Yes, taxes are necessary

What are the purposes of taxes? What should be your attitude toward paying them?

Those questions came up in a weekly Bible study I’m in. Our discussion leader skipped them, probably because the answers are – or should be – obvious.

We pay taxes for projects that you and I need but can’t afford to pay for on our own. Taxes pay to build and maintain roads, including plowing snow and fixing potholes. They pay for water and sewer projects (homeowners often have to pitch in for those). Our tax dollars pay for trash and recycling pickup every week. They pay for parks and recreation – we have awesome public parks where I live, and I don’t have to pay an entrance fee every time I visit one. They pay for libraries (remember those?). And public transportation.

Taxes pay for police and fire departments to protect us, court systems (including jails) to provide justice, and kindergarten-through-12th grade education to help our children prepare for adult life.

And that’s just local taxes (including countywide, in some cases). Here’s the 2016 fiscal year report for the city I live in, taken from the city’s web site. Page 18 includes a flow chart of what the city is all about.

http://www.cityofelyria.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/2016_City_of_Elyria_Ohio_CAFR.pdf

At the state level, taxes pay for other things, too. The biggest spending item – just over half the state’s budget – is “health and human services.” Second is “primary, secondary and other education,” followed by “higher education.”

https://obm.ohio.gov/Budget/operating/doc/fy-14-15/bluebook/budget/Section-C_14-15.pdf

At the national level, the three biggest federal programs are health care (including Medicare and Medicaid), pensions (including Social Security) and Defense.

Next come welfare, interest on the national debt, transportation, general government and protection.

https://www.usgovernmentspending.com/federal_budget_detail_fy19bs22018n

Communication crucial

What should our attitude be toward paying for such services? Hopefully, we pay willingly, since all of these services are needed.

At the local and state levels, those in charge of the budgets are required to balance income and spending. This often requires tough decisions because voters do not automatically approve taxes for every project – nor should we.

Sometimes voters get nitpicky or reactionary. Sometimes leaders ask for a Cadillac project when a Chevrolet version will do just fine. Our local school district in Michigan discovered this a number of years ago: Many school buildings were outdated and new schools in new locations were needed, and since voters had approved many previous school levies, leaders asked for a very expensive plan – which got shot down. They pared it back, asked voters for a smaller yet effective plan, and got that one approved.

Where we live now, voters recently approved a millage to build five new kindergarten-through-8th grade buildings around the city. We learned a couple of weeks ago that cost overruns led the planning consultants to recommend constructing only three buildings – on the north, east and west sides of town, leaving the south side without a neighborhood elementary/middle school.

As you might imagine, that plan isn’t going over so well. Meetings are being held, petitions are being circulated and pressure is mounting to keep the south side school in the plans.

This is the way democracy works. We expect leaders to follow through on promises. We expect budgets to be met. Creativity is required here.

This is why we pay taxes. Every local citizen has the right to express his or her viewpoint on this crucial issue. Our leaders will make the call, but they are accountable to us. And we will be heard.

The benefits of taxes

If we have a job, and if we own a home or even pay rent, we pay taxes. When our Founding Fathers set up our country more than 200 years ago, they set it up this way. We can tweak the system – are property taxes the best way to collect local funds? – but taxes will get collected in some form.

So often, we focus only on how much we pay. We need to be reminded of what we receive. We take trash collection for granted, for example (unless it’s not collected for some reason, in which case residents will howl very loudly). We want our street plowed in the winter, and complain when it’s one of the last to get cleared. (Hopefully traffic volume determines the priority for street plowing.) We recently learned that our city has only 10 employees that plow snow and fix potholes. For the entire city. No wonder they can’t clean every street the moment it snows.

We get what we pay for.

At the state level, they’re talking about combining the K-12 education budget with the higher education budget, creating one huge education department overseeing all of it. State leaders want to streamline everything; opponents say K-12 and higher education have different purposes, and should remain separate.

Not sure that plan will fly, but we’ll see.

No balanced budget, no decisions necessary

The federal government is not required to balance its budget, so Congress often avoids the tough discussions that local and state legislators must have. That skyrockets the federal debt. Is that sustainable?

I’m one of those who would like to see a mandated balanced budget, forcing legislators (and the president) to actually do their jobs. Not every constituent will be happy. Welcome to the real world. (Pork projects might actually get eliminated, since priorities would have to be set.)

We need a federally funded military to defend us across the world. I don’t think anyone would object to that. But how big should the military be? What weapons do we need, and which ones cost more than the benefits they provide?

I wish we could debate those things. At least, I wish our elected leaders would debate those things.

Are they spending our tax dollars wisely?

We have a right to ask that.

Taxes are a given. They pay for goods and services all of us need.

As we debate how our tax dollars are spent – locally, statewide and federally – let’s give thanks for the government structures that our Founding Fathers established.

The system is good. The devil is in the details.

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When real life gets tough …

Job/career. Family. Church/volunteer activities. The foundation underneath all three of those pillars is my faith in Christ.

Thank you, Stephen R. Covey, for helping me discover that about myself.

A long time ago, I read Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” One of the seven habits includes writing a personal mission statement. He offers guidelines on how to do that (habit 2: Begin with the end in mind).

http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-the-7-habits-of-highly-effective-people/?gclid=CPPh5OWPz9MCFQMcaQodpsAP4g#gsc.tab=0

I discovered that my life has those three pillars, with my faith as the bedrock of each. Over time, I’ve seen cracks in all three pillars, some cracks bigger than others. My faith has kept the pillars from crashing down.

Covey’s first habit is “Be Proactive.” One of the subheads in that chapter is “Act or be acted upon.”

It’s so easy to reject that advice, to say it takes too much effort, or the results may not turn out the way we want them to.

But the alternative is even worse. I know people who choose not to engage life at all, unless absolutely necessary. We spend so much of our energy trying to escape real life, because real life is hard. It often doesn’t go the way we’d like it to.

So, we set up alternative worlds:

  • Pokémon.
  • Movies and TV shows, sometimes.
  • The casino. (Do you really expect something for nothing, a big jackpot for an output of a few dollars? The American Dream has never been about that.)
  • Social media. Many of us interact only with people who have views similar to ours. Hey there: Look up from your device to see the world around you.

Not all “escapes” are bad things. Sometimes we need to refresh ourselves for the real life we find ourselves in.

But even in our own fantasy worlds, we should follow the values we’ve decided are worth keeping.

I can’t say I’ve always done this. I know the theory, but putting it into practice is hard.

My job/career pillar was the first to take a hit. A big hit. I had a great job that allowed my wife to be a stay-at-home mom for our three sons. After 24 years with the same company, my job was eliminated as the company downsized.

Over the past eight years, I’ve had six jobs in three states, and twice was out of work for 11 months. When stuff like that happens, you find out whether your personal mission statement is written well or not. Was I prepared to handle such a major shake-up in my life?

Yes and no. It’s been a major struggle, since as a man I feel the need to provide for my family, and I’m convinced I’ll never have a “secure” job again. Any company, any career, any job can disappear. When Jesus said build your treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21), he wasn’t kidding. Treasures on this earth can be taken away very quickly.

That’s real life.

Because I’m married, my wife has taken this roller coaster ride with me. When I get an out-of-state job, she comes to the new town not knowing a soul, and with no connections. It takes time to find a niche, to make a house a home, to begin to feel settled in a new community. We’re still working all that out. It hasn’t been easy, and still isn’t.

In a new place, we have to find new social opportunities as well. These also take time.

Our faith is a huge help in these situations. We can find brothers and sisters in Christ, who read the same Bible and follow it, no matter where we go. Instant connection. It takes time to develop friendships, but having faith in God can ease that transition.

I like to put my faith into practice, to get involved in the community where I live. I was a leader in the Saginaw County (Mich.) CROP Hunger Walk for many years, an annual 10-kilometer event that raises money and awareness for hunger issues locally and around the world. Here in Elyria, Ohio, there is a CROP walk, but the leaders here aren’t passionate about it. In Saginaw, it was a nearly year-round event as we sought new ways to reach people and connect with the community. Here, the committee meets once, the same people show up, the same people walk, they raise some money and they’re done.

They don’t need me.

I’m not one to force myself on people. Perhaps I should have tried to light a fire under them, but I didn’t feel the passion myself to do that. So I let it go.

I also enjoy mentoring elementary school students. I did that for a year here, then the program disappeared. I recently started mentoring a fourth-grader at a school in Cleveland, a half-hour down the highway.

Why do that? Because volunteering is one of the pillars of my life. I need to do things like that to feel fulfilled.

Covey says we should tweak our personal mission statements every so often, even though the main points remain the same. I haven’t tweaked mine in years. My statement has become a part of me, guiding me through uncertain times.

I’d encourage you to write a mission statement of your own, if you haven’t already done so. It will be different than mine is, for sure, possibly very different. That’s a good thing.

What gets you up in the morning? Where do you find meaning in life? You won’t find it in any fantasy world.

Time to get real.

We get what we deserve

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

 

This quote, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, graced the entrance of a high school I entered recently. It’s a good reminder for all of us in these days of political firestorms.

President Trump is an easy target for finger-pointers these days. He’s making dramatic policy changes, including The Wall and an immigration ban, two related decisions in an attempt to keep potential terrorists out of the United States.

There’s collateral damage. Innocent people are affected. That’s all the rage these days.

Explaining Trump

The questions for me are: Why does Trump feel these decisions are even necessary? And if his policies are so bad, why did we elect him president in the first place?

The second question has a deeper answer than most of us are willing to admit. All of us are responsible for Trump, whether we voted for him or not. All of us created the atmosphere that has allowed him to take charge. Even those among us who oppose him.

The role of the media

One of Trump’s first actions as president was to attack the media, saying he would control the information that comes out of certain government agencies. His tweets bypass traditional media outlets. These are two separate but connected issues. He’s our oldest president, but also the most social media-savvy. He’s changing the rules.

As a (former) journalist, this worries me. The media are a necessary watchdog on government. But the media are among the groups that have created the atmosphere that allows Trump to thrive.

Television newscasts are little more than political commentary and reports on extreme weather, with an occasional feel-good story thrown in for good measure. Newspapers have – and continue to – gut their staffs to the point where they aren’t able to attend local city council or township board meetings, or ask the tough questions even when they do. The last newspaper I worked for is more concerned with winning peer-driven plaques and trophies than it is in writing and editing news that matters to its readers.

Beyond the fatal crash

On Jan. 24, a Cleveland police officer was killed while directing traffic around two previous accidents on Interstate 90 on the city’s west side. Once the officer died, emotions took over and that’s all the media – and everyone else – has talked about.

There’s nothing wrong with memorializing a fallen officer, of course. He was killed by a hit-skip driver who was arrested several hours later in a city west of Cleveland. If this driver faces trial and is found guilty, I hope they throw the book at him. Officer Fahey died a tragic, untimely death.

But no one talks about the beginning of his end.

There was a single-vehicle crash on westbound I-90 near Hilliard Road reported at 5:04 a.m. Jan. 24. Police responding to that accident requested medical assistance, so a Rocky River fire truck was dispatched to the scene.

At 5:33 a.m., a Chevrolet van crashed into the fire truck, killing the driver and sending a passenger to a nearby hospital.

Officer Fahey was setting up traffic flares around the fire truck at 6 a.m. when a white Toyota Camry hit him and fled west on I-90.

I saw one brief newspaper article naming the Chevy van driver who died. I never saw anything on the original crash, the single-vehicle wreck that started the whole thing.

And that’s my point. Details, people. No one cares about details any more. Including the media.

Once Officer Fahey died, that became not only the main story, as it should have been, but it became the only story, which it wasn’t. There were two other crashes that preceded it.

If either did not happen, Officer Fahey most likely would still be serving among us.

Because (presumably) no one died in that first wreck, no one cared about it. Even though it started an escalating sequence that culminated in the death of a police officer.

Small things often lead to big things.

Distorting facts

Not only does the media miss details, sometimes it misrepresents them. Sports Illustrated in its current issue wrote an article about “The Super Bowl sex-trafficking myth.” The magazine presents evidence that sex-trafficking statistics have been skewed to showcase a problem that isn’t nearly as severe as the manipulators want it to be.

Sex trafficking is a major issue in this country, but it’s year-round in numerous cities and places, Sports Illustrated argues. It’s not a one-time problem that goes away once the Super Bowl hoopla ends. By misrepresenting the issue, proponents are actually undermining efforts to stem sex trafficking across the nation.

Why does President Trump attack the media so hard? Because the media, in general, is no longer doing well the job it’s supposed to be doing.

Instead of getting all emotional about Trump’s actions, how about a focus on details and accuracy?

Terrorism was a major issue in 2016. There were a number of attacks around the world, including on U.S. soil. Trump campaigned against this. We elected him. Here we go.

How do terrorists get into the United States? Is Trump targeting the wrong countries? Would a different strategy work better?

Instead of soundbites and one-liners, how about a little research to make your point?

Since the media aren’t doing much of that research now, and since the Internet has opened up the world of information to all of us, we each do our own research. Nearly all of it is slanted. We pick the sources that make the points we want to make. The other side picks the points it wants to make. Trying to sort it all out is a difficult game.

Rise above the firestorm

In this information overload and fact vacuum, enter Trump. He’s the result, not the cause, of what this nation has become.

Instead of firing off hateful one-sided diatribes, perhaps we should take the advice those high school students offer. Be the change.

I saw this LinkedIn post the other day:

 

Apart from the ballot box, philanthropy presents the one opportunity the individual has to express her or his meaningful choice over the direction in which any society will progress. (author unknown)

 

My comment on that post:

 

Philanthropy is throwing money at the problem, which is good. A better word is volunteerism, which is actually doing something.

 

We’re good at pointing fingers. Those of us who have money are good at spending it.

Let’s get off our rear ends, myself included, and get back in the game. Whether it’s through traditional media or other means, we need to discover the truths about life, why things happen as well as how. Let’s dig a little deeper. Let’s be more objective. More open-minded. More sensitive.

If Trump is a bull in a china shop, it’s because we are, too.

Too much destruction going on. Time to build up.

And I don’t mean a wall.