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"Tax" Is Not a Four-Letter Word 

The midterm election campaign that just ended (thank god) was about many things – the deficit, unemployment, health care reform, whether Christine O’Donnell really is a witch – but the background motif playing behind all of them was the eternal theme: taxes.

On the national level, Republicans pounded on the message that Barack Obama had raised taxes. He didn’t – he actually cut them by $240 billion. But the Republicans have catapulted the propaganda so successfully that Americans by a 2-to-1 ratio believe he has.

Closer to home, Republican Jason Conger hammered incumbent Democratic State Rep. Judy Stiegler with ads accusing her of supporting “job-killing taxes.” The meme tirelessly pushed by Conger and his supporters, including the editorial page of The Bulletin, was that Stiegler was out of touch with her constituents by backing the modest tax increases of Measures 66 and 67.

In fact Stiegler was not far out of touch with her constituents at all. Measure 66 lost on her home turf – District 54 – by a margin of only 6 percentage points. Measure 67 fared slightly worse, losing by 8 points. A swing of about 1,700 votes and the district would have gone the other way.

Stiegler’s opponents didn’t identify any specific jobs that had been murdered by those “job-killing taxes” either, but in today’s political climate that doesn’t matter. Too many Americans have come to regard it as an indisputable law of economics – despite considerable evidence to the contrary – that (a) taxes wreck the economy, so therefore (b) raising taxes by any amount, at any time, for any reason is bad, and (c) cutting taxes at any time and under all circumstances is good.

Even as they recoil in stunned horror from any hint that a tax increase might even be considered, voters continue to demand the things that taxes pay for. For example, Oregon voters handily approved Measure 73, another Kevin Mannix get-tough-on-crime initiative. Oregon will have to pay somewhere between $18 million and $29 million a year to house, guard and feed the additional bodies that Measure 73 will put into the state’s prisons.

The same contradiction is repeated again and again, on issue after issue, at every level of government. Cut taxes, the voters say – but build more prisons. Cut taxes – but keep your hands off my Medicare. Cut taxes – but don’t raise my kid’s college tuition. Cut taxes – but don’t shorten the school year. Cut taxes – but fix those potholes in my street.

Oh – and don’t you dare borrow to pay for any of this stuff. We don’t approve of that either.

Obviously this kind of “thinking” is simply nuts, and as we continue to starve our infrastructure, our education systems and our innovative capacity, what was once The Greatest Country in the World is rapidly deteriorating into The Biggest Banana Republic in the World.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, quoting Charles M. Vest, former president of MIT, sketches the dimensions of the unfolding catastrophe: The United States now ranks “11th among industrialized nations in the fraction of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from high school; 16th in college completion rate; 22nd in broadband Internet access; 24th in life expectancy at birth; 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; 48th in quality of K-12 math and science education; and 29th in the number of mobile phones per 100 people.”

I don’t expect our “leaders” to help us break out of this destructive pattern of irrationality – they’re too busy trying to exploit it. But as the old saying goes, when the people lead the leaders will follow.

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