Alibi V.18 No.18 • April 30-May 6, 2009 

Ortiz y Pino

Tempest in a Tea Cup

Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber and antiestablishment hero of the ’30s, was asked why he chose to rob banks. Mr. Sutton was amazed at the question. “Well,” he answered after scratching his head, “because that’s where the money is.”

I couldn’t help but think about “Gentleman Willie” on April 15, the day America’s angry taxpayers chose to mount their organized communal whine, variously billed as “Tax Independence Day,” “National Tea Party Day” or “Get Government Off My Back Day.”

This demonstration by “tax rebels” occurs every year, of course. It’s just that this year there is a (shudder) Democrat in the White House, so FOX News decided to turn up the heat and convert what is usually an anti-IRS speak-out into a more generalized broadside against all things federal—but especially against the new president.

After all, this guy Obama has apparently failed, in his first 90 days in office, to produce a balanced budget, a revitalized economy, a cure for cancer and an end to the need for governmental financing of any kind. How dare he!

But let’s get back to Willie Sutton’s irrefutable logic. To find money, go where the money is. So if President Obama plans to simultaneously cut taxes for working-class Americans (the famous “95 percent” of us) and hold down the deficit, he too needs to go where the money is and increase taxes for the remaining 5 percent; you know, those with the most money.

This is what I didn’t understand about those “tax rebels.” If Obama’s plan is to cut taxes for all but the top 5 percent of incomes, shouldn’t those protesters have been dressed a lot better? I mean, if they are all earning enough to have their taxes raised, why were their signs so droopy?

Really, they sure didn’t look (even on television) like their incomes are among those slated for higher tax brackets—$200,000 a year or more. The outfits I saw on the news coverage of the “event” were more Goodwill than Gucci; more Target than Trina Turk.

If Obama’s plan is to cut taxes for all but the top 5 percent of incomes, shouldn’t those protesters have been dressed a lot better?

At least when the Carpenters Union went out and hired protesters for a picket line at the First Baptist Church that they weren’t willing to march in themselves (an action roundly criticized by our morning daily), they paid them $10 an hour. The millionaires who conned those working-class tax protesters out on Tea Bag Day apparently didn’t even have to pay them to do their surrogate protesting.

If they weren’t conned into hitting the streets to carry the millionaires’ water, what the heck were they so angry about? Obama’s proposal will leave them with more money in their pocket than they have now.

Half their federal taxes still go for military and defense expenditures, just like they have for the past 70 years, ostensibly to keep this country protected from aggressors. Another big chunk goes to Social Security that will come back to them when they reach retirement age.

Even those among the 5 percent on the top of the heap have got a lot of nerve to be protesting the “unfairness” of progressive taxes. Our top tax brackets have been cut repeatedly during the last 40 years so that they are now only a fraction of what they once were, far lower than the rest of the industrialized world.

Besides, any millionaire worth mentioning has accountants working overtime to make sure he gets every break, finds every loophole and takes advantage of every credit built into our tax code—and there are plenty. So don’t waste your tears on the plight of our unfortunate rich. They can take good care of themselves.

I suspect the majority of those middle-class people at Tea Parties were there mostly because they don’t like having to write a check to the IRS every quarter and are ticked off about it. Hell, no one likes paying taxes. But I don’t like paying my credit card bill every month either, or my mortgage, insurance or grocery bills. I’d love to keep 100 percent of what I earn ... we all would. That’s not the point.

The bottom line is, what do we get as a return on those taxes?

Are we getting the community assets we should be, those services and amenities that few of us could ever possibly afford to pay for as individuals: good schools, capable and honest fire and police departments, efficient transportation services, opportunities for economic advancement and incentives to provide a better-prepared workforce?

It is an enormous mistake to encourage people (even those out on a Tax Day protest line) to think of taxpaying as a zero-sum game; one where every dollar paid in taxes is a loss because it could have been spent on new tires or a bicycle for one's kid.

Our system falls apart if we look at it that way. Most of the world (and, thank God, most Americans, still) look at it differently: Paying taxes is an investment that pays enormous dividends for me, my family, my business and my community. I am better off when my community is better off.

So while the Tea Party organizers certainly have the right to whine all they want, I hope they don’t prevail and that their tantrum amounts to little more than a tempest in a tea cup. We didn’t become the most effective form of government ever devised by fighting against our government but by getting involved in making it work for the common good.

That’s a concept I’ll drink a cup of tea to.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.