We met at a cocktail party. When I learned he is a home builder, I said: "I hear a lot of complaints about real estate taxes, especially from retired people who have difficulty paying them on their reduced incomes." That was all I needed to set him off.
"Real estate taxes have become an abomination," he said. "Especially on private homes. They're totally unfair."
"Unfair?" I prodded. "They're based on current values. What's unfair about that?"
"But," he countered, "they're not based on services rendered, and they're not related to total wealth, or to current income, which is the usual measure of 'ability to pay.' Yet they're a principal source of revenue. It would make just as much sense to tax everybody's bank balance as to tax the house he lives in."
"Wait a minute," I said. "If a man buys a house in a certain neighborhood, isn't it reasonable to ask him to help pay for the schools in that neighborhood, police and fire protection, and all the other things a householder expects?"
"Not necessarily," the builder said. "One guy with seven children may find a ramshackle house for $35,000, and he's the one whi is going to need schools, playgrounds, clinics, counselling services, and heaven knows what else. Chances are that his kids are going to be in and out of juvenile court a couple of times and run up other government expenses. Yet that man is going to be taxed half as much as an elderly retired couple who bought a modest house 40 years ago and now finds it valued at $70,000. The retired couple is living on social security, they haven't had any kids in school in ages, and yet they're carrying twice as mucn tax burden."
"Oh, come on," I said. "Everybody knows that as a matter of conscious social policy we ease the tax burden on young families. Later, when their children are out of school and the family's earnings are higher, they can afford to repay the favor by helping to subsidize another generation of young families. We old geezers have nothing to complain about. When we were young, we paid less than our fair share for operating the schools. So now we pay more. There's nothing wrong with that."
"Maybe so," he conceded. "But do you know why they pick the real estate tax as the vehicle for raising all that money."
"No," I said. "Tell me."
"Because it's so easy to enact and enforce," he said. "Because it's guaranteed to bring in steadily increasing amounts of money as property values go up. And because it's a hidden tax, like the withholding tax that's taken out of a paycheck. Most people pay their real estate taxes in the form of higher rents or higher mortgage payments. They're not fully aware of how much they pay. All they know is that the mortgage payment is $329 a month, or the rent is $320 a month. If they had to pay their real estate taxes separately, in one identifiable lump sum, they'd scream."
A waiter passed by with a tray of drinks, and the builder reached for one. "If the real estate tax shouldn't be carrying so much of the tax load," I asked, "what's a sensible alternative?"
He shrugged. "How should I know?" he said. "All I'm saying is that too many of our taxes are hidden. If poeple were aware of how heavy their burden really is, I wonder if they'd still be enthusiastic about new government spending at every level - city, county, state and national. There's got to be a cutoff somewherer."
"But you're dodging the issue," I said. "You start out be saying that the real estate tax is an abomination, but when I ask you to suggest an alternative you don't have one."
He took a sip of painkiller. "Look," he said, "I'm not a politician, I'm a builder. Ask a politician for alternatives. The politicians are the people who know how to find new sources of revenue."
Unfortunately, there weren't any politicians at the party. Meybe it was just as well.