My mother died as the result of a surgical accident, a nicked bowel with a single stitch from an ovarian biopsy that proved negative. Nine months in ICU, six major surgeries, a year and two days later, she gave up. About three months into the tortured ordeal, intubated, she motioned for pen and paper from her hospital bed. On it she wrote three words: garage garbage can. That night my father went home and found over $150,000. All of it was after-tax money. Tens of thousands she had removed from banks in the 1970’s with layers of Christmas bank ovals or rent money (reported as income in taxes) still in their original envelops, a 100 here, a 50 there, or clumps of 20s squirreled away. Needless to say, my mother’s family suffered during the Great Depression. Some family members of the same generation offered to hide the money for my father, but I was adamant that he deposit it in a bank. Not only did I believe in interest -- in the days of 17% interest rates, that garbage can sum would have compounded handsomely -- but I also I felt strongly that since we had nothing to hide we should show the money.
Four years of litigation later, prompted by the hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills that the hospital had the cold audacity to send my father, he settled for what in the scope of medical malpractice judgments under her suffering circumstances was a modest sum. He died six weeks later. I brought everything to a lawyer whom I had met when I interned at the erstwhile Rochester firm of Nixon, Hargrave, Devons and Doyle. With the settlement, I learned that the estate exceeded the 2000 estate tax rate of $675,000 by a few thousand dollars. Soon I would write out a check to the federal government for something in the ballpark of $208,000 and to New York state another $115,000. Of course it crossed my mind that I do a lot of fun things with a third of a million dollars if I had taken my relatives’ advice about hiding the garbage can money, but in all honesty I did not and still do not regret it. For one thing, my brother, about whom I have already written, has been under state care since he was four years old. I considered it his inheritance.
Donald Trump must think me really stupid. A number of news sources report that the Republican presidential candidate has said that only a stupid person, a really stupid person, pays a lot in taxes. I beg to differ. Those taxes give me a solid stake in my political and policy opinions. Mind you, it is everyone’s right whether one pays taxes or not. And Donald Trump does plenty of mouthing off about those issues even though, apparently, he does not pay much if any tax. Speaking only for myself, so long as I can pay, I do, including my income tax, not with a heavy heart. To me, it is an obligation that comes part and parcel with citizenship.
Bless my father’s soul, he believed in his southern Italian roots that it was a sign of failure – I would go so far as to say, like Donald Trump, stupidity -- to pay taxes. The government, and the church, oppressed people like his family back in the old country. From where his parents immigrated there were good reasons to distrust government. But it is not how we should think of these United States. Unfortunately, an Old World view meets the New in effect. But that Old World had centuries of oppression built on top of first slavery then servitude in an agricultural society. The United States, I contend, is different.
The United States audacious revolution in the name of a democratic republic and laissez-faire economics sparkled on the world’s stage as a leader and innovator in the most exciting ideas in the Western world of that era. Revolting against not merely the “British” but their form of government (monarchy in transition from absolute to constitutional) and its economic relationship with the colonies (mercantilism, which incorporated explicit government control, even over its domestic market) laid the foundation of the modern era. Independence (in combination with domination over a whole new continent) translated into the extraordinary opportunity for both political and economic development that we celebrate as our country’s great material success. But there is a catch. Concepts that were revolutionary in the eighteenth century have a countervailing effect in the twenty-first. In short, we are locked into an anachronistic, adolescent mindset about governance.
In the main, our culture is stuck in a belief that government is something to struggle against. A fundamental distrust underscores that belief. To hold otherwise implies for many people an unhealthy dependence. That interpretation resonated with my father and many people like him. It is why he rejected “liberal” politics, joining in a view that cuts across a wide and varying swatch of people from Appalachia to the 1%. But independence and the underlying notions of distrust causes many of the 99% to vote against their economic interests. Do they really have any clear idea of what it is that they struggle against? In many cases, I suspect not. Even J.D. Vance, a conservative and author of the recently much touted book Hillbilly Elegy admits, with deep compassion, the delusional nature of what we now would call Trump politics: a belief that government and the media, hell, everyone except themselves, are lying. Not that governments always tell the truth, but lying about what exactly?
It is time to grow up. One cannot be a citizen of a nation state without governance. To be a citizen of a world power makes that relationship yet more intense. If you don’t like that posture, then step up your protest against foreign engagement … and be willing to accept the consequence of less influence, for better or worse, in global politics. Would U.S. internet companies that avoid paying taxes, read Apple, Inc., really prefer that the United States not protect their interests by maintaining a stable social order domestically, the strength of the U.S. dollar in the global market and not least the stability of the domain name servers that run the internet? To whom would you like to leave that responsibility up to, Tim, Ireland? God bless, my ancestors come from the Emerald Island, I love the people and the place, but I would not be ready to turn the protection of those servers over to their government tomorrow. Stop screwing around with the loopholes in corporate tax law and pay up.
I sound like a school marm to invoke the notion of freedom with responsibilities but citizenship is the mirror reflection of governance. It expects trust in that relationship, as well as a score of other qualities such as a belief in the marketplace of ideas and robust debate, a critical-thinking kind of patriotism, and transparency in the governing process. It accepts that governance, because it is made up of people, is never perfect, but nevertheless it sets expectations informed by high ideals such as personal honesty and political integrity in a commitment to constitutional concepts of due process, equality of opportunity regardless of social categories, freedom of religion and personal belief, liberty of person so long as it is not contrary to the liberty of others or the body politic. Above all, it stays engaged in the process, no matter how challenged to special interest, the oligarchy of elites, corporate power – especially the media – and any other challenges to citizenship.
Popular culture has lost sight of what it means to be engaged in active citizenship. Paying taxes is symbolic of it. Most people do it out of a fear of being caught. “The law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes …” I know, in part, because I can still remember the cold rush I felt when as a sophomore in college I heard of my father’s I.R.S. arrest on the little television in my college dormitory. Because of my father and his tremendous hard work as the owner of small business, I had the luxury never to cross that path. I was not the child of immigrants but of a decorated soldier in the Second World War. He brought me up without want and paid every penny of my college tuition. And yet, he was also the product of a mindset that adjured taxes. As of that moment, I vowed to pay taxes even to the point of some obvious financial detriment. In time, I turned that vow into a positive commitment. I pay taxes as a mark of my citizenship.
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