As the U.S. simultaneously heads into the season of silly rhetoric known as election campaigning, and the equally silly times of watching Congress wrangle over Economic Stimulus, the issue of “taxes” arises repeatedly. And it is time we Americans demanded this meaningless conversation over “spending” be replaced with the only conversation that matters – investing in our present and our future.
Living and breathing the work of Community Benefit Organizations*, this is no small matter. Taxes are revenues. And even if you barely squeaked by with a D+ in Business 101, you know that without revenues, there is no service – there is nothing!
Which brings me to a roadblock I share often here – the illogical focus on means over ends. Taxes are money, and money is never an end. It is always a means to something else.
During election times especially, Americans regularly hear the talking-point words, “It is better to reduce tax rates and let businesses and families decide on the most productive way to spend money.”
Such a means-based statement leads me to ask:
When you head to the market this week, how much road are you intending to buy?
How much improvement to your community’s sewer system?
How much library will you be purchasing?
How about economic development activity?
How much criminal court would you like to purchase today? $1 worth? $10 worth?
And would you like fries with that?
The fact that “means” – taxes – have become an “issue” is simply illogical. Issues have to do with end results. We might just as soon determine that “swallowing” is an issue. Or “dog food.” One cannot logically be for or against means.
If the “question of taxes” is a meaningless question, then, for the sake of the things that matter most to the Community Benefit Sector, I propose we begin asking meaningful questions instead.
What kind of country do we want to live in?
What kind of communities do we want?
Do we want a country with crumbling infrastructure? (See New Orleans. See bridges in Minneapolis. See Missouri levees.) Do we want a country where healthcare quality ranks below virtually every other highly developed country, as well as many countries with a lower “standard of living” than the U.S? Do we want a country where we are always looking over our shoulder to see who will try to harm us next?
Those are the questions that matters most for those of us doing Community Benefit work. And they lead to the logical next question: “What might it look like if our nation aimed at end results, rather than means?” (For the sake of this discussion, let’s narrow that question to focus on infrastructure.)
In the 1980’s, after helping Afghanistan defeat the Soviets, U.S. troops left the country, as we continued to provide ongoing military aid – again, focusing on the means.
What if instead the U.S. had spent that money to rebuild infrastructure in Afghanistan – build schools and water systems. Yup – a Marshall Plan. What end results would the efforts to build infrastructure have been aimed at? Perhaps the result of a self-sufficient society as we see in post-war Europe and Japan? Is it possible, 20 years later, that people who are not living hand-to-mouth might be less likely to choose violence as their only perceived option for survival?
What if, instead of continuing to feed an illogical war in Iraq, we took all that energy and effort and rebuilt Iraq’s infrastructure – roads and electricity and water systems? What might the results be? Are those results different from the results of simply continuing to fight?
And what if, instead of talking about continuing to keep taxes low here at home, we instead built our own nation’s infrastructure? If our economy is losing jobs, what if we put people to work building what is crumbling here at home. Yes, what if we brought back the WPA?
Aim at end results – strong infrastructure and strong societies in all ways. Stop aiming at the means – low taxes, winning a war (and yes, war is always a means as well. Winning a war is never the desired end result – it is what we hope will happen AFTER we win that is the desired end result).
When we aim at the means, we always mess up. Always. When we aim at end results we all agree on (communities that are healthy, vibrant, safe, humane places to live, both at home and around the world); and we align our means behind those ends with integrity – those are the results we will get.
And so, when it comes to the “issue” of taxes, the question of “ends vs. means” moves the discussion from one of “spending” to one of “investing.”
Spending is about the means; investing is about the end results. Spending is about today; investing is about forever.
Building infrastructure so people can comfortably and peacefully get on with life is an investment in BOTH today AND the future we are creating. Healthcare is infrastructure. Roads and bridges and levees are infrastructure. Sewer systems. Libraries and schools. That infrastructure helps us today and builds towards our future.
And that future we build is the ultimate end result we strive to achieve – as a Community Benefit Sector, and as individuals living on this planet.
Which brings us back to taxes.
And so, here is what I ask of each and every one of you:
Every time someone mentions the bogeyman of “keeping taxes low,” reply with this:
“That phrase is SO twentieth century. In the 21st century, low taxes are known as maintaining low community standards and crumbling infrastructure. The modern term is investing in our communities for now and the future.“
When they talk about the bogeyman of “socialized medicine,” tell them that is SO old school. In this new century, we call that kind of talk keeping hard-working people sick and economically devastated. The modern term is investing in our communities, for now and the future.
Imagine the conversation:
“I’m for low taxes.”
“Oh, you’re for lousy roads?”
Discussing short-term means is a waste of time in a world where we hold ourselves accountable for the future we are creating right now.
So in THIS century, let’s focus our political issues on the community and global results we intend to create. Healthy communities, healthy individuals. A peaceful world where we eliminate the day-to-day survival issues of having water to drink, food to eat, electricity and schools and roads – eliminating the primary motivation for otherwise decent people to forsake hope and fall prey to the call of irrational violence.
Nope. I’m an investor in a strong community, a strong nation, a strong world.
Investor in the present AND the future.
As a participant in the Community Benefit Sector, it is our job to focus those conversations back to those ends – Community Benefit.
Repeat it and share it – we are Investors, not spenders.
And please, for the love of all that is holy, someone raise my taxes. There is much I would like my dollars to buy.
For a succinct account of how western influence has created current situations throughout the Islamic world, I cannot recommend enough Benazir Bhutto’s final work, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West
Curious about the term Community Benefit Sector?