Taxes and Fires

I saw someone link today to an article about a family whose house burned down because the fire crew wouldn’t put the fire out because they hadn’t paid the annual fire fee of $75 for their address to be covered by the fire service. Even when the guy offered to now pay that fee.

It was shared in the context of “Oh my god, how cruel can you be to let someone’s house burn down when you could put the fire out. I’ve lost all faith in humanity.”

And I get that point of view. I do. Most people want to help others in trouble. You want to rush in and put that fire out if you can.

I mean, I just went through a massive fire that destroyed a thousand homes in my area and the only reason it wasn’t ten thousand is because those fire crews jumped in there and worked their asses off to save every property they could.

There was no picking and choosing. You quite frankly could not pick and choose in that situation. We were all in it together.

But my reaction to that article was far more cynical.

Because the scenario reminds me too much of all of the people who don’t want to contribute to society, who don’t want to do their part to pay for things like fire departments and infrastructure and social security and medicare and all the other public services we need to function as a society, but who then turn around and expect to have all those things available when they need them.

I don’t know the particulars of this situation. Maybe that family had been paying into the fire fund for decades and really did just forget to pay this one year. In which case, you know, make an exception.

But I have met more than my share of people who would not pay that fee year after year after year because they don’t want to pay money to anything that doesn’t directly benefit them, but who would then turn around and be outraged that the service wasn’t given to them when they did need it.

One of the things I hate most about some of the folks I met through Wharton is this notion that you’re a sucker if you actually pay taxes in the United States.

There is a certain type of wealthy older man (and it is usually older white men, at least in my experience) who believes it is proof of his intelligence and savvy to find the loopholes that mean he can avoid paying taxes.

I find that so messed up. You benefit from all the things that taxes provide and yet you want to shirk your share. (And before someone mentions welfare, etc. I’m pretty sure millionaires benefit far more from financial regulation and the Fed and monetary policy and diplomacy than a random homeless person does.)

It’s very much a product of how we’ve structured our tax system in the United States.

Because there are these games that can be played. The people who don’t want to pay into the system have filled our tax system with tricks and carve outs that benefit that savvy type of wealthy asshole. Many of the carve outs only benefit the wealthy.

So of course anyone who can see that unfairness built into the system will strive to take advantage of those tricks. Why shouldn’t you, right? Why should you be the sucker?

My answer: Because I’ve benefited from everything taxes pay for and if I can now pay that back, I will. It’s also why I give to certain charities when I can. They helped my family 40 years ago so I give back to them now that I can afford to do so.

This bullshit avoidance these guys practice only works because somewhere someone is actually paying into the system to provide the paved roads and stoplights and clean water and food safety and financial regulation and airport and business subsidies and everything else that we all need.

Hell, it’s the financial regulation that these guys don’t want to fund (or even have apply to them in many instances) that protects the frickin’ money they got to keep by playing those games.

But the whole thing falls apart if too many people cheat. If no one pays that $75 fee for fire protection every year, there’s no one around to put out the fires when they come.

So when I saw that story my reaction was, “Oh, hey, fuck around, find out.”

And again, I don’t know the specifics of that situation. If that family had been paying in for years or ran into hard times where they couldn’t afford the fee, then that’s a different scenario.

It just for me brought up the multiple conversations I have had with older white men who were ranting about taxes and how they had to pay them while standing at a country club drinking an expensive drink after talking about their real estate portfolio and before driving away in their Mercedes.

We’ve built a world that’s largely without consequences for that type of person because the rest of us accept their freeloading in order to have the things we know we need. But in that situation, it was specifically structured to not let that happen and so the house burned down. You didn’t pool your money with the rest of us, oh well.

It’s not the ideal solution. To stand there with the resources to help and not do so. Which is why we generally don’t structure things that way. We don’t say, “You paid in X, so you get to participate. You didn’t put in enough, so you don’t.” We just suck it up and cover everyone.

But allowing people to not pay in when they can do so and still get everything anyway is shitty.

So what’s the solution? I don’t know. I’m a random person on the internet.

In my dictator alternate reality we’d all pay a flat percent of our income in taxes with no carve outs or cut outs. I would de-couple individual contribution from the benefits received.

So you earn $10, you pay $1. You earn $100,000, you pay $10,000. You earn $1 million, you pay $100,000.

It would be like tithing at church. We all put in the same percent. We all no matter how little or how much we have acknowledge that we’re contributing to building a society together.

All the needed social supports would still be there, they’d just be separate. We’d all understand that we were all putting in to the same degree and then collectively deciding where best those funds could be used.

It wouldn’t solve the bigger issues we have. Those who put in more total money would still want their needs addressed above others and would resent giving too much to those they deemed unworthy.

And of course, even a flat tax rate like that is not ideal because there’d then be copious amounts of debate about what constitutes income and someone would come up with strategies for delaying income or hiding income or saying that income from X is not really income.

(But again, my dictatorship so I’d be the final judge and they’d only play that sleight of hand with me once.)

On the other end someone would be complaining that you can’t make a person pay in $1 or $100 or $1000 when they need to pay for groceries and rent, etc. which would completely miss the whole purpose of paying in which is showing that we all participate to the extent we can.

So, really, outside of my imaginary dictatorship it would never work. But it’s an interesting thing to think about.

Anyway. Yes, horrible to stand by and let someone’s house burn down. But maybe understandable if it was a person who refused to pool their resources for something that’s best handled at the community level who only finally cared when they were personally impacted.

(Same as healthcare, really. No one wants to put in when they’re perfectly healthy because they don’t need it themselves but if we had universal healthcare with everyone contributing a set amount then when something did go bad for an individual the cost wouldn’t be ruinous.)