The patriotic thing to do

  • Susan Tweit


Maybe I’m crazy, but I think that paying taxes is patriotic. And I’m tired of hearing Americans, especially Westerners, whine about their tax burden.

I’m no economist. Taxes aren’t a subject I normally pay attention to – except once a year in April – but during the presidential campaign the rhetoric around taxes was impossible to ignore, particularly from those who imagine they pay too much of them.

I blame Joe the Plumber. Not the real guy, but the archetypal Joe the Plumber who morphed into a symbol for the-we’re-being-taxed-into-poverty crowd, which sadly includes many of my neighbors here in the rural West.

Excuse me, but when did paying taxes become un-American?

Westerners in particular should appreciate taxes, since our participation in the federal government is such a good investment. According to the non-profit Tax Foundation, for every dollar we paid in federal taxes in 2005 (the latest year for which figures are available), Westerners reaped impressive returns. New Mexicans led the way at $2.03 in federal spending per dollar of taxes paid, nicely doubling their investment; Gov. Sarah Palin’s Alaska came in second at $1.84, followed in order of decreasing returns by North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Wyoming and Utah.

Only Colorado, Nevada and the three Pacific Coast states received less than a dollar in return, and these figures don’t factor in some kinds of military spending, water projects, and research funding – all of  which Western states traditionally benefit from.

So what the heck are we complaining about? Here’s a short list of some of the benefits I get from tax dollars in my small south-central Colorado town:

Food, which gets federal subsidies in the growing and processing, as well as research and development funds, crop insurance, guaranteed loans to producers and processors, and transportation – see highways, below.

Water, the stuff that appears as if by magic when I turn on a tap, courtesy of federal support for reservoirs, pipelines and treatment plants; water-quality regulations; and water research. And of course, the sewage plants that treat that water after I’ve used it.

Air, which I take in with every breath, and which is cleaner now than it was a century ago despite the explosion in the numbers of humans polluting it, thanks to federal air quality monitoring and regulation.

Energy, the power to run lights, my computer, heat, appliances, and my car. Whatever the form, whether coal, natural gas, oil, or renewables, federally supported research contributes to exploration and development. Even those photovoltaic panels going up on my roof next spring to power our household consumption come with generous federal subsidies.

Highways, those paved ribbons that connect me to the rest of the world, exist thanks to federal programs for construction and maintenance. The big snowplows that clear our mountain passes don’t come cheap.

Health care, including our new 25-bed hospital, which may look like an overstuffed yellow-brick Twinkie (what was the architect thinking?) but is a boon to a town of 5,500 people in a county boasting around 17,000. Thanks for the federal subsidies.

The list goes on: our school system; the communication networks that link me to the outside world, including telephone, Internet and mail; police, fire departments, and emergency services; our nine miles of paved town trail system, courtesy of federal PILT funds (Payment in Lieu of Taxes from federal lands). The public lands themselves, a recreation paradise that drew many of us to live here.

In short, taxes support just about everything we do as a community. They also support things I abhor, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a Quaker, I could follow tradition and refuse to pay the portion of my taxes that go to support the military, but I don’t, because I prefer to support my community and protest in other ways.

Everyone can find some government expenditure they would rather not support with their tax money. But the essence of participating in a community is compromise for the greater public good.

It seems to me that paying taxes is part of having community spirit, something we Westerners have long prided ourselves on. It’s part of believing in the common good, the importance of a healthy “we,” not just “I” or “me.” Because life really isn’t all about any one of us; it’s about all of us. That’s patriotic.
Susan J. Tweit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a naturalist, a writer and the author of several books, and she pays taxes in Salida, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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