March 26, 2019

Taxes Are How We Pay For Programs We Value

casual college students

One benefit of being one of those evil liberal college professors one hears so much about from some conservatives is that I get to spend time with lots of college students. That may sound like a strange thing to say. I am well aware of how many people my age seem to look down on college-age people in general and college students in particular, but I do not share their animosity. I enjoy working with college students. As I get older, I find that doing so helps me feel a bit less disconnected from younger people than I would otherwise. I've been able to recognize that many of the stereotypes about Millennials (and whatever we're calling those who are too young to be Millennials) are inaccurate and unfair. As just one example, I find that most college students are far better informed about politics than my peers and I were when we were their age.

I have noticed at least one interesting exception to this idea of being politically informed, and it is one that I still don't understand well. Many of the college students I work with seem to have real trouble making a connection between how they vote at the state and federal level and the policies that impact their daily lives. I've lost count of the number of times students who vote consistently Republican (which is most of them where I live) complain about the lack of affordable healthcare, our state's system of public education, the virtual absence of mental health services for low income people, programs to help those released from prison re-enter society, and so on. They do not seem to understand that these things all cost money and that paying for them usually means higher taxes.

Without challenging their political views, I have started trying to help them make some of these connections. This seems to be necessary for both conservative students and liberal students (few as they may be). "Free college" does not exist, and it never will. Just because some students might not have to pay for it does not make it free. Someone is paying for it, and they are probably paying for it through some combination of higher taxes and cuts to other programs. If we are going to demand "free college," we need to recognize that it will come at a cost, some of which some of us will likely end up paying. The same is true for "free healthcare" and pretty much every other program one might want. I am not about to tell the conservative students to stop voting for Republicans, but I do think it is important that they understand how governments pay for social programs. It is also important that they can make the connection between demanding low taxes and the degree to which valued programs are funded.

In some ways, some of the conservative students remind me of a hypothetical atheist who only votes for Christian extremists who are openly hostile to the separation of church and state and then complains about how separation of church and state is always under attack. The rest of us can see what is happening and would be puzzled that such an atheist could manage to do so. My guess is that most of these conservative students simply do not realize how rarely those they elect support the programs and services they want.

And yes, this is not always a Republican thing or a conservative thing. Something similar happens at times with Democrats and liberals. But when we are talking about government-funded programs designed to provide assistance to poor or disadvantaged groups, it does usually seem to involve the conservative students. When these students persist in voting for candidates who say they want lower taxes and criticize social assistance programs, they should not be surprised by what they get when these candidates are elected.

When we seek progress, we should make sure to let our political candidates and elected officials know what we want. If they repeatedly ignore us, we should support different candidates and elect different officials. And if it isn't just them ignoring us but most of their political party, then it is time to shift our support to another party and see if they can do any better.