“We can’t afford it.” The untrue, anti-tax mantra of 21st century government

broke-uncle-sam2For the past 30 years, “We can’t afford it” has become the mantra of city councilmen, state legislators and even U.S. Congressional representatives.

But there is something terribly wrong with that.

What do lawmakers mean by “it?” There are many meanings. Sometimes, “it” is higher salaries for teachers. Sometimes, “it” is repairs to crumbling bridges. “It” can also refer to pay raises for the city workers who pick up our trash, clean the bathrooms in municipal buildings, and mop up after floods, windstorms and festivals. “It” also often refers to federal programs, like Medicare and Social Security, or to state-run programs like Medicaid and health care for children in indigent families.

The “we-can’t-afford-it” argument has become so ubiquitous that we have stopped questioning its validity and the reasoning behind it. The public—abetted by the media—has come to accept that there’s just not enough money, and that programs, services and benefits, of necessity, need to be slashed, because, well, that’s the way it is.

That acceptance is misguided.

In fact, we could afford all of the “its,” if we did what really needs to be done—and what anyone with an iota of sense about how government should operate knows is necessary—raise taxes in a way that would be fair [meaning, asking wealthier people to kick in their fair share].

But we don’t do that. Not only don’t we do it, we don’t even talk about it.

Why? Because, over the past 30 years, the right-wing’s anti-tax propaganda campaign has worked its way into America’s psyche. The Republican message machine has successfully convinced Americans that taxes are bad—even taxes that fund services and benefits that help people—like Social Security, police protection, fire and rescue, road repairs, and so many more. They’ve made taxes something from which we need “relief,” not something that assures the continuity of programs that people expect—and howl about when they are inadequate.

For a while, there was somewhat of a dialogue about this topic: Remember linguist George Lakoff? He fought bravely against the “tax relief” meme. But the fight seems to be over. The anti-taxers have won. Their message is so deeply embedded in today’s political discourse that they don’t even have to mention “tax relief” any more. Not in public statements. Not in media reports, either: No one actually reports on the context and the motivation behind all of this.

And so, the discussion has shifted: We simply assume that there’s no more money available. We can’t possibly expand programs or raise benefits or wages, the story goes, because there just isn’t any money for that.

But, in fact, there IS money for that. Mostly, it’s in the wallets and off-shore accounts of the wealthy people who are assiduously protected from fairer taxes by their Republican minions.

Social Security? There’s plenty of money out there. It’s just untapped, because the solution to Social Security’s purported issues—raising the ridiculously low taxation cap of $118,500—is not even being discussed anymore. The only discussion comes from the right—and what they’re talking about are things like cutting Social Security benefits, raising the eligibility age, privatizing the whole shebang, or eliminating it altogether. .

Infrastructure? There’s no money for that? Baloney. The money is there, but it might involve raising the tax on a gallon of gas. We can’t even bring that up anymore.

You get the idea. It applies across the board. The real reason that “we can’t afford that,” is not that the money doesn’t exist, it’s that we won’t contemplate what really needs to be done. The right-wing propaganda department has made it politically impossible to discuss doing these things. The anti-tax ideology has become so much a part of our national psyche that I’m not sure most people even know that they’ve internalized it. They want the programs; they need the services; they expect government to do the big things that only government can do: But they wring their hands, and sigh, and give up, because they’ve unwittingly adopted the notion that there’s no more money to be had.

Of course, the anti-taxers are not interested in “relief” for middle-class earners or poor people: They are about protecting the wealth of the wealthy. [And funneling money to the military—for which there is ALWAYS money—and, via tax breaks, to the defense contractors whose campaign contributions are mother’s milk to politicians.]

On a related note: A number of years ago, I attended a dinner honoring a healthcare executive. The keynote speaker was the chairman of the hospital corporation’s board—a well-known industrialist who made a fortune as a defense contractor. During his speech, he talked about the problems he had encountered in running a company. “The truth is,” he said, “that most managers and executives know what needs to be done. The problem is that they just don’t do it.”

The same goes for funding government programs. There’s no courage to do what reasonable people know has to be done. There’s no political will to buck the increasingly rich donor class who own the politicians. So, our elected representatives—at all levels—just go along. Not asking why—not even aware of why they don’t ask why.

And people suffer. But nobody talks about it.