In answering Joe The Plumber's concern that his taxes might increase under an Obama presidency (if he can come up with a plumbing license, and if he can put together the money he would need to buy the plumbing business he wishes to acquire), Sen. Obama tried several different approaches to hammer the concept of fairness in taxation into Joe's thick skull. After a few minutes of patiently trying to explain to Joe The Dullard why his tax plan would be good for 95% of Americans, including most likely Joe himself, Sen. Obama uttered the famous sentence that may haunt him on November 5th, if he loses the election: he told Joe that the idea behind his tax plan was to "spread the wealth around."
What Obama meant to say, but what no savvy politician can say and reasonably expect to win an election, was this: "Joe, I am trying to spread the burden to those who are better equipped to carry it." Immediately, Sen. McCain and his minions jumped at the opportunity to paint Obama as a socialist, a noun that in America is only surpassed by pedophile in order of unpopularity. This strategy of attack has already cost Obama dearly among the undecided (or, as Bill Maher correctly calls those who have not been able to find enough differences to make a decision, "the retarded.")
But the truth remains: a burden is how most Americans regard taxes.
In the United States, the purpose and the history of taxation have always been misinterpreted and misunderstood by most, since the early days of the nation. Take for example the Boston Tea Party.
Most American think that the Boston Tea Party, a seminal moment in the history of the nation, was a revolt against unjust taxation. In fact, it was a revolt against the tax breaks given by the Crown to the most powerful British trading company, the British East India Company, allowing it to sell its tea at lower prices than those offered by colonial merchants and smugglers. Get it? A revolt against tax breaks, for corporations no less!
Another example of the complete misalignment of perception and reality concerning taxes is the estate tax. It was Jack Faris of the National Federation of Independent Business who renamed the estate tax as "death tax", a neologism then picked up and popularized by evil genius Frank Luntz. The intended message was clear: You die, your wealth is taxed.
In fact, the purpose of the estate tax, which affects less than 1% of all estates in the United States (not the United Estates) is to safeguard democracy against the perils of the accumulation of riches into the few hands of plutocrats, which always, historically, leads to the creation of a feudal society, where the rich and noble lord over the serfs.
What separates the New World, the United States, from the Old World, Europe, is in large part a system of taxes which rewards individual merit over inherited wealth and status. That is why the United States has not had to endure the rule of nobility which, for centuries, hampered progress of the working masses on the European continent. It has not had to, yet, but it is heading in the wrong direction.
Typical of this dangerous shift in the wrong direction is the resentment that many feel against a system of progressive taxation, which establishes different tax rates for different income levels, with the goal of achieving a more equitable distribution of the tax burden by having those with a higher discretionary income carry a larger percentage of the nation's tax load.
Republicans have been masters at influencing public opinion against government and taxes, first by creating the most incompetent and crony governments in history and, in a complete twist of logic, by using the very incompetence and cronyism they injected in government to create a backlash against taxes that fund incompetent government.
Once established, this backlash has been used by Republicans to justify tax cuts that have disproportionally benefited the wealthiest individuals and the largest corporations, leaving an increasing number of people with the impossible task to do more with less.
Another symptom of this dangerous shift away from equitable, progressive taxation is the push toward the so-called Fair Tax (read "Flat Tax", a regressive tax system), which is just as Luntzian a concept as the "Death Tax" and all the other Orwellian phrases popularized under the autarchy of George W Bush. No one has yet come up with a Fair Tax proposal that does not reward the highest income earners to the detriment of the vast majority of the population.
Most people regard taxes as a burden for a couple of primary reasons:
1) The systematic corruption, cronyism and abuse of public funds that all levels of government are guilty of, to varying degrees;
2) The failure of government to establish a clear, irrefutably positive nexus between the taxes we pay and the quality and quantity of the services we enjoy, the infrastructure we use, and the benefits we reap as the results of the taxes we paid.
History teaches us that we cannot expect the current bastardized breed of Republicans to reduce the hijacking of public resources for the benefit of the largest contributors of the party. Unfortunately, many Democrats are too much like their Republican opponents when it comes to responsible allocation and use of public funds.
So it is up to progressives to be leaders in reforming politics, and to reverse the trend of growing disillusionment regarding government that has clutched the majority of the population.
It is up to us to restore the people's confidence by establishing a philosophy and a system of government capable of managing revenues responsibly, transparently, and fairly.
It is our duty to educate the public against the negative connotation of socialism, and to explain the role that an equitable distribution of the tax burden has for the health of our society and, just as importantly, on our democracy.
It is our job to transform the perception of taxes, from an unjust burden to a necessary element of prosperity for the nation.
The mantra that "the power to tax involves the power to destroy" can only be true if the people allow the power to tax to be used as a means of creating division rather than unity, if politicians and the intellectuals that abet them continue to represent taxes as a system of confiscation of wealth and class warfare.
Instead, we should focus the frame on the principle that an equitable tax system is the price that individuals and businesses should be willing to pay, in proportion to their ability to do so, in order to create and maintain the conditions that allow our nation to progress beyond past achievements in pursuit of a possible, better future for all, with better education, better health care, better infrastructure, and the promise that we can all share, once again, a part in the American dream.
Though he won't be caught saying it, Sen. Obama has given us ample evidence during this campaign season that he understands that taxes are perceived almost universally as a burden, and that the idea is not to spread the wealth but to spread the burden, so that the middle-class can be lifted back from the depths that it has been cast into by eight years of callous Bush rule. He understand that the role of the next president will be to make government "cool" again, and his "Google For Government" bill is a clear attempt to restore public trust in the government's management of public resources. His toughest challenge will be to reverse the disastrous course that the falsely grandfatherly Ronald Reagan set the nation on when he declared government to be the problem.
If President Obama should succeed, with our help, we will then have an opportunity to move from spreading the burden to spreading, once again, the wealth.
NOTE: I recommend a short, enlightening, and cheap book called 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Hate Taxes. It presents a series or articles aimed at educating readers on the positive effects of taxes on our lives in areas that range from education, to health care, science and business, etc.