Theory Teacher's Blog

Taxes: a Psychoanalysis

It’s tax time, and because I’m a single guy with a firmly middle-class salary but no dependents, no equity, and no fancy accountant to find me a bunch of loopholes, I have to pay a lot. A lot. So in this post, I’m just going to babble randomly about taxes and try to say something clever. So, here goes….

First, I should admit that I’m kind of a weirdo because I actually like paying taxes. For the most part I think my tax dollars do good things — roads, schools, police, hospitals, social services, disaster relief efforts, clean water. It’s hard for me to honestly imagine living in a world without an effective government. So, I feel the same way about paying taxes as I feel when I donate money to my undergraduate alma mater, to Minnesota Public Radio, to the ACLU, to Partners in Health’s relief effort in Haiti. I think most people would agree with me that donating money to a good cause feels good, right? Then why do people always complain about taxes? Why doesn’t paying taxes feel good? After all, a lot of the tax revenue goes to some of the same things that our donations go to — to a news media accountable to the public rather than to corporate advertising, to education and health services so that even poor children have access to the means of survival and self improvement, and to disaster relief. And arguably, as the recent cases in Haiti and Chile illustrate, a single government is often more efficient at coordinating the allocation of resources than a multitude of private charities who might get in each other’s way or end up being merely redundant. There may be a lot of non-governmental organizations working to help Haiti and Chile, but it was the Haitian government and U.S. military and the Chilean government that coordinated and performed most of the initial relief to save lives.

I think the obvious answer here is our own egos. When we donate money, we feel like we’re in control, we feel like we’ve done something good, but often our donations or our volunteer work are motivated by emotions rather than by reasoned debate or by thorough research into the most effective solutions. In contrast, when we pay taxes the thing we most feel is precisely a lack of control. Where is my money going to? Why do I have to pay this much? How do I know it’s going to a good cause (or a cause that I happen to personally think is “good”)? But I think ultimately, being a good person puts one in the ironic position of being selfless in a way that’s not being self assertive. That’s hard, perhaps even impossible. It’s certainly one of the main paradoxes that Christian theology has wrestled with ever since the very beginnings of Christian theology — that being selflessly charitable as Jesus suggests we be seems to go hand in hand with an egotistical self-satisfaction and an assertion of one’s own emotional interests and baggage. But I think that dialectically overcoming our own egos is precisely one of the things I find valuable in the psychoanalytic theory of Lacan and Zizek. (It is also a way in which psychoanlaysis and Christian ethics actually agree with each other instead of disagreeing as many seem to assume they do.)

One could argue with me that I’m missing the real point here — that really we don’t like paying taxes because we don’t trust the government. But then maybe we should all be a bit more involved in our government. This is a democracy, right? Or maybe it isn’t a real democracy, and that’s the problem that we’re all deeply afraid to admit. We don’t trust a government that seems (if you’re a democratic socialist like me) undemocratically beholden to greedy corporate interests or seems (if you’re a conservative Tea Partier) undemocratically beholden to a tree-hugging-gay-socialist-Islamofascist-liberal elite. But that said, I can’t honestly imagine a world in which the government weren’t effectively making sure that my water is clean, that the bridge doesn’t fall when I’m driving on it, that poor people are not dying on the street from dangerously communicable diseases, etc. In a lot of ways, our cranky, whiney attitude towards our government is a symptom of our own feeling that we aren’t in control of our own lives, not a real problem with the government itself. And maybe democracy is besides the point. In many ways, our government is so effective that we don’t even notice how it makes our daily lives better until you’ve spent time in another country that has an even more efficient and accountable government or a less efficient and accountable one.

That said, I’m not completely happy-go-lucky about paying taxes. There are things that bother me about paying taxes. One of the ironies of our tax code is that our government is quite willing to extend breaks to home-owners, car-buyers, job-getters, and children-havers (stuff that “stimulates” our consumer economy and secures a labor force and seems generally “good”), but no breaks for stuff like organic locally grown food, community building, and other progressive yuppie things that people such as myself tend to fetishize. I totally support the tax break for dependents (children and sick relatives, for instance) and for unemployed people looking for work. That makes complete sense. But for buying a new car? Really? How about tax breaks for people who can’t afford a car and have to take the bus? Or for people who simply choose to live within walking distance of their place of work? No, no, no, that’s not the case here. Our tax code artificially props up the automobile industry, real estate, and the stock market. I am always struck by the irony of the pro-free market people (like those on CNBC’s ridiculous Squalk Box) who yell and scream about how big government is bad and how we need free-market solutions for everything… and then they want special tax breaks, handouts, and exemptions designed to artificially prop up that market economy. For all their quoting Adam Smith’s notion about the “invisible hand” of the market, they seem to forget how critical Adam Smith was of all those artificial props in his book The Wealth of Nations. If the free market works so well and the government works so poorly, why is the free market constantly needing help from the government? And getting back to the question of my taxes, I have to wonder how much of my taxes are going into the pockets of the infamous CEOs at General Motors and AIG. It’s those kinds of scandals that gives me a bad feeling about paying taxes. I’m perfectly happy to have my tax dollars help a child (and even an adult) get an education and have access to health care, but I think the CEOs of corrupt corporations should be left to suffer the consequences of their own greed. In that way, I’m more pro-free market than the people who say they are pro-free market. I say, free market and Adam Smith all the way, and no special supports for corporate interests. Or,  on the utterly other other hand, the flip side of my emotional response to all this is a bit less principled and more whiney and self-centered — if we’re going to be tossing around these government props, then where are the props for my own lifestyle choices, dagnabit? I want a tax break for a 100% eco-friendly lifestyle, not for a new car.

With all that in mind, I want to return to the special tax breaks for home ownership that I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago. I’ve ranted about my problems with home ownership before, much more eloquently back then than I am now in this blog post which I’m writing rather hastily and off the top of my over-caffeinated head. I completely understand why we’d want to help first-time homeowners and working-class families achieve the American dream, however misguided or anarchic the dreaminess of their dreams might be. But this American dream stuff is all about what theorists Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek call the imaginery. The question I want to direct attention to is how the imaginary relates to the symbolic order and the Real. What few realize is how much our economy needs people to keep buying land and how much our tax code is set up to encourage land speculation. As Benjamin Franklin argued long ago when he argued for paper money instead of gold and silver is that the real value of money is based not on its shiny-ness but on its ability to enable productivity and trade. Few of us today ever think about why the pieces of paper in our wallet have value. What gives it that value? Basically, a faith in the continued productivity of markets, which is why politicians are always freaking out when Americans aren’t buying enough crap at the mall. But also a faith in the continued increase in the value of land, which is why politicians also freak out when Americans aren’t buying bigger and bigger houses in ever-more racially exclusive neighborhoods. The economic productivity of land has been fundamental to the functioning of paper currency since its beginning in the 18th century. Essentially, our economy rests in part on an assumption that the value of land will always go up, and so the paper money in our pockets is essentially a futures market — a relatively secure futures market when you think about it, so long as we don’t try to manipulate that market and hedge our bets the way we sadly all witnessed a couple years ago when the housing bubble crashed.

So, this is how I read the tax breaks and handouts for homeowners. Basically, it’s in the economic interest of the country to take the money away from well-off renters (i.e., me) who can afford it and give it to less well-off homeowners. This is the symbolic order that structures the reality of our economic and our individual positions within that economy. Like paper money itself, our tax code is related to our overall productivity (GDP) and the metonymic workings of Wall Street (a metonym because it simply stands in as one representative instance of a larger network of economic relations.) In other words, to borrow the language of Lacanian theory as Slavoj Zizek has used it in his recent book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, the logic of financial speculation is the symbolic order that structures the economic Real behind our tax codes. So, does this mean I should be happy with the fact that other people are getting tax breaks and I’m not because it ultimately supports the overall production of wealth for everyone? (If only this were really the case, since it seems the wealthiest of the wealthy are the ones most positioned to take advantage of our convoluted tax code.) Or given the fundamental inequities in the system and the scandal of our government’s handouts (both under Presidents Bush and Obama) to Wall Street, should I (as Topspun over at the Seven Red blog seems to suggestlively ask) exit the whole program?


March 6, 2010 - Posted by | finance

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