paying for civilization

The other day I was walking the dogs along a favorite trail, turned a corner, and realized there’d been a significant re-routing. They’d closed a section of the old trail, which was rocky and treacherous and steep in winter, and rerouted a new, evenly graded trail to the side. A few yards down, they’d planted a new row of saplings, protecting them from the hungry deer with chicken wire. A bit farther down the trail, they’d opened up a once-fenced and densely wooded section of the trail to create a small sitting area overlooking a small, usually hidden reservoir. I actually gasped when I saw it. I was so surprised, happy, grateful. What a gift!

I use the word ‘they’ as if it were people, and of course people did the work. But in a way, I gave that gift to myself. Or everyone in Missoula gave that gift to me. A whole host of trail maintenance programs are funded by the Missoula Open Space Bond, which funds the conservation and maintenance of trails, rivers, and open spaces in the county. It helps restore busted habitats, and continues work on a project making it so that there’s a trailhead within ten minutes of everyone in the county — not just people who live in the more desirable areas. It’s regrading hills to make trails more accessible. It’s making civilization better, more livable. And I fucking love paying for it. That’s what I say every time I pay my taxes: I love paying for civilization.

I don’t know where the American attitude towards taxes came from. I do know that growing up, through some combination of pop culture and adult figures, I somehow internalized the idea that taxes are bad, and smart people spend a lot of money figuring out how not to pay them. It’s not tax evasion, it’s good business sense. Or something like that. Weirdly, that began to change when I actually started working. I didn’t make enough in my 20s to pay hardly any taxes. In fact, I was making so little for much of my grad school career that I became accustomed to large refunds at the end of every year, which felt like bonanzas, but made me feel sheepish: you don’t even make enough for us to really tax you.

After grad school, those refunds began to disappear. I moved to New York, where everyone bitches about the city taxes. But I also looked around me and saw marvels of the city everywhere. Every time I walked along the Brooklyn piers, or used a public drinking fountain, or watched the streets being cleaned of New York filth, or even riding the broken subway. Did I want the subway to be fixed? Of course! Was I nonetheless grateful for a marvel that transports 4.3 million people in the city every damn day? Yes. Again: I love paying for civilization.

I had to find a financial advisor earlier this year, mostly because I had a book advance and needed to come up with a strategy to pay down my still massive student loans. He’s a nice guy, very smart, but when we sat down, he immediately started telling me about the complex ways I could shelter my earnings from taxes. When I told him I was down with paying taxes, it was difficult to tell if he was just surprised or just thought I was stupid — which presupposes the idea that smart people pay less taxes. I’m not dumb, and I take deductions like everyone else. But I’ve also made a conscious decision to think of paying taxes not as a burden to get out of, but as a willingly performed obligation, a way of being a citizen in my community.

My property tax statement came in the mail last month. In Montana, it lists the specific allocation of every tax dollar, down to the penny. We’re spending $50.66 on the county library. $3.84 on “relationship violence services.” $14.08 on “aging services.” $519.98 on elementary schools, and $168.90 for “elementary equalization,” which goes towards school districts that don’t get the same $$$ in property taxes. $14.48 in weed control. $35.99 towards the beloved neighborhood park, where there’s a natural iceskating rink and hoards of children and so much room for the dogs to run. $7.68 in substance abuse prevention. And $56.70 towards the Open Space bond, which includes that regraded path and sitting area.

I don’t have kids, so I don’t personally “use” the public school system. I don’t have friends or family members in substance abuse programs, or in need of assistance fleeing domestic abuse. I don’t (yet) need aging services. But the idea that I should only pay for things that benefit me directly is anathema to me. Every single thing on that list benefits me in some way, because it benefits the community around me. Kids’ education matters not because they’re my kids, but because education matters, in general. I might not need rescue services in the woods out in the corner of the county, but some day, maybe I would. Maybe I would need help in some way that’s currently unimaginable to me. Paying taxes means caring for other people, even if their circumstances aren’t identical to your own. And for all of our best intentions, sometimes we need incentive to care about other people.

I’ve spent a lot of time reporting on and talking to libertarians and conservatives who object to nearly all forms of taxation and government spending, apart from roads. They believe that individuals should be able to decide which programs are important to them, and fund them accordingly — personally, through non-profits, through churches. I get the impulse; we work hard for our money and we’ve internalized a “right” to agency over where it’s directed. Within that model, there are all sorts of services that would fall through the cracks — and not just weed control. Just look at the GoFundMe model: if you have a cute kid, an incredibly tragic or melodramatic story, and a good marketing sense, your plea for assistance might go viral and be filled. But the vast majority go unfunded and unfound. Leaving services up to subjective giving means allowing so many people, and projects, to fall through the cracks. Taxes create a remove — and foils our very human, but very uneven, impulses.

Which isn’t to say that I like everything my taxes fund — military spending in particular. I don’t like bloat or waste; who does? But I also don’t think that entire programs and services should be cut, or cut to the bone, in the name of giving me $14.07 more a year. I support and vote for candidates who advocate for responsible spending — but spending nonetheless. I get annoyed at the hand-wringing over whether or not something like Elizabeth Warren’s health care plan will raise taxes on the middle class, because I’d much rather pay more taxes and far less in personal health care costs and premiums — while also reveling in the ways universal health care would liberate myself and others from “job lock,” and the constant fear of medical debt, and fear in general. How much is too much to pay to make life substantively better for so many people around you?

This all comes back to an idea I touched on a few weeks ago, thinking about how you can decrease burnout in others. One way is by not practicing burnout behaviors that affect everyone you encounter. Another is working to create and normalize social safety nets that take away even one massive burden and fear — for yourself, for your neighbors, for your coworkers, for people you’ll never meet but whose mental and physical contributions to society nevertheless matter.

I love that a huge truck comes by the first week of November and sucks up all the leaves from the street. I love my trails. I love that the roads get plowed, even when it takes a bit. I love that the bus is free, even though I’m going to keep voting for people who want more buses, more routes. I love the library — it doesn’t matter that I hardly use it; I love that it’s there for others, and that it’s always full. I love the weed control that prevents the forests from being overtaken by noxious invasive species. And I love all the projects that seemingly benefit me not at all, because they make life better and livable for someone else.

Think about all the things in your life and community that you help pay for every day. You create and maintain civilization, every day. Taxes! What a blessing, to be able to care for others in this way.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

Random Endorsements for the Week:

  • I’ve been looking for a daily face sunscreen that doesn’t feel like sunscreen for a very long time and finally found one I love from Glossier.

  • I’ve also been looking for good running gloves forever. These ones are great down to 20 degrees, water-repellent and good in rain, but not too hot when the temps are above freezing. All-around endorse.

  • Every Fall I tell everyone I know: Put parsnips in your homemade chicken noodle soup

As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can access the online, shareable version (and subscribe) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. Please excuse any weirdo sentences or typos; relative inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to do this every week for free. I’d love to hear about what makes you love paying for civilization. Just reply to this email.