You don’t hear it often, so we’ll start off by saying it as clearly as we can: Raise our taxes, please!
On Nov. 6, California voters will decide whether to raise income taxes on the wealthiest Californians and add a 1⁄4 cent temporary sales tax to fund critical areas of education and public safety.
Without these modest tax increases, our state, which once led the nation in the quality of its public education, will continue its slide to the bottom of the rankings.
While many today have a very negative view of taxation, to the extent of comparing it to theft, Jewish tradition understands paying taxes as a religious obligation. In the Talmud, the great compendium of Jewish law, we are taught that if a town is surrounded by a wall, everyone in the community must contribute to repairing breaches in that wall. On this basis, Jewish communities throughout history, even when there was no Jewish state, levied taxes on their members to serve communal needs, such as for the care of orphans and widows, for education and health care, and to pay for funeral services for the indigent.
Judaism, like Christianity and Islam, is focused on the community rather than the individual. It understands individuals as being connected to one another. A rabbinic parable teaches that exaggerated individualism is like a person who decides to drill a hole in the bottom of the boat. When his fellow passengers complain, he answers that the hole he is drilling is only below his own seat. They quite rightly respond that his hole will sink all of them.
Think of it this way: If we took individualism to its logical conclusion, what would our society look like? We’d have private police forces where people could afford them and none elsewhere. The wealthy would fund schools for their children and everyone else would be illiterate.
Asking those who earn the most to pay taxes at a higher level is a longstanding American tradition and one that is beneficial to our country’s economic well-being. In the 1950s, when the U.S. economy was at its most vibrant, a time of exponential growth for the American middle class, the highest tax rate was 90 percent. Today it is 35 percent, and the tax on capital gains, the main source of income among the wealthiest Americans, is a mere 15 percent.
Income inequality in the United States has been increasing dramatically in large part due to tax cuts for the wealthy, but this is detrimental to the economy as a whole. As the International Monetary Fund has shown, countries with greater income equality have more sustained economic growth. Passing Proposition 30 would be a small step toward restoring progressive taxation.
Proposition 30 is a modest proposal. Its passage will not solve all the problems of our state. But it will make an important contribution by maintaining the basics of a civil society. The greatest percentage of the funding would go to K-12 schools, with an increase of funds to community colleges, as well. This will help those who need the help the most.
Prop. 30 would also break the cycle of budget cuts and allow our state to invest in priority areas. Its passage would have ripple effects throughout the state budget. For example, it would protect the University of California and the California State University systems from $250 million in ”trigger cuts” that would take effect immediately if the initiative fails. This would allow U.C. to avoid a hefty midyear tuition hike. Education is an important part of the path to prosperity for the residents of our state.
So isn’t it time to get over our recently acquired dislike of paying taxes and enjoy the prosperity that comes from everyone paying their fair share?
Melanie Aron is the rabbi of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos.
David Biale is a professor of Jewish history at U.C. Davis. Both are regional council members of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.