Maxwell Anderson's IMA


Stephen Hawking,

the astrophysicist and author of A Short History of Time, says we humans probably aren't the only life

forms in the universe. According to an Associated Press report, Hawking

recently told an interviewer that he believes intelligent aliens almost

certainly exist. But, says Hawking, communicating with them could be "too


Hawking likened

a possible contact with aliens to Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New

World, "which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans." Hawking's

guess is that most extraterrestrial life forms are microbial. But, he warns,

more advanced forms might be "nomads, looking to conquer and colonize."

If this should

ever come to pass, we might benefit by asking these new arrivals how the

exploration that brought them here was funded. Were taxes involved? And, if so,

were the other aliens back on Planet Zontar happy about it?

Taxes are a

major bone of contention among we Earthlings, especially those living in these

parts. You could argue that, without taxes – or, at any rate, the

representation that supposedly accompanies them -- there might not have been an

American Revolution. "Taxation and representation are inseparably united," said

Charles Pratt, Earl of Camden, in a speech to the British House of Lords in

1765. "God hath joined them; no British Parliament can put them asunder. To

endeavor to do so is to stab our very vitals."

Had Pratt's

colleagues been paying attention and allowed colonists to sit alongside them

and vote in Parliament, we might now be worrying about the relative value of

the Pound versus the Euro. Everyone would have healthcare and our steering

wheels would be on the right.

As we know, King

George and Co. ignored Pratt's warning. America had its revolution. But our

issues with taxation were only beginning. Flash forward to 2010, and a rolling

boil with present day tax protesters riffing on their 18th century

ancestors, calling themselves the Tea Party.


Heritage Dictionary defines tax

this way: "A contribution for the support of a government required of persons,

groups, or businesses within the domain of that government." Right away we have

a problem. Those words "contribution" and "required" have a certain dissonance.

A contribution implies a willing participation. But a requirement puts a

coercive edge on it. Contribute or else.


brilliant insight was to understand representation as a kind of bridge that

made a tax seem more like a contribution than a requirement.

We have all

kinds of taxes. There are property taxes we pay for the privilege of owning a

house or business building in a given governmental jurisdiction. There are

sales taxes we pay on top of the price of things we buy – from gasoline

to underwear. Sin taxes are charged for stuff we enjoy but might do us harm,

like cigarettes and booze. And the income tax is a cut taken from our pay.

Taxes mean less

money in our pockets and higher prices.

But taxes also

mean that someone picks up the phone when you call 911. Taxes pave the roads,

build the schools, support a military, make sure our water is safe to drink,

and see to it that people who are too old or infirm to work aren't entirely

destitute. Taxes pay for the cleanup after natural disasters. Eventually, taxes

will help pay for efforts to plug a hole spewing oil at the bottom of the Gulf

of Mexico.

The need for

some things, like roads and soldiers, seems obvious to people and they

contribute to these without much thought. But other items aren't as clear.

Social Security and Medicare, food stamps and environmental protection, even

schools – all of these have drawn fire from citizens who objected to

being required to help pay for them.

Fair enough.

These sorts of differences over what to pay for and why can and should serve as

the bedrock on which a serious politics is based. Is, for example, healthcare a

right or a privilege? That's a question worth debating and, ultimately,

bringing to a vote. Indeed, determining the differences between rights and

privileges is crucial to figuring out just what our social contract with one

another is about.

But politicians,

from both parties, ducked this kind of debate. Instead, we heard about making

healthcare "affordable," whatever that means, and about the need to reform the

insurance industry.

We the people

have enabled this lack of nerve. We've done this by rewarding politicians who

stress taxes as requirements rather than contributions, who play to our

livingrooms instead of the public square. Rather than trying to decide what

kind of society we want, we argue reductively at the margins over heroes and

villains, who's up or down in the latest poll. In the end, nobody wins.

You have to

wonder what those nomadic aliens Stephen Hawking conjures would make of us.

Difficult as it is to picture them, it is even harder to imagine the discipline

it would take for them to travel such a vast distance. They'd probably find us

ripe for the picking.



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