Ways of Seeing: It’s civilization’s price of admission
Sitting in a laundromat in Denmark is remarkably like being in one in Middlebury. After a week of travelling, it was our day for relaxing and getting clean clothes. I looked up from my book and watched the tumbling laundry in the front-load machine begin to slow. Something was pasted on the inside of the window. Approaching the now stilled machine, I realized it was money. Stuck to the window were a couple of paper bills of Canadian currency.
I opened the door and proceeded to pull out the wet clothes, and, as I did, several more bills were revealed: some Canadian and some U.S. Laughing, I exclaimed to my family as each bill was extracted, adding them up. I thought I had collected all this astonishing treasure, but later, as I removed those same clothes from the dryer, several more bills tumbled out.
While the denominations were not large, there was something about the experience that felt like I was getting manna from heaven. A Danish man who seemed to have little understanding of our English chatter looked on with amazement, surely wishing he had put his laundry into the machines I had chosen. In reality, of course, I had not stumbled into some magical money machine. Rather, it was my own money, stuffed into a pants pocket and forgotten after we were no longer in either Canada or the U.S., and now so perfectly laundered.
This is not, however, a story about money laundering, except in the most literal sense. Rather, it is more akin to a magician’s sleight of hand — or perhaps a politician’s sleight of hand. Consider a tax alteration bill that ostensibly is “showering” you with savings. Oh, my! The standard deduction has doubled! Oh, my! The federal government is no longer helping the state with a wide variety of necessary programs: roads and bridges, health insurance, education! Oh, no!
It was difficult not to feel that my “found” money was some sort of bonus, even though I knew exactly where it came from. My watching family, while aware of the money’s actual source, and surely that fellow observing us, could easily have been persuaded to believe in the largesse provided me by the laundromat. With any of us so simply enticed by the illusion of something for nothing, how susceptible are we, as a population, to tax “reform” schemes? It is, quite simply, the old bait-and-switch game of the carnival huckster.
I no more rejoice at paying my taxes than in paying any other bill, but I appreciate that tax bill for what it is: the way we pay for our communities, our society, our environment — whether in the sense of roads, personal liberty, clean air and water, or National Parks. Taxes are neither gifts nor burdens, but the price of admission to our civilization. Yes, it’s true that some people lack the funds, but helping them is also the price of admission. How well we care for those in need is, indeed, a measure of our civilization and a component of our own harmony.
Almost anyone thrills at the thought of “free” money. Some people inherit their money, possibly attributing it to their own cleverness or worthiness. They may grow it, save it, give it away, or squander it, but it is only theirs by an accident of birth — because someone else stuffed it into their pockets. Some people win the lottery, but even that money did not come from magic. It came from the wallets of millions of other people who bought lottery tickets and did not win.
Most of us get our money by our work, even as we may dream of having it fall out of the sky. I think for us, for humans, money represents a basic sense of security. It is the ability to have food, shelter, health care, and maybe a few extra pleasures.
Sometimes the pull becomes too strong. The amassing of wealth or power takes us far from that basic security to a place of greed. When people use the word entitlement negatively, what they really should be talking about is the sense that you richly deserve more than others. Entitled actually means it is due you. Maybe it is due you because you already paid for it (like Social Security), or maybe it is because we, as a society, should see to it that people do not starve, do not freeze, can receive healthcare, and have a chance for an education. It goes back to our country’s Declaration of Independence: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I wrote a few months ago about how Denmark is one of the happiest countries. This is not because of free money at the laundromat. It is, at least in part, because people pay their fair share in taxes, leading to more universal social services and far more income equality. It is not money falling from the sky, but the sense of an equally shared responsibility for all in our community: a few dollars of security in everyone’s pockets.
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental, and just.
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