A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
When you think of your taxes, chances are you feel a sense of resentment.
Why does the government get a cut of your paycheck? Why do other Americans get to benefit from the work you do? Why is your paycheck so much less after taxes than it was before?
When I was a teenager and started my first real job, I wondered these things. I even found support in my hatred for taxes. Older co-workers and managers at the restaurants where I was a busboy all unanimously expressed a similar sentiment: taxes sucked, just like the government sucked.
Still, as Donald Trump proudly boasted that he was "smart" for avoiding paying taxes during the presidential debate last week, many political commentators thought his campaign had just committed suicide. Surely, admitting that, as a rich American, you did what you could to avoid paying taxes — while middle-class Americans footed the bill — would infuriate voters.
Instead, though, something become more abundantly clear than ever: that about half of Americans loathe taxes, appreciate taking one back from "The Man," and have little to no idea about how they work or why they are important. Trump's comments, while they shocked some, were met with cheers or complete apathy by others. Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie even responded by calling Trump a genius and saying the story was great for him.
As I wrote back in March, despite America being one of the lowest-taxed nations in the developed world, 51 percent of Americans think their taxes are too high. Perhaps that's why so many people were wary of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who proudly boasted that he'd increase taxes by about 2.2 percent for almost every American in order to fundamentally reshape what our country provided for its people.
But lost in those fears of higher taxes is what taxes pay for, and why it's so important people like Trump pay their fair share.
Even though it seems like Civics 101, it's apparently worth noting that without taxes our country would be a much less livable place than it is. Let's start with the biggest chunk of your federal taxes: about a quarter of them go straight to the military, which helps defend our shores and preserves many of the military interests we have abroad.
Personally, I've advocated for a cut to military spending. I believe that a reallocation of money from the military to things such as education, infrastructure or tech would do us a lot more good than funding wars overseas. But it's also true that some of the greatest technological advancements in our country have come from the military.
Aside from that, though, much of the tax money spent and allocated in our country is necessary and vital to our everyday lives. Those roads you drive on? They were paved with tax dollars. The schools millions of your children go to? They were built with tax dollars. Airports, public housing, libraries, Medicaid, veterans care, environmental regulation, wildlife conservation — they are all paid with tax dollars.
Because things in our life aren't labeled as "paid for by taxes" and "not paid for by taxes," clean drinking water seems like a given and not a result of a functioning government system that your taxes pay for. To put it more simply: if you think preserving the environment, having a working judicial system, taking care of the elderly and the poor, fighting terrorism abroad, giving free education to children and making sure the food we eat is safe, then you should love your taxes. Without them, we wouldn't be able to do any of those things.
In a thorough breakdown of what taxes do on GovernmentIsGood.com, professor of politics Douglas J. Amy reminds us of lesser-known tax money benefits: the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a government-funded program, keeps the time. Our air is far cleaner than places such as China or India because of government regulation, paid for by tax dollars. We know the forecasts for tomorrow's weather because of the National Weather Service, a government-funded agency. Your prescription drugs are tested and proven safe by the Food and Drug Administration, another government agency that stops you from ingesting dangerous diseases in meat and perishable goods.
On your drive to work, you're the benefactor of traffic laws, paved roads, traffic signals, regular inspections of vehicles, and clear roads during snowstorms. Yup, all provided by government entities, paid for by your tax dollars.
Elevators at your office are inspected by government agencies. Even at the gas pump, the government is helping you. As Amy writes: "a worker from your city's Division of Weights and Measures has inspected the pump and the gas. These public employees make sure that you get what you pay for — from a pound of sliced turkey breast to a carat of diamond — by constantly testing and inspecting all commercial meters and scales, and by verifying the accuracy of checkout scanners."
Even the internet, the very thing you're using to read this article, was created with government programs that functioned as early computer networking systems, and were then improved by government-funded research that led to things such as search engines.
Which brings me back to Trump. Since 1972, he is the first candidate to decline to release his tax returns. That might have something to do with the information revealed in the bombshell New York Times report showing he declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns, "a deduction so substantial it could have allowed him to legally avoid paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years," the paper reported.
As he boasted and essentially admitted to not paying taxes last week, something became abundantly clear: Trump was part of the rigged system he claims to loathe, and other rich Americans like him need to do their part.
Allan Sloan, a seven-time winner of the Loeb Award — business journalism's highest honor — wrote for The Washington Post this week that more than anything else, Trump's tax return published by The New York Times showed he benefits from tax loopholes only available to the rich.
"If Trump were truly smart — and wanted to lead by example — he would have disclosed his tax returns, showed the loopholes he used, and vowed to close them," Sloan wrote.
And it's true, Trump's loss is just the kind of move presidential candidates such as Sanders derided the American rich for making. That $916 million loss would be enough to allow him to avoid being taxed on $50 million a year in taxable income over 18 years. The documents also showed that Trump declined to contribute to the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Fund, the New Jersey Wildlife Conservation fund and the Children's Trust Fund. The millions of dollars Trump avoided paying could have funded countless schools, health programs, veterans funds, and improved dozens of other government programs.
Unfortunately, Americans seemed to have lost sight of how important our tax dollars are, and how important it is that everyone — especially people like Trump — pay them honestly.
You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter at @Ike_Saul
Cover photo: Flickr / Guest