October is my favorite month, as it is for many other Michiganders. The usually clear sky, which is a more intense shade of blue than at any other time of year, serves as a grand backdrop for the reds and golds of the fall foliage. These are sweater days. Coats and scarves won’t come out of the closet for a few more weeks. The cool nights are perfect for sleeping and the days are perfect for being outdoors. Hunters head for the woods and the fields, fisherman to the lakes, and children romp in the fallen leaves. Homeowners are raking those same leaves and trying not to think of the snow they will soon be shoveling. The abundant wildlife is gathering the bounty of nature and storing it away for the coming months. All is right with the world.
That October weather has carried over into the first week of November this year. It was one of those perfect days today when my dog Al and I headed out for our daily walk. As we walked through the golden leaves that had fallen from the large beech tree in our backyard, I could see our neighbor, Beau, busily raking the leaves of the sugar maple that grew in his front yard. Most years, the leaves of that maple turn a beautiful orange. This year, the leaves were such a deep burnt-orange they were almost red.
As we walked by, Beau put down his rake and joined us for our walk. Beau and I might not share the same philosophy or politics, but it seems we both appreciate beauty.
His first words were, “Trees sure are beautiful this year.”
I shouldn’t have left it hanging there. Most days, Beau and I talk about neutral subjects, like sports or nature. I enjoy his company on those days. The days I don’t look forward to are the ones where he quotes Rush. By waiting so long I’d given him a chance to choose politics as the topic of discussion.
“Rush was makin’ a lot of sense t’day.”
“Oh, Lord, save me from Rush,” I thought. “Why didn’t I keep talking about autumn colors?”
A discussion of anthocyanins and how they affect the color of fall leaves might have kept the conversation away from the latest liberal outrage that had come to Rush Limbaugh’s attention. Oh well, too late now.
“Rush said t’aint fair ta raise taxes on rich people. He, said they pay most of the taxes as it is.”
My gaze remained on the ground as I scuffed through the fallen leaves. I thought it best not to let Beau see the look of annoyance I knew must show on my face. This right-wing meme is one I’d found to be particularly galling. Unfortunately, Beau took my silence as a form of assent.
“Rush also said, 47% of people don’t pay taxes. That doan seem fair.”
From experience, I knew saying what I really thought about Rush Limbaugh would only make Beau defend whatever nonsense Rush was spouting. I was going to have to come at this from a different angle.
“47%, eh. That seems like a lot. I wonder how so many people get away with not paying any taxes?”
“Yeah, ’tis a lot,” Beau said. “Rush said ‘stead of raisin’ taxes on the job creators we should be makin’ the moochers pay their fair share.”
“Yeah, that’s what Ayn Rand called them.”
I glanced at Al who was eagerly sniffing his way through the fallen leaves then looked at Beau.
“Hmm, didn’t you say your boy worked part-time this summer while he was home from college?”
It probably seemed to Beau as if I was trying to change the subject. That must have seemed like an abject surrender on my part. Beau decided to be magnanimous and went along with what he thought was a new topic.
“Yup, I’m proud of that boy. He didn’t come home and lay around all summer, like some kids do.”
“Don’t suppose he made a whole lot of money in a few weeks?” I said.
“No, but he said he wanted to make some money of his own,” Beau replied. “That’s a big help to me, ‘specially in this economy.”
“Good for him,” I said. “I suppose he’ll be filing an income tax return this year?”
Beau was a little slow on the uptake today. “Well, sure. I’ll probably help him fill it out.”
“Don’t suppose he’ll owe much tax.”
“Nah, he’ll probably get it all back,” he said.
It finally dawned on Beau that he’d been set up.
“So he’s one of those moochers Rush was talking about. Huh, imagine that.”
“Now that’s not fair.”
“Oh, I’m not calling him that,” I said, rather disingenuously. “That’s what Rush called people like him.”
“Well, Rush wasn’t talkin’ ’bout my boy.”
“Sure he was, your boy and the millions of kids like him.”
Beau remained silent as we turned onto the trail that leads through the woods to the small lake by our homes. I bent and unsnapped the leash from Al’s collar so he could run through the woods now that we were away from the road.
When we moved on, I picked the conversation up right where we’d left off.
“In fact,” I continued, “he was probably talking about your mother too.”
“Hey, leave my mother out of this,” Beau said indignantly.
“But, Beau, Rush already brought her into this.”
“Didn’t you tell me she lives mostly on her Social Security checks?”
“Yeah, that and a few small investments my dad made before he died.”
“So she has some investment income?”
“Not much, a couple thousand a year, maybe.”
“That means she is required to file an income tax return.”
“Bet she doesn’t have to pay any tax on such a small return.”
“So Rush would call her one of the moochers,” I said.
“Nah, Rush would never call someone like her a moocher,” Beau replied. “My dad paid into Social Security his whole life. She deserves what she gets.”
“I agree, but if what you’ve told me is true then Rush did call her a moocher, because she filed a return and didn’t owe any tax.”
“Yeah, but he didn’t mean people like her.”
“If you say so, but she’s still part of the 47%.”
We both paused to watch Al go racing towards a big oak tree. He must have spotted a squirrel burying nuts. For an old guy, he sure can get up a head of steam. I worry about him pulling a muscle when he decides to act younger than his age. Luckily, for my nerves, this run didn’t last too long. The squirrel went up a tree while Al was still 10 yards away. Al circled the tree a few times and then started working through the woods again when he saw me start walking.
Once we started walking again, I was the first to speak.
“So your boy and your mother are part of the 47% but aren’t moochers?”
“No way,” he said.
“How about the millions of people like them?”
“I guess not,” Beau admitted reluctantly.
“So you don’t agree with Rush that the 47% are all moochers?”
“No, I guess not.”
“What about people that make less than the poverty level? They pay all sorts of other taxes from the little they make. Do you think they should pay more taxes?”
“I s’pose not.”
“Well, according to the Tax Policy Center report I read, there were more than 24 million returns from people that made less than $10,000 last year. That’s about 15% of all returns.”
“Still leaves a lot of people.”
“Yes, leaves about 31% of all returns,” I said.
I paused for a moment to watch Al sniff around the base of an oak tree. No doubt there had been a lot of squirrels rummaging in the leaves while they looked for acorns. There is a lot of wildlife in our area. If I walked over and looked at the ground I’d probably see some deer tracks too.
When Al moved on to the next patch of scent, I started walking and talking again.
“A lot of those lower income returns are for families,” I said. “Should people with families that make less than $20,000 per year have to pay much in income taxes on top of all of the other taxes they pay?”
“Some, maybe,” Beau said. “Doan s’pose they should pay too much.”
“A family of four isn’t getting by very well on $20,000,” I said. “No going out to the movies. Cheap meals
. Praying their raggedy old car that gets them to and from work doesn’t need repairs. Living life on the edge.”
“Yeah, I imagine it’s pretty tough,” Beau agreed. “I don’t have anything to spare and I make twice that and it’s just me and my boy.”
“That study I mentioned shows that 29% of tax returns are for less than $20,000. That only leaves 18% of that 47% Rush talked about,” I said.
“That’s still a lot of people,” Beau pointed out.
“True. But a lot less than the 47% Rush was talking about.”
The trail widened out as we approached the lake. As usual, our conversation died out as we took in the beauty of the scene.
The water of the lake often reminds me of the eyes of a woman I once knew. Her eyes would be different colors under different lighting conditions. The lake is like that. Some days it is a cold gray under lowering clouds. Other days, it can be green as it reflects back the color of the summer foliage. On autumn days, like today, it is a deep blue as if drinking in the color of the sky. When there is a light breeze that ruffles the water, you can see the yellows, golds, reds, and oranges of autumn leaves in the ripples. It’s almost as if a rainbow has fallen into the lake and is floating on the surface.
It’s hard to be in a bad mood on a day like this, even if the subject of conversation is something Rush Limbaugh said. Beau and I stood quietly as we drank in the beauty of the scene. Al, less appreciative of beauty, literally drank from the lake. When he’d drunk his fill the three of us headed back down the trail towards home.
“You know, a lot of the people that end up not owing any tax are small business owners,” I said as we walked back into the woods.”
Beau gave me a questioning look.
“Some of them might have $50,000 in business income and $40,000 in expenses,” I explained. “You can’t hardly expect them to pay taxes on that $40,000.”
“True,” Beau said.
“In fact, some farmers don’t make much at all once you add up the price of seed and all of the other expenses they have.”
“There must be quite a few people like that. I would guess that eliminates quite a few of that remaining 18%.”
“I s’pose that’s true,” Beau said.
“That 47% Rush was complaining about is down around 10% now. Doesn’t seem so outrageous when you actually think about it, does it?
“No, not once you think ’bout it a bit,” Beau admitted.
“Quoting that 47% figure isn’t the only thing that bugs me about this claim,” I said.
Beau gave me another questioning look and waited for me to go on.
“Another thing that bugs me is talking about poor people having ‘skin in the game’.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Studies show that people in the lower income brackets pay more than 16% of their income in taxes.”
“It’s actually probably higher than that if you factor in some of the hidden fees, like on your phone and cable tv bill or your utility bill.”
Beau chewed that thought over for a bit and when he didn’t reply I continued, “80 bucks a year for a license plate doesn’t seem like much to somebody that makes $100,000 per year. It’s a big deal to someone who is always broke two days before payday. Finding an extra $80 can be mighty tough when you only make a couple of hundred a week.”
“I can see that,” he said.
“We’ve got people in this country making millions and paying 15% capital gains tax rates. Then we’ve got poor people working their asses off at minimum wage jobs paying more than 16% of their income in taxes.”
My voice was getting a little heated, so I paused for a moment to calm myself down then continued more calmly, “We’ve also got profitable corporations raking in billions and then getting millions or billions more in tax breaks and subsidies.”
Apparently, my tone was still a little heated, because Al looked up from where he was sniffing around a bush to see what was bothering me. I tried to tone it down a bit more before saying, “Now tell me more about these moochers Rush was talking about.”
Beau may not be as sensitive to my mood as Al, but he had no trouble seeing I was a bit ticked off about the subject.
“Didn’t mean to get you upset,” he said.
“Sure you did,” I thought. “That’s why you brought up Rush.”
Those thoughts went unspoken, but I wasn’t done yet.
“What really bugs me is this idea that poor people should be paying more in taxes. Hell, the reason they don’t pay more is because they don’t have more. For Pete’s sake, that’s what ‘being poor’ means.”
I kicked angrily at a clump of fallen leaves and then went on, “Our revenue problems aren’t going to be solved by making poor people ‘have skin in the game.’ They don’t have any money. You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.”
My gaze stayed on the ground as we walked along. I was looking for another clump of leaves to kick. Beau remained silent.
“I’ll tell you what. You can agree with Rush if you want, but I can’t agree that people like your mother and son are moochers.”
“I never said that,” he objected.
“You sure seemed to be taking Rush’s word on this as gospel when we started our walk,” I said.
“Well, I hadn’t really thought about it yet.”
“You do that a lot?” I asked.
What I wanted to say was, “Let Rush do your thinking for you.” But I knew better than to say something like that.
We had reached Beau’s yard by then and I had no desire to continue the conversation. I pointed at his yard and said, “You need to get back to your raking.”
Beau glanced at his yard and said, “Yeah, I should get more done before it gets dark.”
I wasted no time getting away.
“See ya later.”
Al and I ambled towards home. As we walked along, he kept sneaking glances at me as if he could still sense something was wrong with my mood.
“It’s alright, Al,” I said as I bent over and patted his shoulder. “Not your fault Rush Limbaugh is an asshole.”
I gave a quick laugh when Al barked as if he agreed with me. I was suddenly in a much better mood as we headed for the house.
Resources: Tax Policy Center pdf.