Thursday, August 6, 2009

"I Paid Good Taxes!"

I’ve been reading information about health care reform, not only aspects of the proposed reform but also ideas on how to pay for such a program. Levying taxes on the income of the very rich seems a typical idea, although projected federal budget gaps and the challenge of funding Medicare and Medicaid may require taxes for the less wealthy, as well. Here, for instance, is a New York Times discussion:

A short John Updike piece haunts me. In “The Tarbox Police,” a crazy man was hold up in the upper story of a house. Although he shot at a hydrant, he did not seem sufficiently threatening to deter a small crowd that formed near the scene.

“The siege lasted an hour. The crazy man, a skinny fellow in a tie-dyed undershirt, was in plain sight in the widow above the porch roof, making a speech you couldn’t understand and alternately reloading the two rifles he had. One of the old folks hobbled out across the asphalt to the police car and screamed, ‘Kill him! I paid good taxes for fifty years. What’s the problem, he’s right up there, kill him!’ Even the crazy man went quiet to hear the old man carry on: the old guy was trembling; his face shone with tears; he kept yelling the word ‘taxes.’ Dan shielded him with his body and hustled him back to the crowd, where a nurse from the home wrestled him quiet” (Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p. 28).

I think of this piece every time I hear a story of, for instance, someone who hanged himself in a jail cell, and someone else comments, “Well, that saved taxpayers a lot of dollars!” I also think of my experiences as a pastor; our denomination collects funds from churches each year for the funding of missions, ministry efforts, and denominational administration, but inevitably a parishioner resents such fund-sharing as a “tax." Several questions come to mind. At what point does our resentment of taxes become such that we diminish the value of other persons who might benefit from those dollars? If we had no taxes (or analogous ways of raising money), how would we house prisoners, or secure adequate health care for the needy, or fund programs? At what point do we ourselves feel too diminished and cheated by taxes to worry about the plight of someone else, because our own sense of dignity has been hurt?

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