Anyone proposing higher federal taxes these days — especially in an election year — is likely to have a political death wish. It wasn’t even possible for President Barack Obama and Congress to consider ending the Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
Here in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage wants to feed surplus revenue into a budget mechanism that eventually rolls the income tax rate down to 4 percent from the current top rate of 8.5 percent. The governor has said his goal is to eliminate the income tax altogether.
No one likes paying taxes, of course, so such positions are appealing to voters. But contrast the “no new taxes” ethos that rules the day to the fact that Americans spent $1.5 billion on lottery tickets for a one-time drawing Friday night that paid out an estimated $650 million. The spending is, essentially, a tax, albeit one paid without the force of law.
It’s easy to understand the fun of spending a dollar on a ticket and joining in the excitement that sweeps the nation when such a jackpot is in play. But there is plenty of evidence that dollar bets were a minority. A Washington Post story reported that many spent much more.
“Twenty to thirty dollars won’t hurt,” A Las Vegas woman told the paper. “I think it just gives us a chance of maybe winning our dream.”
The Post story puts this freewill spending by people hoping to live the dream into perspective. The $1.5 billion would fill vehicle gas tanks for 685,000 households for a year. It would feed 238,000 American households for a year.
It’s a safe bet that many who slapped a $20 bill on the counter of their neighborhood convenience store for a Mega Millions tickets would squawk at a 1 percent hike in the sales tax, or a 5 percent increase in the income tax for those earning $200,000 or more — even though very few people buying lottery tickets are from that high-income group. Surveys have shown that the more economically desperate Americans feel, the more likely they are to buy lottery tickets or patronize casinos.
Back to that chance of “maybe winning our dream”: the odds against winning are 176 million to one. If Congress and the president were to agree to a comprehensive and equitable reconfiguring of the tax burden, there is no need to win a dream. Rather, a more fair and realistic distribution of the burden would revive the American dream.
Roads, bridges, sewer treatment plants and water systems would be in good repair. Police departments would be staffed well enough to keep our communities safe. Schools, too, would have enough teachers and books, and college tuition would be in reach of more of our young people. Those who serve our nation in the military would be well-equipped, educated and trained and given quality, lifelong health care. Our poor would be offered ladders out of poverty, and our disabled and unemployable would have a decent, if simple life.
And here’s another take on the dream for which so many Americans apparently are pining: millions of people living elsewhere in the world would risk their lives to be here. They would be ecstatic to live in a modest house or apartment, grateful to work hard in exchange for a paycheck that allows them to feed and clothe their families.
Many of those in developing nations who know they will never emigrate to the U.S. would be blissfully happy to live in buildings that are the equivalent of our wood sheds. They could thrive eating the food many of us throw out. They would view running hot and cold water as luxuries.
That $1.5 billion spent in a matter of weeks is a sad barometer of our national gratitude for all that we enjoy.