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Give citizens a louder voice

Joshua Defibaugh

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The number of quotes attributed to America’s preeminent founding father Benjamin Franklin is astounding: “A penny saved is a penny earned,” “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest,” “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” In an 18th-century letter about the recent ratification of the Constitution, Franklin said the following to a friend: “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” In the context of modern western civilization — compounded with the fact that less than a week ago, millions of Americans were groaning and griping about paying local, state and federal taxes — Franklin could not have been more correct.

According to data from The Heritage Foundation, the U.S. enjoys relatively low individual income and value-added (VAT)/sales taxes and modest payroll taxes, but relatively high corporate taxes. Republicans and libertarians — or anyone who values their hard-earned income — would be dismayed to know that Belgium and Finland tax their wealthiest citizens at 62 to 64 percent, compared to the 39.6 percent tax rate the wealthiest enjoy in the U.S.

Pew Research Center has shown that 53 percent of Americans feel they pay “about the right amount” on their taxes compared to the 40 percent who say they pay “more than their fair share” and the abnormal 4 percent of tax-loving citizens who say they pay “less than their fair share.” However citizens feel about the tax rates now, U.S. citizens throughout much of the middle of the 20th century paid much higher tax rates.

Documents from the Internal Revenue Service show that during the Great Depression through 1956, decades with both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations, wealthy U.S. citizens were subjected to tax rates as high as 94 percent. During 1939, incomes above $5 million — which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s inflation calculator, is equivalent to nearly $87 million in 2017 dollars — paid a tax rate of 75 percent.

Given that the U.S. is the wealthiest and one of the most advanced nations in the world, and that the values of freedom are enshrined in our founding documents, I argue not to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, but rather to give U.S. citizens the freedom to choose where their tax dollars go. This would not only ensure that our citizen’s voices would be heard through more than voting every other year or every four years, it would also reflect the needs of a nation, as our priorities today are greatly misplaced.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the federal government spent $3.7 trillion, or just over one-fifth of our gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015. Of that $3.7 trillion, approximately one-quarter (around $888 billion) paid for Social Security. Another quarter ($938 billion) funded health insurance programs like Medicare, Medicaid or CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Another substantial portion of government spending (16 percent) went to our defense and international security budget. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. enjoys the most well-funded military on the planet. With a budget of over $600 billion — and increases likely coming from President Donald Trump and his plans to increase the budget by 10 percent — the U.S.’s military spending eclipses the next eight countries combined.

Other important elements of a modern nation’s priorities are represented in the budget. Federal retirees and veterans receive 8 percent in benefits. Education gets 3 percent. Science and medical research get 2 percent, as does transportation infrastructure. This is where the U.S. fails its citizens.

I have no problem contributing tax dollars to a fund dedicated to securing the safety of aged and disabled citizens, nor do I have a problem funding the healthcare of those people. My problems lie with the obscene spending of our military and the ludicrously small funding of our infrastructure, education and scientific research. Though this sounds like another call to reduce military spending, it is much more than that.

According to the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranked 15th and 14th for railroad infrastructure and quality of roads respectively. This could easily be fixed by reducing our military budget by just 1 or 2 percent to revamp our nation’s roads, bridges and railways.

Given that tuition costs have been rising steadily since the 1980s, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and given that U.S. citizens need much more than a high school diploma to compete in an increasingly globalized world, we could easily take approximately 6 percent (approximately $36 billion) from the military’s budget to fund public education in the U.S. We’d actually have more than that to contribute. The Washington Post reported in late 2016 that the Department of Defense, specifically the Pentagon, buried an internal study showing that there exists nearly $125 billion in waste. Compounded with the fact that, according to The Atlantic, the cost of tuition-free public college would just be just over $62 billion, we could fund that two times over with the administrative waste from the Pentagon.

The U.S. used to be a scientific and engineering powerhouse. In less than one century, we went from the first cars to the first steps on the moon. With the help of Department of Defense in the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. created what eventually would become the internet. Now, science and medical research receives just a fraction of federal funding, indicating that scientific progress is not as important as it once was. It could be different.

The federal government could give citizens a louder voice in determining where our country should go. I predict we would see more funding for infrastructure, education and scientific research to compete on the global scale.

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The independent student newspaper of Western Illinois University. Serving Macomb since 1905.
Give citizens a louder voice