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Plugged In

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Flags and Taxes


Hey, happy Flag Day! A day to celebrate pretty colors and salutes and all sorts of other patriotic stuff.

Like, say, taxes -- the very lifeblood of the state that the flag symbolizes.

Except, oops. Nobody seems to think taxes are patriotic anymore, and in fact nobody even wants to hear much about them. As an infrastructure guy, I have learned this firsthand over the last several years as I stand in front of audiences, cheering for the infrastructure that makes our easy lives possible -- and the taxes that make that infrastructure possible.

I got my most recent lesson in the third-rail-ness of taxes when I was thrilled to give a TEDx talk in Nashville, on the topic "Next." I spoke at length about the centrality and miraculousness of our infrastructure, and I then discussed what I see from engineers and other infrastructure types when I stand and talk like that: happy faces, shoulders back, big smiles. But then when I talk about how we pay to build sewer lines and water plants and roads and so forth -- we collect taxes -- I see something very different: the tops of people's heads, as they fold arms, hunch shoulders, scrunch up their faces, and stare at their shoes.

So the next several slides of my obligatory Power Point addressed how a nation so profoundly dependent on infrastructure could become so completely confused about how that infrastructure comes to be. And that's where things went wrong. To explain, I'd like to ask you to do something. Please watch the following video -- but STOP WATCHING at 11:18. Can you do that? Please? Can you STOP WATCHING at exactly 11:18 and then come back to this blog? Thank you.

Hi again! Thanks. Okay -- by the way, the joke I let the audience read was a blog post saying "They can have my garbage disposal when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers." More about garbage disposals in a minute, by the way.

Anyhow. From where you stopped I went on to ask how as a culture we have so completely divorced the taxes that pay for our infrastructure with the infrastructure we so completely depend on. I suggested this is how:

Which is of course Ronald Reagan, on his "government is not the solution, government is the problem" hobbyhorse, claiming that the most terrifying words in the language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

To which I responded by putting up the following slide:









The positive response to that slide nicely set up this one, explaining how infrastructure used to work, back when we used to pay taxes:








Which led, naturally enough, to our nation's regular grades in the D range on the American Society of Civil Engineers on the infrastructure report cards it issues. I took a detour linking the $3.6 trillion (!) we are behind in our infrastructure budget with the $3.7 trillion (!) we've spent blowing up people in Asia over the last decade or so and noting that that's a neat coincidence but it underscores a choice we make as a culture.

And I took a final stop saying "Don't even start with me!" about whether we pay too much in taxes, referring to the chart showing Americans are taxed less than every developed democracy but Turkey, Chile, and Mexico.

Now I confess, I used the words "knucklehead" and the term "dumbassery" to describe the kind of conduct that knuckleheads regularly get up to. And it turns out, according to the TEDx types (and the TED types as well) that “TED is also not the right platform for talks with an inflammatory political or religious agenda, nor polarizing 'us vs them' language.” That comes from an email. Now I don't think paying for the sewer system you couldn't live without is an inflammatory political agenda, nor do I think characterizing a person who believes you shouldn't pay for this a knucklehead, or calling their actions "dumbassery" is polarizing. But I totally get TED's right to do what they will with my presentation, given that I'm absolutely certain I signed something at some point giving them the right to do that. And I kinda sorta get that calling knuckleheads knuckleheads seems polarizing to knuckleheads (same with dumbassery and dumbasses). As for my feelings about how hard you should work not to offend knuckleheads and dumbasses I think you can pretty much guess at that by now.

Anyhow, you may now watch the end of my presentation, which picks up exactly after the elided material:

So: Flag day. A day to pretend to act patriotically? Or a day to think about what your country can legitimately expect from you? And what will happen to the systems that support you if you continue to let those who believe that payment is for somebody ELSE continue to make decisions.

Okay I'm done. Oops no wait -- garbage disposals. The people at In-Sink-erator were up my butt with a chain saw when On the Grid came out because it was unabashedly critical of garbage disposals. They linked me to research supporting their position -- that putting food waste in our wastewater pipes is not a bad thing -- and they have a legitimate perspective. My interactions with the people who manage wastewater pipes makes me feel as I do, but you should consider their points if you want to draw conclusions about whether garbage disposals are a good or bad thing. I'll write more about this in the future. Full disclosure: I have one and sometimes use it. When the last one broke it would have cost hundreds of dollars to replumb without it, and for a hundred I could put a new one in myself. I saved a couple hundred bucks.

Happy flag day.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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