We can give thanks this Thanksgiving to be living in the United States, and to be Minnesotans, and we also can be grateful for all those taxes that pay for some of the best governments on Earth.
Of course, we also can be thankful for our free-enterprise system. Despite the Wall Street blun-ders and the random acts of greed that fed one of the worst crises in our history, most business folks are responsible and their innovation and ambition provides the material abundance symbolized by that iconic Thanksgiving cornucopia.
But government plays a vital role too. Despite the venom issuing from the government bashers and the tax protesters these days, our taxes and our governments -- every minute of every day and every which way -- are providing a foundation for prosperity that is just as important as the profit motive.
Here are a just a few mundane and grand things for which we can thank taxes and governments:
Your turkey and all that other bounty on the table is safe to eat, thanks in part to governmental oversight of food processing,
Also close to home and the dinner table, first-rate epidemiologists (government employees) in Minnesota got national attention in recent years for tracking down the origins of various e coli outbreaks and other threats to national health. Experts have long known that it's low-cost public health measures -- clean water, immunizations, pre-natal care and preventive measures -- that are primarily responsible for the dramatic improvements in our longevity over the last century. Taxes literally have lengthened our lives and improved the quality of them.
All of us at the table are more secure because millions of women and men in uniform represent the strongest military force in the world, a half-trillion-dollar annual taxpayer expense. We might not approve of the war in the Middle East, but most Americans would prefer to be powerful than weak or mediocre. We can't play that role, and we couldn't be taking on religious extremists and dictators, and couldn't have won the Cold War, without trillions in taxes.
If somebody chokes at the Thanksgiving table or has a heart attack, our local governments' first responders, police and paramedics and fire department folks, likely will be there within minutes. This kind of service was unheard of in the lower-tax economy of 50 years ago. Business innovation and communications technology are part of the story, but public investment in research and science were fundamental.
If you have somebody over the age of 65 or 70 at your table, they probably are living a little better than they otherwise would because of taxes. Our hospitals and assisted living facilities and economic security systems depend on government. Social Security and Medicare often are represented as big, intractable cost-drivers, but their financing is easy enough to fix, and these investments largely are responsible for a dramatic decrease in elderly poverty and increased quality-of-life over the last century.
If you have somebody under the age of 25 at your table, they likely are benefiting directly and recently through hundreds of billions of dollars invested in education and human development. Teachers, professors and counselors and early childhood workers impart knowledge and skills to 65 million Americans every year. And taxpayer-financed universal public education was the single most important factor in our nation's rise to wealth and power. Minnesota's pre-eminence has much to do with investing more and more intelligently in public education than most other states over many decades.
Government screw-ups make the headlines and it's good to be skeptical and constructively critical of our government policies. But the story of our taxpayer-financed accomplishments and succes-ses could fill volumes, from the NASA program to funding for mentally handicapped kids, from Local Government Aid to my personal life-enrich-ing favorite amenities, such as the Minnesota History Center and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Thinking about these things carefully makes the anti-government rage look a little silly, but it also reminds one that we get what we pay for, and we might need to pay a little more in the very near future.
Income tax rates at the state and federal level were cut too deeply a decade ago. National debt is growing too large, after moderate tax increases erased it in the 1990s. We are at war in the Middle East. An older nation will need more economic security. And growing inequal-ity, which often correlates to smaller government, has cre-ated needs for equalizing edu-cational opportunity in low-income families.
We need to pay our dues and we need to invest more in public goods and services, and we need to be thankful, not fearful, for the taxes that we pay to some of the most legitimate and effective governments the world has known.
Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a St. Paul-based policy research organization that focuses on tax-and-budget issues and economics.