As is often the case when I visit my mother's house for dinner, I am forced to cease a line of discussion for fear of igniting an argument. Tonight was little different, as she asked me whether or not I look at my pay stubs each time, though I have no recollection of what prompted the question. I replied that no, I don't, as I know more or less how much I get paid every period and I can always just check my bank balance. "Why do I need to look at my pay stub?" I asked. "So I can get annoyed by how much money I didn't get thanks to the government?"
"Easy for your liberalism to go out the window when you realize how much money you don't get to take home, eh?" she prodded.
This line of thinking is so oft-repeated that it bears some scrutiny, for conservatives love to espouse the evils of using tax money for other people's benefit. Better, apparently, to use it to engage the military in blowing things up and killing people for profit.
No, but the real reason such statements irritate me is precisely because, despite the money taken out of our paychecks week after week, Americans receive very little in the way of public welfare, compared to most other first-world developed nations.
My European friends are often given to wonderment at how it seems the US government is perfectly content to let someone die in the streets if they fall on hard times for more than a month or two. Most modern governments make extraordinary provisions, by American standards, for taking care of their citizenry.
They pay about the same in income taxes as we do.
In New Zealand, it was national news when someone had to sleep in their car for a two months because he couldn't find work. In America, such a thing is so commonplace that it doesn't even merit casual mention. New Zealanders pay only 2% more income tax than Americans do at my income level, and in return get free public healthcare and virtually unlimited unemployment benefits. In America, you're cut off in most states after a few months of a rather paltry sum.
France, the world's sixth largest economy, has a 35-to-37 hour workweek, a 6% poverty rate (the US is at 18%), and a minimum wage of roughly eight dollars per hour. It also ranks above the US in productivity (GDP divided by hours worked). Employees are taxed about 20% at my income level -- about median -- which is roughly 8% less than in America. Despite this, every citizen in France has a right to public healthcare and up to 23 months of unemployment insurance.
Conservatives in America are quick to dismiss these remarkably progressive attitudes with a snide "But that's socialism!", which is true. It is quite socialist. I'm sure the French are crying about it during their five weeks' mandatory vacation, too.
These examples illustrate my irritation with the money being taken out of my paycheck, for which I as an American receive virtually nothing in return. Clean water, safe food, fire protection -- these things I am happy to have and will not complain about. The rest of my money gets funnelled into 300 billion dollar war efforts against half-imagined enemies, police to patrol around and collect additional revenue for the state after catching the Big Bad Expired Tag Bandit, multiplicities of government beaurocracies engaging in vast duplication of effort, and other bits of idiocy. In 1995 and 1999, the federal government essentially shut down for a few weeks after Congress was unable to come to a budget agreement. As I recall, nobody noticed.
If I lose my job in the US, I am screwed.
If I have a medical problem and don't have health insurance in the US, I am screwed.
If I didn't save enough for retirement in the US, I am screwed.
In virtually no other developed nation can a citizen say these things. I may be annoyed that money is being ripped from me on a weekly basis, but I'm more annoyed that it isn't going to anything productive, anything beneficial, anything that increases the standard of living, anything progressive that helps me or anyone else. Instead, Americans receive more terrorism and fundamentalism in return for their tax dollars.
Some will doubtless counter that this is all irrelevant to them, for they are not poor, have retirement savings, privatized healthcare, and are doing quite well for themselves. This short-sighted and self-centered view is, to me, appalling. What does it say about us as a society and as a civilization that we're willing to let people fall by the wayside this way? And given that taxes aren't going to go down, does it not make more sense to at least use the money to help people, instead of blowing it on frivolous nonsense at the whim of overpaid politicians?
Expatriating is starting to look better and better. Any cute European girls want to marry me out of this place?