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Saturday, April 13, 2013

April 13-14, 2013: Taxes in America: The Cost

[As you finalize your taxes—not you, I know you’re done already, I mean everybody else—this week’s series has focused on some American moments and issues related to this controversial national theme. This special post does too, but in a very different way. Would love your thoughts!]
On the lesson one of our greatest TV shows has to offer when it comes to taxes.
Earlier this year, after literally years of prodding from friends and family members, I finally got around to watching all five seasons of The Wire. To say that I enjoyed the show would be to understate the case quite significantly; I’d say it’s one of the most impressive works of art (in any genre) I’ve ever encountered, and that no other show has ever engaged my brain, heart, and soul in equal measure. There are lots of reasons why, but very high on the list is that the show offered literally countless AmericanStudies stories, histories, themes, and moments; of the shows I’ve watched, only The West Wing comes close to being so thoroughly AmericanStudies, and I’d argue that David Simon’s breadth far exceeds that of Aaron Sorkin’s politically focused masterwork.
Despite bringing the political realm into the show in seasons 3 through 5 (primarily through the lens of city councilman and later mayoral candidate [among other developments that I won’t spoil here] Tommy Carcetti), Simon never engaged in any central way with the question of taxes; The Wire was profoundly focused on the city of Baltimore, and of course taxation is far more a state- and federal-level issue than a local one. Yet I would argue that one of the central political issues facing that city and its politicians throughout those seasons, the city government’s nearly bankrupt status, relates to taxes on two key levels: the flight from Baltimore to the suburbs of much of the city’s tax base, leaving behind communities in desperate need of government support but with no ability to contribute meaningfully toward that government’s revenues; and the concurrent failure, both because of equally shrinking revenues and because of unwillingness and often antagonism, of the state government to support its cities adequately.
Those are problems, and systemic ones, but they’re also largely abstract. Yet where The Wire truly stands out is in its ability to connect systemic issues to amazingly realized, fully human characters and communities, and that’s certainly true when it comes to this revenue question. Time and again in seasons 4 and 5, viewers see that both the city’s public schools (where season 4’s four main characters are in middle school) and its police forces (where many of the show’s most prominent characters work) are drastically under-funded, leading to countless problems, failures, bad choices, and some of the show’s darkest outcomes. This, Simon’s show intimates and I would state as clearly as possible, is the cost of historically low taxes (among many other policies of course): what should be among our most significant national priorities, such as education and the justice system, become instead wastelands; and those who depend on them for their employment, their futures, their survival—which is, y’know, all of us—are left with no support at all. I have no idea what to do about that problem—but watching and engaging with The Wire would be a good start.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?

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