David Hoppe

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:: Taxes and aliens

Is it what we pay or who we are? 

By David Hoppe

Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist and author of A Short History of Time , says we humans probably aren't the only life forms in the universe. According to an Associated Press report, Hawking recently told an interviewer that he believes intelligent aliens almost certainly exist. But, says Hawking, communicating with them could be "too risky."

Hawking likened a possible contact with aliens to Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World, "which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans." Hawking's guess is that most extraterrestrial life forms are microbial. But, he warns, more advanced forms might be "nomads, looking to conquer and colonize."

If this should ever come to pass, we might benefit by asking these new arrivals how the exploration that brought them here was funded. Were taxes involved? And, if so, were the other aliens back on Planet Zontar happy about it?

Taxes are a major bone of contention among we Earthlings, especially those living in these parts. You could argue that, without taxes - or, at any rate, the representation that supposedly accompanies them -- there might not have been an American Revolution. "Taxation and representation are inseparably united," said Charles Pratt, Earl of Camden, in a speech to the British House of Lords in 1765. "God hath joined them; no British Parliament can put them asunder. To endeavor to do so is to stab our very vitals."

Had Pratt's colleagues been paying attention and allowed colonists to sit alongside them and vote in Parliament, we might now be worrying about the relative value of the Pound versus the Euro. Everyone would have healthcare and our steering wheels would be on the right.

As we know, King George and Co. ignored Pratt's warning. America had its revolution. But our issues with taxation were only beginning. Flash forward to 2010, and a rolling boil with present day tax protesters riffing on their 18 th century ancestors, calling themselves the Tea Party.

American Heritage Dictionary defines tax this way: "A contribution for the support of a government required of persons, groups, or businesses within the domain of that government." Right away we have a problem. Those words "contribution" and "required" have a certain dissonance. A contribution implies a willing participation. But a requirement puts a coercive edge on it. Contribute or else.

Pratt's brilliant insight was to understand representation as a kind of bridge that made a tax seem more like a contribution than a requirement.

We have all kinds of taxes. There are property taxes we pay for the privilege of owning a house or business building in a given governmental jurisdiction. There are sales taxes we pay on top of the price of things we buy - from gasoline to underwear. Sin taxes are charged for stuff we enjoy but might do us harm, like cigarettes and booze. And the income tax is a cut taken from our pay.

Taxes mean less money in our pockets and higher prices.

But taxes also mean that someone picks up the phone when you call 911. Taxes pave the roads, build the schools, support a military, make sure our water is safe to drink, and see to it that people who are too old or infirm to work aren't entirely destitute. Taxes pay for the cleanup after natural disasters. Eventually, taxes will help pay for efforts to plug a hole spewing oil at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

The need for some things, like roads and soldiers, seems obvious to people and they contribute to these without much thought. But other items aren't as clear. Social Security and Medicare, food stamps and environmental protection, even schools - all of these have drawn fire from citizens who objected to being required to help pay for them.

Fair enough. These sorts of differences over what to pay for and why can and should serve as the bedrock on which a serious politics is based. Is, for example, healthcare a right or a privilege? That's a question worth debating and, ultimately, bringing to a vote. Indeed, determining the differences between rights and privileges is crucial to figuring out just what our social contract with one another is about.

But politicians, from both parties, ducked this kind of debate. Instead, we heard about making healthcare "affordable," whatever that means, and about the need to reform the insurance industry.

We the people have enabled this lack of nerve. We've done this by rewarding politicians who stress taxes as requirements rather than contributions, who play to our livingrooms instead of the public square. Rather than trying to decide what kind of society we want, we argue reductively at the margins over heroes and villains, who's up or down in the latest poll. In the end, nobody wins.

You have to wonder what those nomadic aliens Stephen Hawking conjures would make of us. Difficult as it is to picture them, it is even harder to imagine the discipline it would take for them to travel such a vast distance. They'd probably find us ripe for the picking.