Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Forget the flat tax, how 'bout a fair one

April 15 is the day Americans love to hate.

It's the final day for we law-abiding citizens to send in their tax forms to make sure Uncle Sam gets his legal share of our take-home pay. Not for the first time, people are making this year's Tax Day an opportunity to protest what they see as overly burdensome taxes.

It seems that people are often very patriotic and supportive of their country until money is involved. Declare war? We're right behind you Uncle Sam. Take my greenbacks? Back off, buddy.

That aside, at the heart of the "TEA bag protests" that have popped up across the country today — and yes, even in Tracy — is the issue of fairness. Everyone, it seems, thinks that the tax code is unfair. Specifically to them.

Buried at the core of almost every tax-system philosophy is the desire for justice — basically that everyone pay their fair share and that no one gets screwed. It's the definition of "fair share" and "screwed" that often proves the sticking point.

So, what is fair? It's tough to say.

Is it more fair if everyone, regardless of income, pays the same percentage of that income to the government? Or is it more fair if those with a higher income — which means they can easily afford the necessities of life, not to mention luxiries and investments — pay a greater percentage of their income than those not so well-off?

And if we ever get to the point where we decide one of those two (or even some other formulation) is fair, then we're stuck haggling over exactly what percentage of income the government is going to take.

Unfortunately, what passes for a definition of "fair" when it comes to talking taxes is far too often "Whatever way ensures I pay as little as possible."

"Taxes," it's been famously said by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., "are the price we pay to live in a civil society." They're also the price we pay to live with a military, education, roads, utilities, parks, clean water, clean air, safe working conditions, safe food, border security and a host of other amenities.

It's easy to get angry at taxes when we see government wasting taxpayer money — spending it in ways that don't benefit the country as a whole. You won't see me disagree with that type of populist rage.

But it's hard to remember that without taxes, we wouldn't have an Army, an Interstate system or electricity in vast swaths of the country.

Consider that remembrance a little balm for tax time.

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