructures, its resources, its people, and all the myriad of pieces that have been put together (many on the back of government) in the past. The idea that someone has “made it” all on his or her own, is an idiotic, narcissistically romantic hallucination.

So stop whining, and pay for what you get.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

Tom also posts on thrustblog.blogspot.com

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