Paine said …

A few common-sense thoughts about government

Bob Schmidt is a Sacramento-area freelance writer.

Governing shouldn’t be that hard, should it?

You determine what society needs to be free and secure and productive, you determine how much it costs to provide what is needed for society to be free and secure and productive, you divide that cost among the members of society, you collect the money, and you spend it to do what needs doing.

Do we need a government to do that? Thomas Paine thought so, reluctantly.

“Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is a necessary evil,” he wrote in 1776 in “Common Sense.”

“Society,” Paine wrote, “is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the later negatively by restraining our vices.”

Government, he said, is “a mode made necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.”

This, for some reason, seems to have become a liberal perspective: A society is productive if its members are healthy and educated. Since the more healthy people there are, the more society benefits, society should make sure that health care is available to everyone, regardless of the ability to pay for those who need it.

Another liberal perspective: Similarly, the larger the pool of educated people, the more society is likely to benefit from having provided its members with the tools needed to cope with problems, education, including college, should be made available to all who want it, regardless of their ability to pay for it.

There are an abundance of reasons for creation of the country’s current fiscal mess, including fraud and incompetence by individuals whose decisions and job performance affect the economy directly. But two reasons directly involve government.

No. 1: Government spends more money than it should, because it does some things that it shouldn’t be doing or needn’t be doing. In California, for example, the governor’s 2012-2013 revised budget proposal includes an expenditure of more than $1 million for the office of the constitutionally required lieutenant governor, which is necessary because … why?

The Constitution creates the Board of Equalization, and the proposed budget allocates $386,351 for its operation. There is also the Franchise Tax Board, and $669,385 is its proposed budget. There is much duplication of responsibilities. They should be merged.

There’s much, much more in government spending that can be trimmed, and the trimming would be easier if the Constitution were rewritten.

But, No. 2, there are the sadly successful schemes of wealthy individuals and businesses to avoid paying a share of the cost of government, at both the federal and state levels. Certainly, there are many people collecting welfare who shouldn’t be doing so. But that’s nickels and dimes. Wealthy corporations collecting welfare and not paying their fair share of taxes, that’s dollars. Lots of dollars.

In August 2006, the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a 370-page report estimating that tax-avoidance schemes by super wealthy American individuals and corporations are costing the U.S. Treasury as much as $100 billion a year in taxes that should have been paid, but aren’t: One-hundred billion dollars. Every year. And growing. It might be double that this year.

A Washington Post story last fall quoted a report that “examined the finances of 280 corporations from 2008 through 2010 and found that 30 paid zero taxes or used loopholes to wind up with negative tax rates.”

The IRS 2010 tax report disclosed that 1,470 American billionaires and millionaires had paid zero income taxes. In 2011, according to the IRS, the number of tax-evading billionaires and millionaires exceeded 5,000.

The Republican reason for opposing higher taxes for the wealthy is that an increase would reduce the amount of money available for job-creating investment.

But the Bush administration tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 allowed wealthy individuals and corporation to save billions of dollars from their tax bills, billions that would then be available for job-creating investment.

But the unemployment rate rose to its highest level in 70 years. So where did the tax savings go? The tax cuts are still in effect, because their extension was supported by President Barack Obama, apparently forgetting why he was elected.

It would seem that more than government needs fixing for society to be free and secure and productive.