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Weeds and Taxes

I got myself to my garden for the first time on Tuesday. I haven’t quite figured out what to plant where, so I didn’t bring any seeds, but I spent a happy hour digging out those persistent, early-sprouting perennial weeds that don’t wait for wimpy “last average frost dates” to start staking their claim. It seems a little obsessive to be weeding empty beds, but I know from long experience that left alone, these suckers become really hard to deal with, especially without accidentally pulling up the delicate seedlings next to them.

I am, it should be noted, one of those sentimental nature lovers who has had a hard time with the idea of “weeds” at all. I had multiple fights as a child with my grandmother over whether dandelions in a lawn were flowers or weeds. I have long been acutely aware of the way we’ve poisoned ourselves in the name of weed killing. I have even recently become a big fan of edible weeds.

It took, not a gardening book, but Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel to made me feel OK with weeding. It’s a deal we strike with domesticated plants, he explains. They divert the energy they would usually put into competing with other plants into producing larger or more of whatever part of the plant we eat—more pea pods, larger squash, more fleshy cucumbers. In return, they require coddling. No one nearby shading their leaves or stealing their water or soil minerals or space for root growth.

Weeds are not “bad plants.” They’re not even just “out of place,” as some people like to soft pedal it. (Ecologically, that’s silly. Plants that tend to be garden weeds are ones that grow fast and well in disturbed sunny soil. They are exactly where they “belong.”) No, weeds just don’t co-exist well with plants that produce enough food per square foot for us sedentary humans. Until we shift ourselves back to hunting and gathering, we’re going to have to observe this deal with domesticated plants in some fashion.

On the day after tax day, this year complete with “Tea Party” protests, it seems relevant to think a little about the deals we strike and then later layer morality on top of.

Taxes are one of them. They are not good or evil. They are a compromise we make when we live in such concentration that to form a civilized and basically decent society, there are things that we want a government to do collectively for the whole. This is not inherently a redistributive notion. The wealthy, in fact, tend to benefit at least as much, if not more, from most of our collective endeavors: They have more assets to be protected by law enforcement. Their businesses rely on more people educated by the public schools, kept healthy by subsidized health care, and delivered to work by public transit. They make more use of publicly maintained roads and airports. And on and on.

Taxes can, of course, be both collected and spent wisely or unwisely, fairly or unfairly, and it’s no surprise that there are huge differences between us about how to do it right. Having just sent off a check to the IRS that was larger than what my family spends in a whole month, and having done a fair amount of research on what happens in shrinking cities when taxes spiral upwards to meet basic services for a dwindling population, I’m not sanguine about the burdens of too-high taxes.

But the conversations that need to be had get so muddied by the whole “taxes are evil” or “government spending is evil” or “raising taxes/government spending is evil” discourse. Muddied is probably too kind. Hell, they are usually cut off entirely.

And that is too bad. We need all the brains we can get to figure out how to sort out, for example, the foreclosure crisis and our current recession. Despite what some would have us believe, there are no clear liberal/conservative lines to be drawn through the morass and its proposed solutions.

But one thing is clear to me: When knee-jerk ideology means you don’t even understand what is going on accurately, you don’t have much to offer to the debate. And our fellow citizens who were protesting on tax day have some key facts wrong. For example, the homeowner bailout plan, designed to modify or refinance troubled (usually fraudulent) mortgages: It’s not giving out free rides. These mortgages are going to be turned into 40-year loans. The bailed-out people are going to owe more in the long run than they do now. And they’re more likely to have to actually pay it instead of going bankrupt or walking away from the house. Mortgages that are too far upside down (i.e. jumbo ones on seriously overvalued McMansions) don’t qualify either.

For another example, give up on the paranoid ACORN blaming already. You know what their role was in this? (1) To be the ones who knew what CNBC and Jim Cramer didn’t: That Lehman and kin were in danger from their stupid investments and going to fail. (2) To give loans to low-income people that weren’t predatory and destined to fail. Call the exorcists now.

Let’s set aside the fairy tales, and get our hands in the dirt.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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