In Missouri the state legislature is faced with a budget shortfall and a deteriorating infrastructure. To solve the problem, Missouri’s Department of Transportion is considering a new toll on Interstate 70, what was previously a free transit system. The entire interstate system was built using income taxes, back when the top rate on the richest Americans was around 70%, as opposed to the 35% rate in force today. Interstate 70 was the first to receive a contract payment as part of the interstate system, and the road has been paid for mostly with income taxes for the last 50 years. However, now raising income taxes is thought of as unacceptable, but requiring a toll not so much. The same situation is seen in most states throughout the country, as well as with the federal government. Toll roads are becoming much more fashionable, but the trend extends beyond these physical toll booths to a more symbolic toll road as well.
Americans are slowly but surely being required to pay toll after toll in order to live the American dream. The long road of life is becoming littered with toll booths. These toll booths are nothing more than an annoyance for the rich. However, they are major obstacle for the middle class, and all together debilitating for the poor.
Fees are increasing for driver’s licenses, and every other kind of document or permit Americans need to live their everyday lives. In many states the income tax is being done away with altogether and replaced with a higher sales tax that tends to impact the poor and middle class more severly. Medicaid cuts are requiring the poorest Americans to pay for more of their own health care, whether they are really able to or not. The Republicans most recent health care proposal would turn Medicare into a private system, in which many older Americans would be forced to pay for their own care rather than having guaranteed coverage. Social Security privatization is once more being proposed by Republican presidential candidates. Under privatization, if someone does not have enough money in their account they would simply be “on their own” to provide for their retirement expenses. The details vary but the basic philosophy is the same. Americans are now being asked to pay for services that were previously gauranteed, and if they can not pay they are no longer receiving the service. This is the toll road philosophy.
This philosophy makes sense upon first blush. Common sense suggest that everyone should “pay their way.” But when subjected to closer examination some serious flaws emerge.
First, the toll road philosophy does not fairly tax people at all. A toll only taxes those who use the road, but there are many other beneficiaries of the interstate system including gas station and restaurant owners. The owner of UPS and Fed Ex certainly benefits from toll roads more than the average commuter, yet under the toll road philosophy they are taxed the same as everyone else. Taxing every American with a flat rate, or even taxing them according to their consumption, does not accurately reflect just how much the rich benefit from our system of government and our vast infrastructure. Bank of America is able to make tremendous profits because of the FDIC, the SEC, the FBI, and the millions of government-paid local and state law enforcement officers who protect their business. Taxing Bank of America and their wealthiest executives at the same rate as everyone does not account for this larger benefit received for government services.
Secondly, in many ways a toll road requires people to pay for something they have already purchased. The interstate system was built using tax revenues. What our fathers and mothers paid for we are now being charged to use. The budget shortfalls necessitating these tolls were brought about because of reduction in tax revenue. That reduction in tax revenue came about largely because of tax cuts for the rich passed under both President Reagan and President Bush. State income tax rates have also generally gone down over the past 30 years. Now middle class America is being asked to make up for this lost revenue through toll, after toll, after toll.
The word entitlement has gotten a bad rap over the last few years, but let us reexamine what the word means and where it came from. To be “entitled” means to get what one deserves. The benefits from Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are not free, they were bought and paid for with years and years of payroll taxes, specifically, a 6.2% payroll tax for social security and a 1.9% tax for Medicare. If Congress decides to revoke these benefits they will essentially be robbing Americans of entitlements that were already paid for. These entitlements have not just been purchased by older Americans. Every working American has at least partial ownership of these benefits, yet now they are being to ask to essentially pay for what they have already bought, just as commuters on Interstate 70 are now being required to pay for a trip that they are purchased.
Finally, the toll road philosophy does not really benefit anyone, even the rich. Not everyone has the means to pay all the tolls being implemented, and pretending the means when they do not hurts everyone. Millions are disabled, or without an income by no fault of their own. For instance, over half the bankruptcies in America are caused in large part by unforeseen medical problems. The toll road philosophy says these people should have made “better choices” and that they must suffer the appropriate consequences for their bad choices. However, by not helping these people in a vein effort to uphold “individual responsibility” only hinders all of society. It is equivalent to stopping someone with no change at a toll booth and lecturing them for 30 minutes while traffic backs up for miles.
Such is the current state of America politics. For years the American public has been told that taxes can be cut without decreasing revenue, and without giving up their most cherished social programs. Now, that narrative is falling apart, and the middle class and poor are being asked to pay the price in the form of a toll.