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Friday, March 22, 2013

Taxes and a Moral Society


David Blandford, a Penn State colleague and fellow member of our local Torch Club, said something at a Torch Club meeting last year that has stuck with me.  How people feel about taxation, he said, has less to do with the amount that they are taxed and more to do with how those taxes are used.  Tax evasion in 17thcentury Britain, he told the Club, was rooted not in the tax itself, but in the fact that the British government used the taxes to carry on foreign wars that were of no benefit to the average Englishman.   On the other hand, modern Scandinavians are among the most highly taxed citizens on earth, and they are also the happiest, because tax revenues are returned in the form of benefits:  health care, work release for new parents, old age benefits, etc. 
            Americans are currently taxed at a much lower rate than Scandinavians.  In fact, we are taxed at a lower rate today than was the case just a generation ago, before the so-called Reagan Revolution.  And yet, we are among the most unhappy of industrialized nations.  Mother Theresa pitied us, saying that we are poor in spirit.   Why?  Well, one reason may be that, like Britain in the 17th century, we are increasingly disconnected from our government.  We are afloat, unmoored to our sense of citizenship that gives us identity and a sense of social purpose.  Our waste of public resources to support private greed is a symptom of a government that is attending more to business interests than to the needs and interests of its citizens—in short, a government that is failing to do its real job. 
            The recent mass murder in Aurora, Colorado, is another sign of our alienation not just from government but from community.  The tragedy sparked a brief national discussion of gun control, which noted that, among the 23 most industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks first in gun murders.  Why?  I suggest that one reason is that we increasingly are estranged from the communities that used to support us.  We are a nation of immigrants and, unlike the nations from which our ancestors came, our cultural heritage is thin.  Our connection with our geographically defined community is made thinner by globalization.
            Taking a longer view, this disconnect may also be a symptom of a broader change that is overtaking our society as technology and globalization redefine “community” and challenge us to seek a new identity.   I believe that the changes we are now experiencing are much more profound than we tend to recognized.   It think it is safe to posit that not only are we moving from the Industrial Era to a new Information Era, but that we have left Western Civilization behind in the process.  The 20th century, with its two world wars and its ideological Cold War, was the last century of that old world.  The new civilization is just now taking form.  It is being shaped, in part, by technology and globalization, to be sure.  As Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Post-American World, the change is not about the downfall of Western life, but about the “rise of the rest”—a new global culture where power and influence are more distributed and diverse.
            I’ve been reading Grace Lee Boggs’ recent book, The Next American Revolution.  In it, she argues that, in this new world, the challenge is not simply to over-turn the existing power structure, but to revolutionize our interactions with community at all levels.  “We are beginning to understand,” she writes, “that the world is always being made and never finished; that activism can be the journey rather than the arrival; that struggle doesn’t always have to be confrontational but can take the form of reaching out to find common ground with the many ‘others’ in our society who are also seeking ways out from alienation, isolation, privatization, and dehumanization by corporate globalization” (p. 48).
            Boggs quotes Meg Wheatley, who describes the new culture as “this exquisitely connected world” and notes, “Because of these unseen connections, there is potential value in working anywhere in the system” (p. 50).  The implication is that, as individuals, we can help shape the new world from wherever we find ourselves in our society.  This is a powerful new way to think about the dynamics of change in a democratic society. It also describes the paradigm shift in social identity that we are experiencing:  a new social context that encourages individuals in a globalized society to reconnect with community at the local level and, perhaps, with professional and social communities that are not defined by geography.   Revolution, Boggs argues, is the cumulative impact of many, many local actions.  “In other words,” she writes on her own career as an activist, “our revolution had to be for the purpose of accelerating our evolution to a higher plateau of Humanity” (p.70).
            And this is where we have gone wrong in the years that span my adult life and those of many of us Baby Boomers who had such ambitions for our society.  Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost our passion for “accelerating our evolution to a higher plateau of Humanity” and settled for a kind of comfort that dulls our moral sense.  The rich get rich, but we are all the poorer for it.