So I played in the municipal sand box last eve in my role as Kentwood city commissioner. The topic of the forthcoming plebiscite to pass an increased 1% in our Michigan sales tax came up; statewide it aspires to raise 2 billion from 10 million Michiganders, 200 dollars for each man woman and child.I have not hidden any peas in some putative shell game, have I?
The commissioners are in a frenzy to get this passed because our city would get 2 million, plus some angel dust, back. This was presented as just the solution to relieve our (relative) fiscal niggardliness.
Our city of 50k, ordinary working folks, would contribute 10 million. I, the resident skeptic, enquired about the missing 8 million, and was rewarded with scowls.
A commission member, who I respect highly, insisted that the only taxes that would leave Kentwood would be the portion that our generally mid and lower class residents paid in direct taxes. He admitted that the sales taxes would be levied on all sorts of purchases by our local service infrastructure, on building materials in new construction and that folks on fixed incomes/public assistance would demand more from the public teat, so causing the tax increases to be embedded in virtually all the prices confronting our citizens. “But if you don’t to the new sports stadium, you won’t have to pay those taxes; I just don’t believe that our citizens will pay 200 per person per year!”
The member is an engineer, and not without mathematical sensibilities. (I on the other hand have a business degree and can’t imagine a balance sheet or income statement in which numbers disappear into the mystical cloud of “I don’t believe.”)
The tax increase of 2 billion distributed over 10 million, allocated to 50k and yielding a 10 million for Kentwood’s population is a simple and irrefutable accounting of what we will pay. Pointing out our return of 2 million back is dramatic and memorable. Folks can understand this exaction, and they will also understand the affront of our getting only a tiny percent back. It requires only a few well chosen words.
On the other hand, try to explain to voters why they won’t be paying the 200 per person because arcane forces will spare them, play the “I believe” shell game, and you soon find yourself talking gibberish and sounding ever more scary. As I repeated the basic “200 dollars, 10 million, puny return” I forced ever more technically complex and confused counter examples that would turn voters and taxpayers off.
Those who would argue for tax understanding by individuals and politicians would do well to study Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals; personalize the tax exaction, fix it, go outside the expertise…..
In the Economist blog