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Let's redefine patriotism to include fewer flags and more open wallets

Dan H. Hoxworth

Many Minnesotans and Americans have been captivated by Ken Burns' documentary series "The War." It hearkens back to a time when we as a society valued sacrifice and when supporting our government through taxes was a patriotic duty. Indeed, for many Americans, even that act was not enough. Thousands bought war bonds to finance the war effort. It stands in stark contrast to how we live today in times of warfare. Let us use this opportunity to re-evaluate what we mean by patriotism and how we achieve it as individuals.

Sacrifice was once seen as a sign of strength — in terms of how we live our lives modestly, our commitment to others, the pride we take in having the livelihood to pay taxes to the government of our choosing. Today, these notions seem far away. We have made an art of escaping taxes. Tax avoidance is acceptable cocktail conversation. Some "Minnesotans" reside 51 percent of the year in Florida to avoid our taxes. Some even celebrate it. What if we viewed taxes as a vehicle for preserving our capitalistic democracy that has enabled the wealthiest to succeed many times beyond their — and our — wildest dreams? Then if Minnesotans truly loved our state and developed their wealth here, why wouldn't they want to pay their taxes? Not to do so would be met with scorn.

This notion of shared sacrifice for the greater good was clear in the standards our leaders set for our country's greatness. During the depths of the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt asserted that "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

Reversing progress
Yet since 1980, the policies passed reflect a reversion of this standard: The test of our progress has become the absolute abundance of those who have much.

This change in society's view is reflected in the huge reductions in marginal tax rates. The highest rate dropped from 70 percent in 1980 to 35 percent today, along with significant reductions in taxes on capital gains. Further, the estate or inheritance tax is being phased out. These taxes have been labeled a "death" tax, as if we are stealing money from the graves of the deceased.

These moves have been supported by arguments from all corners, ranging from the refuted "trickle-down theory" of economics, to a misapplied capitalistic interpretation of Darwinian evolution, to corrupted Christian teachings that wealth is a sign of God's favor. In response, the most economically fragile have increasingly been held responsible for their plight. Taxes have systematically been raised on lower incomes through increases in the regressive Social Security tax and the decision not to index the deduction for dependents or the income tax scale for inflation. Then there are the frequently increasing, highly regressive taxes (cigarettes, among others).

Safety net still fraying
And yes, we, the people, have through our elected representatives made huge cuts in the so-called safety net, allowing many to fall through financially with a huge emotional cost to them and their families. We know the symptoms: hunger, homelessness, huge disparities in life expectancy, child mortality, educational success, etc., between the white community and other communities of color. Yet, somehow we don't want to see the relationship between these. Often, it is easier to blame the victim than hold ourselves accountable.

No other than Warren Buffet has now called this trend into question. Buffet sampled his staff and found that he paid a lower tax rate than all of his employees who participated in his study. Fortunately, we know where he is investing his windfall—with the Gates Foundation. Now, he is challenging his peers, CEOs across America, to show him that they pay a higher tax rate than their employees' average. If the CEO does, Buffet will give them $1 million. So far, no one has taken him up on his offer. Will any CEOs in Minnesota take him up on this offer?

In a less consumer-oriented, individualistic society, we would redefine patriotism, moving away from external signs like flag lapel pins and bumper stickers and focusing instead on such acts as paying our full share of taxes as a member of our community, our state and our nation, performing community service and investing in people so that they have the means to invest in themselves. Fortunately, Mr. Buffet is willing to call his peers forth to do just that.

Let's put down the flags for a while and open up our wallets. Andrew Carnegie knew that communities did not grow to be great without trustees who invested their own resources to "give those who desire to raise the aids by which they may rise." Trustees (and we have many in Minnesota) do this both through philanthropy and also through the patriotic act of paying taxes.

In 2005, as the budget debate in our state continued, many wealthy individuals in Minnesota came together with the think tank Growth and Justice to list their names in full-page newspaper ads in support of a surcharge or a higher tax rate on their wealth. These are the first steps in redefining how we see ourselves as Minnesotans and Americans and what patriotism truly is.

Major initiatives offer hope
Other steps are now being taken. Work continues to truly assess what it will take to meet this standard of greatness. Our corporate and community leaders stepped forward to create The Itasca Project and released the "Mind the Gap" report in 2005. This report pointed out the dramatic disparities in our state around race (the stark differences in almost every socio-economic indicator), class (the growing income gap) and place (between cities and suburbs and among suburbs).

In addition, in the areas of homelessness and hunger, major initiatives have been launched. Heading Home Minnesota, the commitment to end homelessness in Minnesota, was recently the topic for the Minnesota Meeting, hosted by the Minneapolis Foundation, with satellite conversations in Fargo-Moorhead, Grand Rapids, Rochester and St. Cloud.

The Steering Committee of the Greater Twin Cities United Way's Hunger Initiative (of which I was privileged to be a member) recently released its five-year goal to "ensure no one goes to bed hungry" in the Twin Cities. These efforts all are working to remove the stigma around poverty.

Thus, a wonderful opportunity exists to take the truly transformative steps needed to eliminate the symptoms of inequality in our state. We have a longer road to travel for our nation. For these efforts we will need true patriots driven by the goal of achieving a just, equitable and prosperous society.

In doing so, we will regain our standing and our pride in our own eyes, in the eyes of millions of disenfranchised Americans, and in the world community. Franklin Roosevelt had this right nearly four-score years ago. Let us secure the prospects for our society's most vulnerable. Now, unlike in the Great Depression, we truly have the resources to be held to this standard. The question is: Do we have the will?

Dan H. Hoxworth served as president of Neighborhood House in St. Paul for the past 10 years and oversaw the development of the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Community Building. He also has chaired the Council of Agency Executives of the Greater Twin Cities United Way.


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Comments (5)

An outstanding commentary. Well written, and right on!

Following Dan's definition of patriotism, Georg Gaertner, the co-author of "Hitler's Last Soldier" might be more patriotic than Congressman John Kline.

An escaped German POW, Gaertner lived in America under an assumed name for over 40 years before turning himself in to law enforcement authorities in the 1980s. Gaertner was a willing and proud American worker and payer of taxes.

Appearing on Almanac on 16 November, John Kline was smartly dressed in a navy suit with a lapel pin that showed the American flag and the flag of the United States Marine Corps.

Kline sparred with Congressman Tim Walz in the discussion on 'fiscal responsibility,' Kline defended his vote against the appropriation of federal funds for transportation, claiming the bill contained too much waste in the form of pet projects. Walz claimed that the state couldn’t rebuild the I-35 bridge without the appropriation of federal dollars, while Kline said the funds would be available because the president promised them.

Kline also brought up appropriation issues for Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense. He blamed the Congressional leadership for not moving the bills in a timely manner. He did not compare the 110th Congress with the 109th Congress, which, under Republican leadership, failed to pass appropriation bills for most of the departments of the federal government (the exceptions being Homeland Security and Defense) before they adjourned. Then in January 2007, when the 110th Congress was acting on bills to provide Fiscal Year 2007 funding, John Kline (along with freshman Congresswoman Michele Bachmann) voted NAY on the appropriations bill for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Several weeks later, media reports revealed that a young marine died in CD2, reportedly of suicide, after failing to receive treatment in St. Cloud (CD6). John Kline (the same one that voted against funding the VA) stated to the media that he was 'outraged' that the young man was unable to get treatment from the VA.

I think selling War Bonds is a good idea, like the U.S. did to finance previous military operations. That would allow supporters of war to put their money where their mouth is and finance it instead of 'wearing their patriotism' on their lapel or their bumper.

Dan writes "...In response, the most economically fragile have increasingly been held responsible for their [own] plight. Taxes have systematically been raised on lower incomes through increases in the regressive Social Security tax and the decision not to index the deduction for dependents or the income tax scale for inflation. Then there are the frequently increasing, highly regressive taxes (cigarettes, among others)."

The top 50% of wage earners pay 97% of taxes. We are living in a society where half the people have no economic stake beyond "give me." Politicians willing to(forcefully) redistribute the wealth will be the only ones elected if the trend continues.

"Open wallets" are a great sign of patriotism if the wallets are opened voluntarily by their owners, not by the government who knows best what to do with my money.

Highly regressive taxes on cigarettes are easily avoided.

@Scott: Your Tax-Talking Point is FALSE.

I hear this so often and yet rarely see a rebuttal.

Your claim might be roughly correct* IF FEDERAL INCOME TAXES WERE THE ONLY TAX.

They are not.

In fact, income taxes make up just over half of federal revenue and only 1/3 of all government revenue (federal, state and local) **

The remainder (payroll taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, fee-taxes, etc) are much more regressive and are generally paid at a higher percentage of income by those in lower income brackets. The more we shift taxes from income to the other sources, the more regressive the system becomes.

In fact, on a state level here in MN the regressive taxes more than counterbalance the progressive income taxes. Here in MN those in the middle pay up to 25% higher portions of their income as state and local taxes than those in the top 10%. (12.8% vs 10.1%) ***

Which may explain the recent but little publicized finding from a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey that 81% of Americans would approve of a surtax on the income tax of those making more than $1 Million per year to help reduce the deficit.**** (Select "View Document" on lefthand column to get to the survey - Q 26 - pg 16)(Interesting note - adding up all other categories of political philosophy, you'd still need about 1/2 of the self-identified conservatives from those responding to the survey to reach that 81%.)

Finally, if the very, very rich (Top 1%) had not sucked up 2/3 of the new wealth created between 2002 and 2007 (and slightly more than 50% of new wealthy between 1993 and 2008)*****, I'd wager that with a bigger slice of the income pie the middle and lower income earners would be content paying a greater share of the income taxes on that greater income. As it is, many view their tax cuts as the only way to increase their available cash - a concern not shared by those at the very top.

We need to fix both the income and tax sides of this equation, not only to re-balance our rewards from and contributions to the economy but also to preserve the foundation of our democracy - a strong and growing middle class. (If that formula is true for analysis of China's potential future democratization, it's probably also still true here in the US.)

If you measure each person's stake in our country only by their income (or their share of income tax) you have a radically different set of values than those on which this country was founded and for which so many have sacrificed over the years - in measure and manner far beyond what we do on tax day.

* http://www.taxfoundation.org/news/show/250.html ** http://www.usgovernmentrevenue.com/#usgs302a *** Article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870472800457617674112069173...

Direct Link to Survey Document: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1000142405274870472800457617674112069173... ***http://taxes.state.mn.us/legal_policy/Documents/other_supporting_content_2009_tax_incidence_study_links.pdf
****

oops.

***** Source for allocation of accumulation of new wealth: http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2007.pdf

As discussed here with useful graphics:
http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2908