Candidate Romney and Republicans were rightfully castigated for inelegantly dividing us into givers (who pay most of the taxes) and takers (who receive entitlements). Thus this terminology is tainted much like PBR is no longer considered a luxury good. Even if there might have been a valid point made with these unfortunate words, the truth is that both sides of the political spectrum have used them to recruit and to divide us.
So let’s start over. I want to give a fresh interpretation to givers and takers and I want to prove to you that these words need not divide us. In truth, I think if you read on you might see that these same words can bring us together in important ways. Okay I am pretty optimistic and am making a huge claim. But given our present state of discord, what can we lose? Despite all we give and have given, we still have shameless ghettos, too many homeless people, growing addictions and too many children growing up with single parents amid violence. As a young man in the 1960s I never would have believed that we could give so much money in the next half-century and still not make better headway against social and economic problems.
I want to start this discussion with the givers. Since I make a lot of typos, let’s simplify and called them Gs. Americans are Gs. So are people from other countries but the tradition of giving is prevalent in American culture. Think of all the things we give every day. We give money and we give our time. We serve on boards and committees of local not-for-profits and we attend Habitat for Humanity building parties. We give to the the local Boys and Girls Club and Stonebelt. We give time and money to local food banks and often contribute to national charities like United Way and the Wounded Warriors Project. We support NPR and many local radio stations like KEXP in Seattle. Of course we also pay taxes to local, state, and federal governments to support many programs. Clearly we give and we usually give generously. People of most ideologies and parties give. Giving unites us. We might have our favorite or least favorite charities and programs but the point is that we are a people that gives.
The Giving USA Foundation estimated that Americans gave $335 billion to charities in 2013. About two-thirds of that was given by individuals. Another $5 trillion is paid into local, state, and federal government taxes each year.
Why do we give so much? There are many reasons we give. We give to the government to stay out of jail. Some give to gain tax advantages. We give to impress our neighbors and colleagues. We give because we believe it is the right thing to do. Most religions teach that we feel better and are better persons when we are charitable. Christians teach that God gave up his only son to save us. This makes me wonder why God only had one son and no daughters, but let’s save that for another post. The Golden Rule says to treat others as we would have them treat us. Maybe there are other reasons we give but I have gone to few spiritual meetings where the main idea is that personal salvation and enlightenment come from selfishness at the expense of others.
Okay so we give and we give a lot. To satisfy this strong need to give is to need someone to take. If we want to be a G then there had better be some takers or Ts. So we can’t divide on this score. In advanced mathematics we would say G=T. This says that having Ts is a good! It is not a bad. If a G is good then a T is good.
Some of you are biting your finger nails all the way down to your toes. But I am getting there so gulp down a little more JD and be patient. Order some Nachos La Torre if you think that will help.
So G is good and T is good. Here is the next thing that unifies us. We don’t want our hard-earned money wasted. Okay – Charles is rich enough that he wastes a lot of money, but Charles is special. If most of us give we want to see it have impact. We want it to help. If we give $100 to a charity and we find out that $99 of it went to pay an administrator and only $1 went to a poor person, we probably would quit giving money to that charity. Or if that charity was not careful in using our money so that it didn’t really help anyone, we wouldn’t be happy with that one either. Republicans and Democrats do not disagree about this point either. We want our giving to go to Ts and to have full impact on them.
Amazing. Nothing to disagree about so far. To have Gs we have to have Ts. We want our money to be effective and not wasted.
So what is the problem? I think the problem starts with the Gs. The problem is that we not only like to give but we are busy people. We are also trusting people. When I give money to one or to many government or non-governmental organizations I don’t have the information or the time to make sure my money and your money is used well. I simply trust that if someone works for one of these organizations, they are going to be capable, and competent and caring and honest. I don’t have time to check it all out. Sometimes it takes years or more before we find out that some part of government or some local charity is not getting the job done.
The problem or the challenge is that making sure our money is well spent is haphazard. Sure there are plenty of people discovering inefficiencies and corruption in the system of giving and taking – but these audits are not an objective, consistent, and effective enterprise. Companies evaluate employees. S&P evaluates the financial strength of companies. Agencies watch over pharmaceutical companies to make sure drugs are safe. Teachers are evaluated by students and principals. We have a society wherein many activities are continuously and consistently monitored and evaluated. But we have few trusted institutions for private and public giving and taking.
So what happens in the absence of this monitoring of giving and taking? What happens is that we either do it randomly or we let politicians do it for us. And those politicians sometimes use a lack of transparency as a way to empower themselves. Party X tells you that the programs of Party Y are bad. Party Y tells you that the programs of Party X are bad. And then the media have a ball with all that. The Republicans are mean people who hate the poor and want to kill poverty programs. Democrats are silly people who think rich people and corporations are evil and need to pay much more in taxes. Come on. Really?
So what’s the point? What can we do? First, quit talking about Gs and Ts. Second, let’s get more serious about evaluating how all this G is used. Is it not possible to have a bipartisan or an otherwise objective approach to evaluate government programs? In today’s political arena, we get the opposite of this sensible approach. What we get is defensive, debilitating allegations and behaviors. Why can't Democrats be the ones who lead honest evaluations of the effectiveness of poverty and other entitlement programs? Or should they continue to yell and scream when Republicans dare to limit growth in spending on a specific entitlement? Why can't Republicans lead the way in pointing out corruption or waste in their favorite programs? Or do they mostly relish a fight to the finish to always get more money for their programs regardless of their impacts?
So there we are. We need takers. Regardless of party or ideology, we also need our money to be well spent. But we have a system that either avoids the right data or purposely distorts it. We let politicians hide the truth and exploit our ignorance for ideological or party ends. The solution to the problem is simple. If everyone else has to expose their activities to oversight and objective evaluation, then why can’t government programs be subject to real and frequent business audits? Gs would be happier because they would believe their money is being better spent. And Ts would benefit from the reduction in waste and corruption.
This is a task that unifies us and puts politicians on notice that we won’t be conned. It isn’t really about Gs versus Ts or Rs versus Ds. This is all about the public having proper oversight over representatives who have infinite capability to raise tax giving through our tax system.