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THE WEEK IN GREED #8: Explaining Taxes to a Five Year Old

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One nice thing about small children is that they aren’t scared to ask questions. They haven’t completely absorbed the idea that ignorance is shameful. Sometimes these questions are devastating, because small children also haven’t learned the trick of swallowing their fears and doubts.

A few months ago, our three-year-old Judah looked up from his bowl of grapes and asked his mother the following question:

“What happens if you’re sad and your heart’s still there?”

***

This question, it seems to me, is the one we’re asking all the time. Or maybe it’s the one we’re hiding from all the time. Maybe all our other questions are put forward as a kind of camouflage.

But I want to talk today about another question, which my daughter posed last week, as we were driving to visit some friends. Josie overheard me kvetching to my wife about our finances, one of my many alluring habits.

“Are you talking about bills again?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” my wife said.

“Are bills like a tax?” Josie said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Sort of,” my wife said.

“Do you know what a tax is?” I said.

“It’s something you have to pay,” Josie said.

“That’s right,” I said.

Josie paused. She is, at five years old, a devout collector of money.  “Why do we have to pay taxes?” she said.

***

“We pay taxes for things we need,” my wife said.

“Like a bunk bed?”

“No,” I said. “We have to pay for a bunk bed ourselves. Taxes are to pay for things we all share.”

“Like Mama’s car?”

Sharing Mama’s car has become an issue in the Almond household, because the front left tire of Papa’s car recently fell off in the middle of traffic.

“No,” Mama said. “I had to pay for my car.”

I could see in the rearview mirror that Josie was growing more skeptical about taxes; her face was assuming a posture of indignity that defines the American civic stance.

“Taxes didn’t pay for our car,” I said. “But what do cars drive on?”

“The road,” Josie said.

“And guess what pays for the roads?”

“Taxes?”

“That’s right! Taxes pay for the roads. They also pay for the lights and the signs and the sidewalks. Taxes pay for parks and playgrounds and schools and even the teachers who work at schools.”

“Do they pay for Miss Lynda?”

Miss Lynda is her pre-school teacher. She is like God, only prettier.

“No,” I said. “But next year, when you go off to kindergarten, taxes will pay for your teachers.”

I probably should have left it there. But I was thinking about Josie’s relationship to her money collection, which is devout and unwavering and maybe a tad pathological. And I was thinking about the importance of getting her to recognize that life is essentially a collective endeavor. “Do you know what else taxes pay for? They pay for policemen and firemen and they pay for the trucks that come to take our garbage away.”

“Do taxes pay for food?” Josie said.

“Not usually,” I said. “We have to pay for our own food. But taxes pay to make sure our food doesn’t make us sick. They pay to make sure we have clean water. Remember when that tree fell in front of our house and men had to come to take the branches away? Taxes paid for that.”

***

At this point, because I am an idiot, I attempted to explain unemployment insurance to Josie.

She did not like the sound of it at all. “Why should people with jobs pay for people without jobs?” she said.

“Because people without jobs need help,” I said.

“Actually,” my wife said, “the way it works is when you have a job, your employer pays a little bit each week and that money gets collected by the government, so if you ever lose your job, then there’s some money to help you pay for food and medicine while you find a new job.”

I myself had forgotten this, in part because I have not held a regular job for ten years, but also because virtually every reference to unemployment in today’s popular media makes it sound like some kind of slush fund for the shiftless to buy cigarettes and beer.

***

It would have been confusing and obnoxious to explain to Josie all the stuff taxes pay for, which includes much of our health care system and our military and our prisons and the doctors that protect us from epidemics and the scientists who warn us about storms and explore the oceans and the heavens above.

But one of the virtues of having to explain taxes to a five-year-old is that the adult in question must acknowledge the startling variety of services we receive in exchange for our taxes. And this matters a great deal because the fundamental pitch of the Romney campaign is predicated on making sure citizens continue to regard taxes as some kind of racket.

***

I think now, rather unhappily, of all those signs carried by the folks who took to the streets after Barack Obama was elected. They were angry about a lot of things. But the gist seemed to be that Obama had a secret plan to enslave, or possible incinerate, white taxpayers:

***

Sorry. Check that. The gist seemed to be that Obama was going to turn America into a socialist backwater by taxing hard-working Americans and dumping the revenues into the insatiable maw of The State.

There are plenty of ironies on display here. Obama, for instance, despite the paranoid ranting that passes for press coverage these days, has actually lowered taxes on middle-class Americans. And his health care reform is filled with measures that make it easier and cheaper for middle-class Americans to get medical treatment.

But the most shocking aspect of the Tea Party movement has been its enthusiastic promotion of ignorance as to the actual functions of government. To wit:

Let us now ponder all the things that have to go wrong in a culture for a grown woman to hold up such a sign. Perhaps she was unaware that Medicare is a wildly popular program run by the federal government, that it provides health care to 48 million Americans, 40 million of them over 65, the other eight million with disabilities. Perhaps she was unaware that this program, though it is called an “entitlement,” is paid for largely by workers and employers who tithe a small portion of their salaries each week.

Is it possible that not one person present at the protest she attended bothered to try to educate her?

And if they didn’t, why not?

***

My own sense—as a citizen and a parent—is that our Republic is in the midst of temper tantrum. We can’t quite face the truth of what we’ve become: an imperial bully in decline, a nation of couch potatoes who fancy ourselves rugged pioneers even as we cling to an inheritance of obscene luxury. The mythos we’ve created—commemorated in our perpetual infatuation with the frontier—has given way to a creeping sense of indolence.

This indolence is obvious to anyone who has spent time in the developing world. For years, I lived in an apartment across the border from Juarez, Mexico. Every morning, hundreds of Mexicans would get up at dawn to cross the Rio Grande, in the hopes of finding work in America. At night, they returned to roads they had carved themselves, to houses built from our junk and small appliances powered by pirated electricity. There were far more self-reliant than any Americans I’ve ever met.

But we still want to believe we’re self-reliant. And thus the very evidence of our dependence offends us. The government becomes a dark force determined to rob us of our precious liberty. The only viable solution to this profound psychological dilemma resides in deregulation and lower taxes: make the government disappear.

Those who feel this shame and rage most acutely wind up blowing up federal buildings and shooting politicians in the head.

Whatever the actions, the mindset arises directly from childhood: contort the facts to justify the feelings.

***

Or maybe I’m being unfair to children.

Josie has no reason to hate or fear the government. On the contrary, once we explained to her what taxes were for, it all made good sense. After all, children have some grounding in collectivism. They have to learn the rules of the playground, that no one person owns the tire swing, that you have to take turns.

It’s not easy. But if there are patient adults around, kids usually get it eventually. They can be made to understand, as well, that sometimes they need help to do things they can’t quite manage on their own, and that while this help offends their sense of independence, it is something for which they also should be grateful.

On the way home from the visit with our friends, we took a short cut onto a private road. It was littered with massive potholes. As Erin’s old Honda bounced into one, Josie shrieked from the backseat. “You know what this place needs? Some taxes!”


Steve Almond's new book Against Football will be out just in time for the NFL season. Gulp. More from this author →