Opinion Columns & Blogs

Luke O'Neil: Let's celebrate the payer class

When Maine Gov. Paul LePage laid out his plan to eliminate the state income tax this month, he faced an unlikely opponent: Stephen King. The horror novelist, who paid $1.4 million in taxes in 2013, told a radio station (one of his own) that he's glad to do so. "We see our taxes as a way of paying back the state that has given us so much," he said. "State taxes pay for state services. There's just no way around it."

King has been an unabashed supporter of higher (yup, higher) taxes for years, suggesting that the 28 percent income tax he pays should be more like 50 percent. In a piece for the Daily Beast (titled, appropriately, "Tax Me, for F%&'s Sake!"), he pointed out that he voluntarily gives away $4 million a year to various public services around the state -- libraries, fire departments, and schools, otherwise known as the type of things taxes are supposed to fund.

King is a rarity, an admirable one. Most rich people don't celebrate their tax burden. Many try to pay as little as possible. Studies have shown that 25 percent of millionaires pay a lower rate than many in the middle class. At the same time, 95 percent of millionaires donate to charity (giving an average of 9 percent of their income in 2011. What's the difference between a rich person underwriting a cause and writing a check to Uncle Sam?

Maybe the sticking point here is recognition. When the rich give to causes, they're lionized for their financial accomplishments. Bill Gates has given away an estimated $28 billion of his fortune, and he's rightly applauded for it. Warren Buffett isn't far behind with $23 billion. Taxpayers, on the other hand, are mostly anonymous, even as their payments go toward keeping public universities afloat, maintaining parks and other public spaces people love, and providing a safety net for the poor.

Why not celebrate the people who pay the most taxes? The local governments could put out press releases that honor particular tax payers for "giving" enough to fund the fire department this year, or buy the EMT's a new ambulance fleet. The highest donors could even get a visit from their congressman or governor, as an idea floated by a Gawker commenter, although if you're the top tax payer in your particular state, you're probably already used to such visits.

Think of it as the opposite of the tax delinquent lists published each year by tax collectors in states like California and others. Chitsana Khounsamnane, of Las Vegas, for example, owes the state $3,537,089.48. Not a great look. New York State's Department of Taxation and Finance has lists posted of both the top 250 individual and business taxpayer deadbeats. If shame is seen by the government as a motivating factor, why not try some positive reinforcement?

We could take the idea even further: Let's make paying taxes a sporting competition. Much like we pore over lists of the richest celebrities and real estate tycoons and so on, let's put out a list of the most successful tax-payers -- tax payer baseball cards perhaps? We can even break it down into different events, tax sprints and tax marathons, longest-distance tax-paying for those who reside elsewhere, or the most states paid into; the Olympics of tax-paying in other words, honoring the biggest lump payment, highest percentage of income, the biggest increase from the preceding year.

If there's social capital to be gained by charitable giving -- and the coffers of prestigious universities and museums indicate there most certainly is -- wouldn't the same also hold true for taxes? After all, no one is so naïve to believe that giving is ever completely altruistic. There's a breast-beating at work as well. The only thing the mega-wealthy can't buy is our love.

The conflict between charitable giving and willingness to pay taxes likely has a lot to do with having control over where the money is going to be spent. One doesn't want to see one's tax dollars go to causes they wouldn't otherwise have chosen, but isn't that a lot more admirable than tailoring your giving to your own personal ego?

Yes, you might argue paying one's taxes is a duty as a citizen, but that sort of appeal to decency certainly hasn't worked. Instead, we'll encourage the wealthy in each state to voluntarily open up their books, and actively take pride in the amount they give back. The city magazines in each state could run special issues dedicated to celebrating those who have given the most. Instead of the 50 Best Doctors, the cover will trumpet each year's 50 Biggest Tax Payers, blessed be their magnanimity. Certainly many will demur from participating at first, but if you think this all sounds far-fetched, then you're vastly underestimating the desire to be recognized that drives most of the wealthy in the first place. What else have they got to strive for when they've already got everything else they could ever possibly need?

"Governor LePage needs to remember there ain't no free lunch," King said. Perhaps, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't thank the people who put the biggest portion of it on their tab. Especially if it means they'll be more likely to break out the credit card the next time.

  Comments