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Monday, February 07, 2005

And So We Are All Connected In The Great Circle Of Life

Let's consider an average family's expenses.

A man, a woman -- oh, let's be 1950s idyllic and say she stays at home to raise the kids -- two school-age children. Pet optional but likely. Three-bedroom house somewhere in the near suburbs. Four-door sedan, a few years old and in good shape. He makes a decent but not spectacular income, and his benefits include basic health care for the family, a reimbursement account to cover dental and optical, and CTO (combined time-off, rolling your vacation and sick days into one number) of about four weeks per year.

His income pays for, let's say, their food, mortgage, clothing, home furnishings, home maintenance, home insurance, utilities (heat, water, electricity, gas, cable or satellite TV, telephone, internet access), car payment, car insurance, car maintenance (including fuel), school supplies, recreation, and dental and optical care (paid into the reimbursement account). Life insurance is optional, but a really good idea. And this leaves him, say, $1,100 to put into savings and investments every month. He actually saves $700, invests $300, and has a "petty cash" fund of $100. Good so far?

Now, although it sounds as if we're about to launch into an analysis of income versus outgo, that's not it at all. There's one aspect of his paycheck we haven't covered: taxes. Let's just ballpark it at thirty-five percent (including sales taxes).

And let's look at what taxes pay for.

Not the frivolous stuff. Not the "pork". Not the overpriced bloated gifts to corporate donors or locals or friends or family. The real stuff. As the smallest beginnings of an example:

Local, state, and sales taxes (along with targeted surcharges such as road tolls and gasoline or cigarette taxes) pay for police and fire protection, public schools, street maintenance, traffic signs, traffic lights, garbage pickup and disposal, public transportation, public parking, registration of motor vehicles, health inspectors to make sure restaurants conform to code, building inspectors to make sure structures (like homes and apartments and churches and stores and offices and underground gas tanks for gas stations) won't collapse or introduce toxic substances such as petroleum or asbestos into the environment, septic systems so the city doesn't flood when it rains, wild animal control, park maintenance, emergency utility payments so poor people don't freeze in winter or bake in summer....

Federal taxes pay for the military who defend our country, the OSHA inspectors who keep our workplaces safe, the EPA inspectors who try to make sure the water is drinkable and the air breathable, product standards so that things we buy work as advertised and aren't dangerous, FDA laboratories and inspectors to make sure our food is safe to eat, diplomats who negotiate with other countries for economic and political treaties, the border guards and customs agents who are supposed to (among other things) keep terrorists out, the air traffic controllers who guide our planes to the ground so everybody survives the flight, the Library of Congress to keep a hard-copy record of our freakin' civilization....

FICA contributions are withdrawn from the paycheck, to go into Social Security. That's so our hypothetical man and wife will continue to have some income after he's retired, which is good because they'll still have to pay all those monthly bills and buy food and clothing and all the other things in the third paragraph.

This is extraordinarily simplistic, and leaves out, oh, a billion or so things governments do. I'm not trying to make a comprehensive checklist, but to get you to think about the real point. That point is, the government does those things because we as individuals cannot, or cannot without prohibitive expense and a hell of a lot of work.

Nobody wants to pay "too much" taxes. But, as I mentioned in my previous post, taxes are your membership fee in society, and what you get for that fee is pretty fuckin' incredible. And those who want to destroy or severely limit government, especially in the area of "entitlement" programs, or slash the heck our of taxes because "it's your money", pretty much don't know what the hell they're about... or, and I admit this is somewhat blackly humorous, they think they do but really haven't thought through all the ramifications, and boy are they going to die horribly when there's no local fire department or their shoddily-made building collapses or they buy some beef with Mad Cow Disease or something.

That's why the Bush Administration's line about an "ownership society" is such bullshit. What he's trying to tell you is that you, yes, you, can have control over all your money! What he doesn't say is that, when things work as they should, government programs are cheaper, more efficient, and more successful than privately held companies. Why shouldn't they be? Government programs don't have the primary purpose of making money for the company. And if you try to pay for equivalent services with only your income to work with, you have not the smallest dollop of a shred of a shadow of a ghost of a prayer of a hint of a hope of a chance.

So, for all the Grover Norquist School motherfuckers out there: Even if you want to take us past robber baronies all the way back to goddamn feudalism, killing off your serf class is a bad, bad move. Killing it off in ways that will take you, as well, is just nuckin' futz.

Comments:
Excellent point that needs to be repeated, loudly and as often as possible. Can this be made into Talking Points, perhaps?

Your points are reflected exactly as the central theme of Canadian philosophy prof Joseph Heath's book The Efficient Society (available through Amazon, though out of print). Free markets are great at providing a wealth of choices. Governments are great at providing the stable baseline that society needs to survive, that the free market could or would not provide.

Heath makes an example of HMOs. Theoretically it's a marvel of vertical integration - health insurance provider and caregiver all in one - but when you duplicate this structure many times over in the name of "competition," is that really efficient? Wouldn't a single bureaucracy be more efficient than 5,000?

And if the free market is so great, how come there are still about 50 million people with no health insurance at all? If the market can provide cars, TVs and iPods for any taste and budget, why not healthcare?

The answer is that yes, a certain spectrum of the population will not be profitable as "customers." But in a single-payer system, paying the same --or less -- in taxes, everyone could potentially be covered, by the bureaucratic savings alone...
 
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I'm sure the hard-core Libertarians (with a capital L) out there would be more than willing to debate you on the government-program issue. Repeal the income tax, pay only for national defense, legalize drugs, and only do what the Constitution stipulates.
 
I'm sure they would, and it would be a fantastic debate. But part of the reason I am not a Libertarian is because of that (I feel) too-conservative attitude of The Bare Minimum That Government Should Do. Again, ideally, the government is us, and it is neither good in the abstract nor in our interest to have millions of people -- poor, sick, old, whatever -- in dire straits. I don't think they intend to start shoveling them into landfills or starting up Soylent Green factories, so that means taking care of them -- and, if we do that, we have to do it competently.
 
Re the efficiency of health care: From personal experience I can vouch that the insurance industry takes an enormous bite out of the health care dollar. At one time several years ago (when it was available on the SEC web page) one of the largest HMO's was taking $.25 out of every $1.00 for profit and overhead. Compare this with the $0.03 out of every $1.00 that Medicare takes. The real problem is that medical insurance companies (HMO's and MCO's and all else) are like oil companies, there is no regulation. Who out there believes that oil companies engage in competition?

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