Taxes can promote sustainability


The majority of U.S. citizens favor low taxes because they want to decide how to spend their money rather than letting the U.S. government decide. However, most Americans don’t realize that taxes are useful not just for raising revenue but also for discouraging undesirable choices.  For example, gas taxes discourage gas consumption, which reduces our payments to countries that sponsor terrorism, reduces pollution and emission of GHG, and increases national security by preparing America for future gas shortages. If the proceeds from these taxes are used to remedy other chronic societal problems, and in doing so increase the quality of life of all Americans, we get a win-win situation. For example, the three E’s of sustainability are environment, economy, and equity. Raising gas taxes is an investment in the environment, and it improves the economic situation of the federal government, making it more sustainable. If the revenue is used to provide health insurance and education to poor children, we’ve made a wise investment in human capital and increased equity, making our society more sustainable. Many people would rather not have to pay the gas tax, and use the money they save to buy stuff like HDTV’s.  But that use of money is not in the best interests of society, or even of those individuals.  I believe that the benefits of having a healthy, educated citizenry far outweigh the benefits of having more unnecessary stuff. Would you give up the chance to upgrade to an HDTV if it meant you might live longer (due to reduced pollution)? That you would pay less for your healthcare because hospitals would not have to charge the insured to cover the uninsured? That as an employer you could more easily find well-educated workers, which would improve your bottom line? That all Americans would benefit because a better educated citizenry would make our country more competitive in the global marketplace and our workers more valuable in the global workforce? And since we are now competing globally, a better educated, healthier workforce would make all U.S. companies more competitive and richer, which would make their employees richer, which would increase the amount of tax revenues flowing to the government, which might result in future tax reductions.  Thus our choice to raise gax taxes and invest the money in people rather than stuff improves environment, economy, and equity, making the whole country more sustainable.  Yes, not all taxes reap so many benefits, but we have to acknowledge that they have the potential to, and therefore be willing to pay them, recognizing that they are simply another form of investment.  Wouldn’t you rather invest in people rather than stuff?

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About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
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