Raise our taxes!

The Thinker by Rodin

Merry Christmas everyone! And it’s a merry one here as we had actual snow for Christmas, about five inches locally. So yes, we have a white Christmas, which was a rarity but now that I live in New England maybe not so much. It still seems kind of magical.

Can it be a downer to get money for Christmas? We don’t collect on this money for a while, but as part of my 2018 planning I have been trying to figure out our budget. Trump promised Americans a big fat tax cut for Christmas. Now that this tax bill has become law, I decided I needed to crunch the numbers. The bill is still being digested but based on one online calculator I figure that our federal taxes will be $3352 less than what it would be had Congress not passed the law.

And yet it is a downer. It is true that I could take that $3352 and write a check to the U.S. Treasury and they would be happy to take the extra money. If I did this I would be in the top .01% … of taxpayers who actually send money to the U.S. Treasury in excess of what they owe. (Hmm, maybe not, considering how many undocumented send in payroll taxes from which they will never derive any benefits.) Unfortunately, it wouldn’t patch the nation’s roof.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about spending tax money to fix what’s desperately in need of repair. We could start with our crumbling infrastructure, something even Republicans in the age of so-called “fake news” cannot deny. Where I live they recently closed yet another bridge over the Mill River because it was too dangerous to actually use. Another one across the Connecticut River went down to one lane for more than a year while it was slowly repaired. With the tax bill now law Trump wants to make a “deal” with Democrats to spend on infrastructure. We know two things about this: it will be paid for with borrowed money if it happens at all and it will go to enrich Trump’s friends, if not Trump himself. So as desperate as the need is, maybe Democrats should take a pass for now.

Our lack of political will has resulted in crazy solutions. In Northern Virginia where we used to live the solution to the traffic problems is not quite to actually solve it, but to add HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes to the capital beltway and other places. Those with the money can escape a lot of the crushing traffic. Since the pricing is usually dynamic, it depends on supply and demand. Recently I-66 between the beltway and D.C. was opened for HOT traffic. It got so crazy that recently a one-way toll reached $44 dollars. That works out to more than $4 a mile.

Even in the rich D.C. suburbs, that’s a lot of dough. In most cases these HOT lanes don’t feed the government’s coffers. Instead, they go to private companies given very long-term leases to construct these extra lanes. So they may make traffic flow for those who few that can afford it. But they don’t really solve the problem of crumbling highways and bridges elsewhere.

Needless to say, the Trump Administration’s infrastructure “solution” involves a lot of what they are doing in Northern Virginia. In short, driving is becoming a privilege for the wealthy. As for the rest of us, we don’t get to eat cake: we get to sit in more traffic and get stuck in more potholes.

I really don’t think the United States qualifies as a first world country anymore. Perhaps I can say it’s true about certain things we elect to fund adequately, which is basically only the military. We’re the best at waging high tech wars and blowing stuff up. It’s pretty much all the other stuff that we won’t pay the freight on. I recently finished teaching another dispiriting class at a local community college. My students were incurious, clearly didn’t study and usually didn’t seek me out when they were having problems. Granted that these are students who probably got by with C’s in high school, but it’s clear we have huge problems with our educational system. The general problem though is we won’t make the investment required for education. We pay teachers scandalously low wages while overworking them. And now teachers can’t even claim a deduction for school supplies. Yep, that’s part of the $3352 extra we expect from the tax bill: basically we’ve taking money out of the pockets of teachers!

I wish the federal government operated a lot more like New England towns. Here towns practice real democracy. Across the river in Hadley, Massachusetts there were a number of town meetings to debate issues like construction of a new senior center and a new fire engine purchase. Basically the issues are publicly debated and if you show up you can vote. These tax overrides are not trivial. It means citizens pay extra property taxes. Both issues though won.

Not in our current Congress. The tax bill’s process was just shameful. There were at best cursory hearings. Leadership behind closed doors wrote most of the bill. There was no attempt to even consider ideas from Democrats. It was narrowly tailored to technically qualify under Senate budget reconciliation rules, which required only 51 votes. Hand written amendments were inserted into the bill from lobbyists sitting outside the Senate chambers. It was the complete opposite of a New England town meeting. The process could not have been any more opaque, less democratic, or less republican either for that matter.

Republicans are hoping that taxpayers will be bought off by temporary tax cuts in the bill. Our share looks to be $3352. In reality, it buys us nothing. However, it makes the debt worse, makes our infrastructure worse and gives money to those who need it least. And we are on that list. For goodness sakes, we’re retirees with a very comfortable income! $3352 a year means nothing to my standard of living. We can’t give it to our employees as bonuses; we don’t any of them. It’s not enough money to coax us to buy a private jet or even a fancy car. The truth is there is really nothing more for us to buy that we want or crave. We have a paid off house, two cars, free electricity from solar panels and good pension plus plenty of savings and investments. We take a couple of really nice vacations every year too.

If we can afford to contribute more, certainly those that make more money that we do can too, and they likely wouldn’t notice it either. And it’s not like there aren’t lots of things that would make productive use of our tax money.

But it only works if it is done nationally. The .01% of us who might give extra to the U.S. Treasury can’t fix this problem. It must be done nationally and it really can only be done if richer people give proportionately more, and the even richer people give even more. And the truth is they won’t notice the extra taxes either. And that’s because (a) they’re rich (duh!) and (b) the rich don’t trickle down anything of consequence. Trickle down is a lie. Putting money into things like a crumbling infrastructure, education and allowing poor people to just get buy though buys a whole lot and improves everyone’s lots.

Raise our taxes!

Oh Canada! (Part Two)

The Thinker by Rodin

Last Thursday we passed over the Rainbow Bridge and into Canada, our first trip to Ontario since 2004. Some things have changed since our last visit, but it’s not Canada. It’s the United States. Passing into Niagara Falls, Ontario I realized I actually felt better. For one night at least I was back in a sane country.

I was wondering whether they might not let us in, even though we were just passing through southern Ontario. I was particularly worried when my wife started complaining about our president with the Canadian customs official. But he was cool and had some complaining of his own about Justin Trudeau, their prime minister. “At least your president is transparent. Our guy is really crafty.” Yes, well you have an intelligent prime minister. We have a narcissist Cheeto for our president. Chances are that if Trump decides to launch a nuclear war any missiles wouldn’t be lobbed at Canada. And that’s because Canada in a sane country.

Canadians don’t subscribe to President Reagan’s claim that government is the problem. Rather, Canadians subscribe to the old fashioned idea (for Americans) that government should work for the betterment of its people, all of them. Nowhere was this more obvious to me than simply driving across Ontario. Ontario’s roads are so well maintained that it feels surreal. On the return trip on Sunday, we left our hotel in Cambridge, Ontario. Until we crossed the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge into the USA, my shock absorbers did not have to work at all.

That’s right: the roads (or at least the ones I was on, which includes Queen Elizabeth’s Way and Routes 405, 403 and 8) were bump free. There were zero potholes anywhere. Maybe they use some sort of super concrete. The roads were in excellent condition, in spite of the harsh winters they get around there from lake-effect snow. It wasn’t just the roads. It was also the bridges. The bridge overpasses looked new; no rusting girders and pockets of fallen concrete. The traffic flowed smoothly. Of course the moment we passed over into the USA we were back on America’s crappy roads. This meant bumps, potholes, miles of torn up pavement waiting a new coat of asphalt, many more miles of highway cones moving you to temporary lanes, etc. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s overall infrastructure a D+ grade. Way to go, supposedly greatest country on Earth!

A visit to Canada though proves that a country doesn’t have to have a crappy infrastructure. In fairness, I did see some highway construction. A part of the QEW was being repaired near Niagara Falls. Large stretches of routes 403 near Woodstock and London in Ontario were being widened as well which meant some lane shifting. On Sunday we got off the major highways to get to Stratford, Ontario where we saw a musical. These back roads were in excellent shape as well: not a pothole in the more than thirty miles we rode on them.

It’s pretty clear what the general problem is here in the United States, at least with our roads. We refuse to pay the cost of maintenance. This is largely due to Congress’s refusal to increase the gas tax, or at least index it to inflation. It is currently 18.4 cents per gallon and hasn’t been increased since 1993. It wasn’t enough in 1993 to keep our infrastructure from degrading and it’s worth a lot less now due to inflation. So our roads and bridges keep getting crappier and crappier, resulting in occasional major incidents like the 2007 I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. It’s easy to predict things won’t change if Congress won’t address the issue; in fact it will just get worse. On the plus side American cars are replacing plenty of shock absorbers, as our roads give them a real workout. I guess that part is good for the economy.

Spending two nights in southern Ontario though (one coming and going to Michigan, where we visited an aunt) brought out other wistful feelings. Today America feels very much like a dog-eat-dog country. People may act nice, but very often they are just snippy or mean. At our performance of Guys & Dolls at the Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario we sat next to an elderly man. At intermission he stumbled trying to get out of his seat. Almost instantly there were a half dozen people helping him get up again. An usher came by, noted the problem and told the man that their 6’4” usher would be there after the show to help him exit the theater. The concern for this stranger from the people around him was natural and authentic. It was heartwarming.

It’s because Canada is a country that cares about its people because the people feel vested in their country. Obviously Canada is not a perfect country and has its political struggles too, just not on the scale that we have in the USA. I have been told that Montreal has deteriorating bridges and roads, perhaps a result of Quebec choosing to allocate less money toward infrastructure. The sense of unity and common purpose while in Canada though was heartwarming. It made me nostalgic for a time when it was the same way here in the United States. Today, America is polarized to a degree that I have not seen in my sixty years. In addition we have Republicans with a lock on Congress trying to make the situation worse and a president likely to go down as our worst.

I loved my short time in Canada and I felt sad to leave it. When I saw the large Canadian flags flying along the highway, I felt a lump in my throat. It’s a country that has its stuff together, and is generally happy, peaceful and prosperous.

I hope before I die that I’ll see American that way again. Right now it looks like a pipedream.