As we left our local zoo three years ago, my son, then 8, asked what wealthy family had built all the exhibits, stocked them with elephants and monkeys and giraffes, then invited the public to come and enjoy them.
The family behind the zoo, I was happy to tell my boy, was actually our own. Acting alone, our household couldn’t have hoped to create such a wonder. But by chipping in a little money each year, and combining it with the money that thousands of other fellow residents contributed, we made the zoo possible.
As I mentioned to my son, the money that made our zoo was a special kind of payment called a tax. He was impressed that a community could be so clever, collecting a few dollars from so many purses and wallets to create something so wonderful.
“That’s a good tax,” he shouted, licking his ice cream cone in satisfaction.
I’m thinking about my son today as taxpayers across the country race to meet this year’s filing deadline for their federal income taxes. When’s the last time, after all, that you’ve heard anyone mention a good tax?
I can be as grumpy as the next guy when it’s time to file my federal and state income tax returns – or when my local property tax bill arrives, somewhat cruelly, around Christmas each year.
But as I’ve often told both of my children, quoting from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, taxes are the price we pay for civilized society. Ever since his epiphany at the gates of the zoo, I’ve tried to teach my son, now 11, and his 16-year-old sister about many other things our taxes pay for. The library where we get books for free isn’t really free at all; taxes keep the doors open. The streets we drive to school and the shopping mall didn’t sprout like toadstools in some fairy-tale past. Taxes built them, and taxes keep them repaired.
Taxes, I’ve told my kids, pay our soldiers and teachers and police officers, fund our local universities, and send our astronauts into space. Taxes help keep our food safe and our water clean. Taxes pay for the parks where we play, and the scientists who explore the heavens and the sea.
When a local tax election looms, we discuss it at the dinner table, parsing out what our family might stand to gain if it’s approved, and how much it will cost us. Sometimes, our children accompany us into the voting booth as we cast our ballots. I’ve shown our kids my tax bill, so that they’ll know there’s really no free lunch. When they spend their allowances on bubblegum, video games, or designer clothes, I remind my youngsters that they’ve become taxpayers, too, through the sales tax charges on their receipts.
What I’m attempting to do, I suppose, is help my son and daughter see taxes not as a textbook abstraction on a civics test, but as a practical reality of their daily lives – and something worthy of serious thought, not silly sloganeering.
My children have grown up in a political climate in which millions of people seem to reflexively regard taxes as a social evil. Taxes have never been popular, nor will they ever be. But the rhetorical absolutism of the current campaign season has given too many of us, I’m afraid, the illusion that government either has no price tag – or that its price can be paid by someone else.
I am, by habit and virtue of residence in a red state, fairly conservative. As a journalist the whole of my adult life, I’ve also been vigilant in sounding the alarm about government waste and inefficiency. But I also embrace the conservative principle that citizens should pay their bills, including the cost of what their government provides.
To help create a political climate in which Americans can talk sensibly about taxes, we have to start by talking sensibly about taxes with our children. Many of us have already acknowledged the wisdom of having The Sex Talk or The Drugs Talk or The Bullying Talk with our sons and daughters when the right time comes. Maybe it’s also time to make The Tax Talk with our kids a part of the popular culture.
Today, as millions of Americans file their taxes, seems as good a time as any.