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Why taxes can be patriotic

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
  • Nicolaus Mills says Bronxville, New York, residents are reluctant on needed tax hike
  • He says they are wealthy, get great services for their money; why can't they pay?
  • He says there's a powerful anti-tax mindset; FDR called interdependence patriotic
  • Mills: Raising taxes today is a political third rail, but in FDR's time, it was about support, unity

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.

(CNN) -- Bronxville, New York, is one of the richest suburbs in America, with 40% of its households reporting incomes of $200,000 or more. It normally stays out of the news. But recently, Bronxville has made headlines because its residents are reluctant to pay more taxes, even if that means cutbacks in its schools and police force.

For years, I have been taking the train to Bronxville and walking to nearby Sarah Lawrence College, where I teach, and I was astonished by the news. In Bronxville, the typical homeowner pays $43,000 in annual property taxes. Why an additional $100 to $200, which is the tax figure being discussed these days, would matter is hard to explain. Some residents may say they would prefer that teachers and other city employees pay more for their pensions, which have skyrocketed in the past few years

But the recession has not taken the personal toll in Bronxville that it has in less affluent communities, and Bronxville residents have no reason to believe they aren't getting their money's worth from the taxes they pay. They have superb public schools, and the town runs like clockwork.

What is significant about Bronxville's tax anxieties is that they show the degree to which the anti-tax movement in America has taken on a life of its own. Being pro-tax has become the new third rail of American politics.

It was not always this way, and in our current rush to reduce taxes, it is important to look at the example President Roosevelt set during the Great Depression and World War II. He demonstrated, contrary to today's common wisdom, that it is possible to make the case for increased taxes and still win elections.

Roosevelt was no egalitarian. He was committed to free markets and free enterprise. For FDR, the case for taxes rested on old-fashioned patriotism -- on the deeply held belief that interdependence and sacrifice were the cornerstones of American democracy.

The interdependence argument was one that Roosevelt voiced most fully in the summer of 1935, two months before he signed the Social Security Act into law.

In an address to Congress, Roosevelt quoted industrialist Andrew Carnegie's observation: "Where wealth accrues honorably, the people are always silent partners." Roosevelt interpreted Carnegie's statement to mean that in a country like America, nobody got rich on his own. The wealthy prospered not only because of their own efforts, but because they were protected by the government and the legal system and could draw on an educated workforce.

From this it followed, Roosevelt argued, that taxes on the wealthy that were proportionately higher were not an imposition. They reflected a social climate that made the accumulation of great wealth possible and consistent with the social order.

When it came to the question of sacrifice, Roosevelt made a similarly patriotic argument about the fundamental nature of America. In his first inaugural address, he had talked about the need to sacrifice for the common good, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he revived that argument with respect to the war effort.

"War costs money," FDR told the country in his January 1942 State of the Union Address. "That means taxes and bonds and bonds and taxes. It means cutting luxuries and other nonessentials."

The idea of fighting a war while conducting business as usual on the home front was a betrayal of the troops, the president believed. "When our enemies challenged our country to stand up and fight, they challenged each and every one of us," he insisted.

Today, it is hard to imagine many politicians drawing the link between taxes and patriotism that Roosevelt did. They would, they know, be asking for trouble, not only in a suburb like Bronxville, but in countless villages and towns.

But it is important to remember that Roosevelt -- a traitor to his class in the eyes of the bankers and industrialists he sought to regulate -- never had an easy time of it.

Roosevelt never tried to win over his diehard opponents. Instead, he reached beyond them, repeatedly making the case to the electorate that even if the issue were taxes, acting with "the warm courage of national unity" in mind meant more than just looking out for No. 1.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.