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Guest column | James Pettican

Bashing taxes is popular, but often misguided

Legendary Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. got it right in an opinion he wrote back in 1904:

" Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society."

To most politicians, they are the T-word, a word they try to use sparingly and only in the context of their two favorite verbs: cutting and lowering.

With U.S. politicos almost always mentioning taxes in a negative way, it is no wonder that most Americans complain about them. Such complaints fall on mostly deaf ears in the rest of the world, however, as our country's tax rates are low compared with those of most other developed nations. Sales taxes as a percentage of government revenue are less than 8 percent in the United States while they range into the high teens in Europe.

My Brit cousins tell me about the yearly user tax on every home that has a television set, regardless of how few or how many. It is called the "Television Licence." I can only imagine the storm of protests that would envelop any American lawmaker who tried to push that one.

When tax increases are left up the voters, those having to do with education or obviously needed infrastructure improvements usually have the best chance of succeeding. However, their batting average isn't as high as you might think.

Some taxes are regarded as beneficial if they contribute to good health or aid the environment. One of the former is the ever-increasing tax on cigarettes, which many feel is designed to save people from themselves. Ask your favorite smokers how high the tax has to go to make them quit.

People complain about high taxes on gasoline, but others say they contribute by taking gas guzzlers off the roads. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says a gas price of $10 a gallon would really do the job. Historically, Europe, land of small, economical vehicles, has always had gas prices that are very steep compared to ours.

While people love to complain about U.S. income taxes, the real villain here is their complexity, which has grown worse over the years. It has, in fact, established a thriving industry in tax preparation that would crash and burn in the event that tax simplification was accomplished.

As long as we have recorded history, we have also recorded taxes being levied in every country in every part of the world and in every form of exchange imaginable.

Taxation without representation set off the original Boston Tea Party. Its recently revived counterparts seem to be sparked by taxation and misrepresentation, whether it be the "Death Tax" (inheritance) or "Death Panels" as in the health care debate.

Super highways and safe bridges are among the many positives our taxes pay for, something we tend to forget. Maybe that's why people under stress will often refer to the experience as taxing. We like to say that our two constants are death and taxes, and I doubt that either will last longer than the other.

Retired journalist James Pettican lives in Palm Harbor.

Bashing taxes is popular, but often misguided 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 1:24pm]

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