By Marc Jampole
While OpEdge is on a two-week hiatus, we are running some of the more evergreen columns from past years. This blog entry originally appeared on September 19, 2013.
Last time we cited Tom Sightings, self-proclaimed retirement expert, he was conjuring images of the various dream retirements to which he assumed the American public might aspire. His catalogue of utopias reflected the pro-suburban ideology that dominates the mass media: golf communities, small university towns, beach fronts and suburban houses. Not one of Sighting’s dream retirements involved living in a city with great mass transit, an abundance of public spaces, cultural activities and entertainment, top-rated healthcare systems, the exciting buzz of cultural diversity and tremendous resources for seniors. In Sightings’ world, cities just don’t exist.
The latest view from Sightings highlights an ideological principle that has dominated U.S. public discourse since the election of Ronald Regan in 1980: the politics of selfishness, the idea that everyone should pursue his or her own private agenda, no matter how harmful it might be to others or to the community at large. Symbolic of the politics of selfishness is Reagan’s favorite joke about not having to outrun a bear, just one’s companion (who will then get ripped to shreds by the bear).
Sightings doesn’t come out and explicitly say, “Care only about yourself” in his recent U.S. News & World Report article. What he proposes, in a soft-shoe, gently prodding kind of way, is that retired people move out of their communities to avoid paying high school taxes.
After all, their kids have long graduated from high school, so who cares about the next generation!
Sightings employs the increasingly irritating rhetorical device of building the story around himself (the writer) and his situation. The article begins when he receives the school tax bill which has increased by four percent. He grumbles that his income has not increased by that much. Continuing the article as a first person narration, Sightings tells us of a dinner his wife and he shared a few days later with a couple who had just moved to a new town to avoid high school taxes. Sightings quotes the husband: “Who needs to pay those high school taxes, he ventured, when your kids are grown up and gone away?” Sightings continues: “Left unsaid was the other question: Who can afford those school taxes when you're no longer pulling in a paycheck, and instead living on a fixed income?”
After some wishy-washy discussion of the pros and cons of moving to avoid school taxes and a spackling of information about states that reduce property taxes for seniors, Sightings ends the column fully on the side of moving: “But then I see that school tax bill sitting over there on the corner of my desk. It's due by the end of September. And our youngest child graduated from the local school system four years ago. Maybe it's time to start looking for our place in the sun, after all.”
What Sightings doesn’t see, or doesn’t want to see, is that when he sent his children to school, large numbers of his fellow townspeople were paying property taxes to fund public schools who had already sent their children through schools and many more who hadn’t had children yet or never were going to have any. Even parents who sent their children to private schools contributed to educating Sightings’ children. Now it’s his turn and he wants selfishly to shrug his responsibility. After all, he got his.
There are many great reasons to move in retirement: to be near grown children or to live one’s dream, be it on a quiet shore or in a high rise co-op overlooking the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. “Chacun sa chimère,” as Baudelaire once said (which translates into “To each, his or her illusion.”) It’s also true that some people move to smaller homes in retirement or are forced to move to cut expenses.
But to move just to avoid taxes is as anti-social as robbing a convenience store or embezzling from a nonprofit organization.