Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Life Tax

Over the course of my life, I have grown increasingly frustrated with inflation and the rising cost of goods. I remember when a Coke was less than fifty cents, but now it seems that to buy a can of Coke at a gas station costs a little bit more, ninety-two cents at the Tigermart down the street. In Tennessee that price includes a decent sized chunk of sales tax. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Democrats are supposed to be okay with taxes. As a liberal I’m supposed to appreciate the value of government programs and support the means through which those programs are funded, right? Well, even if that were entirely true, I’m still not okay with the sales tax. It’s barbaric.
The sales tax is possibly the most horrendous method of taxation ever heard of unless someone can find me a reference to a tax on breathing. The Republican Party loves to make a lot of noise about the “death tax,” the morbid epithet they assign to the estate tax on the transfer of inheritances over $2 million. The implication seems to be that there’s something unseemly about taxing someone’s property after they die. I think we should call the sales tax a “life tax.” Instead of taxing someone based on income or actual wealth, our state government sees fit to tax them based on what they spend. What does that cost real people?
Let’s assume a family of four is totally average (in economic terms) and makes the state’s median income (around $55,000). Let’s also assume that they are extraordinarily careful about budgeting for food and spend around $14 per meal for the whole family (one step up from ramen noodles). This family is still spending around 3% of their annual income on taxes just to eat. That could buy them a new computer, pay their house note for a couple of months, or pay most of the tuition for their kid who just started college. But no, that’s the government’s share for the privilege of eating frozen chicken and canned peas. Let’s look at a family living in North Memphis. Their median income is around $20,000, and suddenly the government’s cut of dinner is around 7% of their annual income. Does anyone else think of this as being extortionate?
In states with graduated income taxes (taxes on income that increase as you make more money) the government tries to cut into the purchase of diamond tennis bracelets, not hot meals for kids. When Republican Governor Don Sundquist tried to push for real tax reform in Tennessee (i.e. a graduated income tax) the bill met with striking resistance. Street protests and somewhat violent demonstrations orchestrated by then State Senator Marsha Blackburn frightened lawmakers into voting down the issue.
Citizens in states with graduated income taxes also get to deduct their state income taxes from their federal income taxes, meaning that not many people are really paying that much more in overall taxes. In recent years the Republicans, led by now Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) have made state sales taxes deductible as well. The down side to that is it only works if you itemize your taxes, saving every receipt for everything you buy that you want to deduct. Thanks, Marsha, now those wealthy enough to hire accountants to do that for them can rest even more of the burden of government on those of us who fill out a 1040 EZ every year.
Anyone who isn’t utterly radical recognizes the necessity of government spending. Certainly most Republicans agree that we need a government and that government costs money, and most Republicans agree with Democrats that it is important to actually raise the money to pay for those expenditures through taxes. (Some, however, believe that going in debt to China and Saudi Arabia is preferable.) So why is it that here in Tennessee we can’t seem to manage a tax structure that doesn’t take food from the mouths of the poor, doesn’t make it harder for kids to go to college, doesn’t add to the cost of your textbooks every semester, and is only recoverable by the wealthy? Here’s my argument: Either people have been convinced by Republican politicians that an income tax is bad (even if it’s cheaper for everybody but the absurdly wealthy), or they are the absurdly wealthy and simply don’t care if they cut into your food, your books, and your education in order to ensure that they don’t pay an extra few bucks every year. After all, it’s immensely more important that Biff and Buffy have even more money stashed in offshore accounts, tax-sheltered annuities, and hyper-expensive art than it is that you have any of those things so necessary to a decent life. Who cares about the “death tax” when there’s a tax on life to be worried about?

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