Yesterday I took a local Metro North train from White Plains, where I had been meeting with a client, back to Manhattan, where we’re staying for a few days. The train was crowded and along the way I saw people get on and off, riding from one Westchester County suburb to another. At the Fordham stop in the city, a bunch of college students boarded. I saw many like me carrying briefcases and dressed for the business world. Others were clearly bound for a cultural attraction or to do some shopping.
What I also saw was government providing low-cost transportation to people of all social classes and helping to address both traffic and environmental problems.
Along the way, we went over bridges and saw other bridges, filled with automobiles. We saw roads and when we could see streets, they were mostly clean. Government built those roads and bridges and maintains them.
In the evening, we took the government owned and operated clean and safe subway to Carnegie Hall to see Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony do a magnificent concert of 20th century classical music. In the program notes I discovered that Carnegie Hall presents a wide range of music and other cultural activities, something for everyone. The program also lists all the donors that have contributed at least $2,500 in the past year to what is perhaps America’s most famous concert hall. But it also tells us who owns and operates Carnegie Hall. Guess what! It’s the City of New York.
At the concert, we spoke briefly with an older woman whose clothing and jewelry told us that she is fairly well-off. This very pleasant and enthusiastic woman most assuredly receives her medical services at low cost through Medicare. She likely collects Social Security, as well.
Earlier that day I had lunch with a cousin who lives in the tiny Scarsdale suburb about one of her children who has a learning disability. The boy goes to a public school and gets special attention and classes. I also spoke on the phone and made plans to see another cousin, who is a magnificent school librarian, a real pro with a special charisma who knows how to engage children of all levels of development. And yes, she works at a New York City public school. And then I remembered what a great education I received from the New York City schools (until my family left in 10th grade), highlighted by the opportunity to attend Stuyvesant High School, a high school for the gifted with wonderful laboratories and other facilities.
Everywhere I looked I saw government making our lives better: protecting us, keeping our streets maintained and clean, taking us places, educating our children, making it possible for businesses to exist, keeping us healthy, providing a stable retirement program for all workers.
And it’s all threatened by more than 30 years of low taxes and cuts to government services, fueled by the political mentality that I call Reaganism. The two central beliefs of this mentality propose that individuals should only care about their own selfish interests and that the government is always bad (except for fighting wars). This regime of tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy and ultra-wealthy and underinvest in our civilization has led to a dire situation:
- School budgets are being cut in New York and everywhere else. In many schools, art lessons, music education and other non-core classes have been slashed and classes are too large.
- State governments are retreating from their long-term commitment to state supported universities and colleges. In the late 60s and early 70s, my tuition (paid for by a state of Wisconsin “Leadership and Need” scholarship) was $175 a semester to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus and learn from many inspiring scholars such as Davy Carozza, Corliss Philabaum and Ihab Hussan. Enough said there.
- More than 30 years of inadequate investment and maintenance have left our infrastructure of roads and bridges in a sorry state. We’ve seen bridges crumble and potholes seemingly multiply like rabbits. Of course, when we let roads deteriorate because taxes are too low, individuals end up paying more on tires, brakes, gas and realignments.
- In New York, mass transit cuts appear to be an irritant only, but in many other places such as Pittsburgh, transit cuts are hurting many people.
It’s no coincidence that residents of the New York City metropolitan area pay some of the highest tax rates in the country. They enjoy so many services.
Government is not perfect. Government comprises people, and people make mistakes. Large groups are sometimes slow to identify and react to new challenges, which can lead to an inefficient use of funds. Bureaucracies can be infuriating. Leaders can sometimes lead government entities down the wrong path, as with the Bush II wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or Truman’s decision to pursue nuclear-generated electricity instead of solar power in the early 50s.
It sounds just like every company for which I ever worked, all of my clients and my own small business.
And don’t believe the nonsense that raising taxes hurts the economy and leads to layoffs. As the estimable Eduardo Porter pointed out in The New York Times earlier this week, “a growing body of research suggests not only that the government could raise much more revenue by sharply raising the top tax rates paid by the richest Americans, but it could do so without slowing economic growth. Top tax rates could go as high as 80 percent or more.”
So the next time you consider voting for anyone who wants to maintain taxes or lower them still further, look around you and see what government does for you and the community in which you live and the economy that provides your income. Think about how much better things could be if government had the money to improve these services. And remember that the more money you make, the more valuable to you are the government services that make it possible. Now in my mind, when you get more, you pay more.
No class warfare here, just the realization that we’re all in this thing called the United States together and that everyone should give their fair share so that our society and all of us can thrive.