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.”
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.
Want to add your voice?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Don Effenberger at deffenberger [at] minnpost [dot] com.