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Originally published April 11, 2012 at 9:02 PM | Page modified April 11, 2012 at 11:25 PM

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Taxes are for the common good

The bottom line in tax debates should be commitment to community.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Can we skip the foreplay and get to the end result?How much tax is common good enough? ... MORE
Taxes are for the "common good?" Is that why newspapers sought and received... MORE
Class warfare. If taxes are for the common good then EVERYONE should pay them. ... MORE

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It's hard to make rational tax policy when so much of what anyone thinks about taxes comes from the gut.

But I've always thought we'd do better at it if we at least agreed that taxpaying is ultimately a civic duty.

Then we might have a more collegial discussion about who pays how much, and what kind of taxes we should have.

A prerequisite is recognizing that we are a community, that we are in it together — and that means giving up some individual autonomy for the benefit of the whole.

Fragmented community equals fragmented ideas about taxes and the things they pay for at every level of government.

This paper carried a story on Tuesday about preschool education. The National Institute for Early Education Research declared tax-funded preschool programs in our state among the best in the nation.

We should be pleased, but the study also said those programs reach only half the students who need them.

The funding shortfall may be a tiny, temporary win for some individuals, but it is a long-term loss for the entire community.

Attending a good preschool has proved to have powerful and positive long-term effects. But it is one of the areas that suffers when government in general is starved.

Sometimes programs are targeted for cuts because not enough people like or respect whoever they think will benefit.

Welfare was transformed in the Clinton administration, at least in part, because folks thought the beneficiaries were all laggards.

A few days ago, you may have read about Joe Zarelli, a Republican state senator who has argued for cutting programs that provide medical care and temporary housing to thousands of impoverished residents.

Yet Zarelli gets $601 a month in federal disability benefits for a back injury he suffered while in the Navy.

Zarelli says he earned his government money but the others did not. Military service is to be valued, of course, but that shouldn't mean turning our backs on people who have disabilities not connected to military service.

Being part of a community includes helping people who can't help themselves.

Reading about Zarelli reminded me that too often we help those who have the greatest influence rather than the greatest need, as in the case of a Navy program to build a new class of ships. So far, two of the ships have been put to the test, and they've had multiple problems. There is doubt they'll ever live up to promises, but the story said there was no question at all that the program would go ahead. I don't see how that contributes to our common defense.

Some people want to protect the interests of another powerful group, the 1 percent of Americans whose income is more than $1 million a year.

Congress could soon take up legislation to raise the taxes of the wealthiest households, but it probably won't pass, certainly not in an election year.

But in any year, there are arguments about taxes based on who is more deserving, the rich or the poor, rather than what makes the most financial sense and yields the greatest social benefit.

Wednesday, while President Obama was championing the tax legislation in Florida, Sen. Patty Murray spoke in favor of it at a coffee house in Seattle.

She brought some constituents to talk about why millionaires need to pay a fairer share of taxes.

There were two small-business owners, a firefighter and a construction worker.

One of them, Malia Keene, who owns Magpie children's store, said that because millionaires game the system, small-business owners have to pay more than is fair.

Of course the speakers were chosen for their appeal to the gut, but in this case they were starting from the right place, that we are one community. Tax time, Keene said, "is a reminder of what we can do together."

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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