Americans' Ambivalence on Taxes

ASK a typical citizen in the street to identify two things to which George Bush has declared himself unequivocally opposed and the answer may well be, new taxes and broccoli. The president seems to have hit a certain chord with his compatriots on these questions, and one has to wonder, is there a connection between the two? Do Americans hate taxes the way children hate broccoli?

There seems something almost immature about Americans' apparent unwillingness to pay for all the goodies they clearly want from their government. After all, in comparison with most of their fellow members in the club of developed nations, Americans are fairly lightly taxed. And the lack of political leadership on taxes has been disappointing.

These questions have been around a long time, but their relevance has been renewed by a decision of the United States Supreme Court that a judge may order local authorities to raise taxes to fund a school desegregation program. In a 5-4 decision in Missouri v. Jenkins, the court ruled that although a judge could not levy taxes per se, he could order Kansas City to raise taxes to fund an extremely expensive ``magnet schools'' program, even without a two-thirds majority vote state law requires for such tax hikes.

Associate Justice Byron White, in the majority opinion, said, ``A court order directing a local government body to levy its own taxes is plainly a judicial act within the power of a Federal court.''

On the minority side, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed dismay: ``Today's casual embrace of taxation imposed by the unelected, life-tenured Federal judiciary disregards fundamental precepts for the democratic control of public institutions.''

Many people would share his horror of unelected officials levying taxes. After all, ``No taxation without representation!'' was a rallying cry at the birth of the nation.

But where were the representatives, the elected officials, when the taxes needed to be set? Is this issue being bucked to the courts because the political system isn't up to dealing with it?

But it would be unfair, or at least too simplistic, to say Americans hate taxes. Better to call them ambivalent about taxes. They actually do express willingness to pay for specific programs in which they have confidence - notably environmental protection.

And lightly taxed though they may be by comparison, their burden has become heavier over the past few decades. A study by the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations found that the total tax share of the income of the average family doubled over a quarter century, from 12 percent in the mid-1950s to 24 percent in 1978.

Political scientist Everett Ladd points out that it is a proportionate increase in the tax burden, rather than its absolute size, that riles people. And the upward trend continues, slowed but not checked by the Reagan tax cuts. Hence that burdened feeling.

Similarly, Michael Barone, in his new book, ``Our Country: The Shaping of American From Roosevelt to Reagan,'' traces the development of the conservative movement to around 1936. At that time, the federal government's share of gross national product had more than doubled, from 4 to 9 percent, in six years. Before then, he suggests, there was no ``conservative movement'': Conservativism was all there was.

Of course, the federal government isn't the only player in the tax game. The states have long been laboratories of public policy, and all their shiny new initiatives have to be paid for somehow. As a result, state taxes have become big enough to make people angry - as newly inaugurated Gov. Jim Florio of New Jersey, for instance, has found out lately.

Other resistance to taxes and tax hikes has shown up at the local level across the country. Some school budgets are being voted down not because the citizens disapprove of education spending but because the school budget is the only item on which they have a vote.

And what about the Kansas City case?

In a complex democratic society where so much depends on a delicate balance of competing rights and interests, it is often well not to force an issue, not to insist on an absolute primacy of this right over that one. The court reached its verdict that the constitutional rights protected by the desegregation program were more important than the taxpayers' rights in question. But one has to wonder what happened to public process that no better desegregation program could be worked out than one costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

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