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Elizabeth on Taxes

Recently In 2004 when the presidential election was hanging on the vote in Ohio and Pennsylvania, I wrote to all of my cousins in those states, and I asked them to make sure they voted. I wrote to them particularly about the urgency I felt to rid our nation of President Bush. I knew I was taking a risk with this, as my relatives and I don’t generally talk politics. But I believed that the need to end President Bush’s time in the Oval Office was imperative.

My dislike of President Bush was not personal: I’d met him when I was doing an event for his mother’s literacy foundation in 2001, and I’d found him affable enough. I hadn’t voted for him, but that wasn’t personal either. I prefer candidates with more gravitas than Mr. Bush possesses, and as a general rule I think it unwise to elect as President someone who did less well in his college career than I did. Additionally, I found extremely disturbing his mockery of Karla Faye Tucker prior to executing her when he was governor of Texas. Any individual who mocks a rehabilitated prisoner’s plea for clemency and life in prison before he puts her to death is rather questionable in my book, especially if he portrays himself as a Christian born again to Jesus.

A few of my cousins responded to my letter, and one of them told me he was voting for Bush because of what he’d seen on television about John Kerry and the swift boat he’d commanded when in Vietnam. What he’d seen was what is now commonly called “the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” ad. My cousin said he couldn’t vote for someone who had “misled” the country about his military experience. While I might have attempted to talk him out of his decision, it seemed unlikely to me that he would alter his view. I’ve found over time that people who make their voting decisions based on a single issue or a television ad are people who don’t want to look particularly deeply at that issue or at any other.

More than ever, our country seems to be harvesting single-issue voters, and I find this deeply troubling. It seems to me that casting our votes because we find that a candidate shares a personal view on energy or creation or global warming or taxes or sex education or anything else without considering the entirety of who the candidate is and what the candidate stands for is a short sighted way to go about doing our civic duty at the polls.

I myself have talked to several people who have declared they will cast their vote based on their income taxes. If a candidate tells them their taxes will go down should he win the election, that’s good enough for them, no matter what else that candidate stands for.

I certainly understand where this particular kind of single-issue voting comes from. Take myself as a case in point: I pay monumental income taxes. I pay them four times a year and because they are so breathtakingly vast, I have to maintain a separate bank account just to pay them. Do I mind? Indeed I do.

I would mind less if I saw my tax money going for something that I personally deem worthy, such as health care for everyone, hospitals for the psychiatric patients who’ve been wandering the streets for twenty-eight years now, making a university education available to all qualified students, investing in renewable energy, supporting cancer research, reestablishing early childhood education for disadvantaged children, and seeing that wounded veterans are cared for. But despite the fact that my taxes are higher than most people pay, I can’t get my mind around the idea of voting for someone just because that person says the result of my vote will be lower taxes for me. To me, there are bigger issues involved right now than what I personally pay in taxes. If I vote for the candidate based solely upon a tax proposal, I am in effect voting for myself: for my own good and not for the good of my fellow citizens and the country.

Now, of course, you might argue that if a candidate is going to lower my taxes, doesn’t it stand to reason that he’s going to lower everyone else’s taxes as well? And isn’t a vote for that candidate technically a vote for my fellow citizens? And if taxes are lowered, doesn’t that have a domino effect on the economy, benefiting the country as a whole? Indeed, if the richest people in America get the biggest tax breaks, doesn’t that mean that all those people will go out and spend that money, which will in turn eventually trickle down to the people getting the least amount of money in a tax break? Figure it this way: All those rich people given all that tax money will naturally want to use it to buy bigger televisions, more powerful boats, super luxury cars, massive SUVs, sofas, jewelry, rugs, ornaments, houses, more houses, second cars, third cars, computers, iPods, iPhones, along with the latest this and newest that. Someone has to make all that stuff and the actual makers of that stuff are the people at the other end of the tax break: those who get the least amount of money back. But that’s okay because the money that the rich people spend will eventually trickle down to them. Right?

Unfortunately, this plan doesn’t work although it sure sounds as if it ought to, doesn’t it? But the problem with rich people is that they don’t have to spend their money because they have no critical need to do so. So instead of spending it, they can choose to save it, invest it in the stock market, put it in a mattress, etc. On the other hand, if a person in need of money is given money, chances are very good that that person is going to spend the money on necessary goods and services: food, clothing, rent, etc. When that money is spent, it returns to the economy by helping pay the salaries of those employees who are working in the stores where the goods are purchased. That money also supplies the store’s profits, helps the company that owns the store, and helps the investors. The employees in the store—who are usually rather low paid—take their salaries and spend them in a similar fashion on goods and services. This is called building the economy from the bottom up. This is how President Clinton—whether you love him or hate him—built the economy to a three trillion dollar surplus, putting to rest twelve years of debt brought about by his two immediate predecessors.

The whole theory of money trickling down the food chain began with President Ronald Reagan. It was even given a name “Trickle Down Economics” although his opponent for the presidential nomination at that time—George H.W. Bush—called it “Voodoo Economics” instead. And, alas, it turned out to be just that. For if Trickle Down Economics actually worked, one would think we’d see the results of it by now since Ronald Reagan was President more than twenty years ago. You might argue that we need to wait longer to see if it will work, but since the gap between rich and poor in this country is actually the widest that it’s been in decades, wouldn’t we be seeing at least a few less poor people by now instead of what we are seeing, which is more of them? I certainly think so.

Now, I’m fairly high up on the economic food chain, so were I a single-issue voter, Senator John McCain would be my man. His tax plan benefits me in a very big way, and depending upon what sort of year I’m having selling books, if I vote for Senator McCain, I stand to have my taxes lowered by more than $45,000 or—if I’m having a stellar year—by more than $250,000. That’s money in my pocket, no doubt about it. But at my level if Senator Barack Obama wins, I pay. However, according to Senator Obama’s plan—which I have here at my side as I write this piece—my taxes would be lowered unless I hit an income level of $227,000. That means if my income falls, which it might well do considering the state of the economy, I’ll still do fine under Senator Obama’s plan. However, even with that falling income, I’d do better tax-wise with McCain by $1591, so…perhaps I still ought to vote for him, all things not being equal.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem for me with this way of thinking. If I cast my eyes down to the lowest level of income to see what Senator McCain is promising the people who currently make the least amount of money in our country, I see that his plan offers them a whopping tax cut of $19 to Senator Obama’s $500+ . That’s not a typo, by the way. Nineteen dollars is what Senator McCain proposes as a cut in taxes for the people making the least amount of money in the United States of America.

Now I know I’ll probably offend a lot of people by saying this, but the truth of the matter for me is that it’s not only unfair but it’s also outrageous to give the poorest people in our society $19 and the richest people in our society $250,000, and I say this even though I’m one of the people who’d likely be receiving that quarter of a million bucks. You might say, “Who cares about the poor? If they’re poor, tell them to go out and get jobs, for God’s sake.” But then we have to look at the fact that the economy has lost over 700,000 jobs in this past year and even if there were jobs to be had, people are often at the bottom of the food chain because they’re forced to work for minimum wage and if we’re going to talk about minimum wage then we must look at the fact that Senator McCain has voted time and again (nineteen times, as a matter of fact) against raising that minimum wage.

So you see even though it would fill my personal coffers in quite a pleasant fashion to have Senator McCain as my President, I can’t bring myself to be a single-issue voter. Beyond the crass unfairness of what he’s proposing to do to poor people, I believe there are bigger issues involved in this election than my income taxes: issues like a war based on lies and forged documents, a war that has put us three trillion dollars in debt so far; issues like an economy that has virtually bottomed out; issues like global warming; issues like America’s loss of stature in the world; issues like women’s rights and equal pay for equal work; issues like the nomination of justices for the Supreme Court. There are people involved in all of these issues, and some of these people are in very serious trouble. And aside from saying that he’s going to “go in there and clean up Washington”, which he’s failed to do in over twenty years of being “a maverick” in Congress, I don’t see what on earth the Senator McCain is going to do to change a thing.

Thus, I’m reminded in all of this of President Harry Truman. I’m reminded of something that Truman said one time in sheer frustration. He asked voters a single question that resonates through the years, a question that voters might be wise to ask themselves before they vote in this current election: “How many times do you have to be punched in the face,” he said, “before you recognize the s.o.b. who’s punching you?”

I say to that, “Amen, Harry.” I also say that voters would do well not only to ask themselves that question but also to ask themselves who among us is least deserving to be punched at all.

- Elizabeth George
Whidbey Island, Washington

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