The Common Good

A Flat Tax and 'the New Austerity,' or

At Europe Through the Back Door, our tour program just sold its 11,782nd seat for our 2011 season -- topping our best tour sales year ever (2007). Despite our antsy stock market and doom-and-gloom news stories, it seems that our economy is gaining some confidence. And yet, at the same time, our local symphony and arts center are in financial crisis.

As a way to celebrate, to give back to my beautiful hometown of Edmonds, and to spark a little conversation about why a society as affluent as the USA is cutting education, neglecting our environment, and defunding the arts while our wealthy class is doing better than ever, I've decided to make a donation of $1 million (in $100,000-a-year payments over the next decade) to our local symphony and arts center. This sum represents the money I've gained in the 10 years since the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans (those of us earning over $250,000 a year) took effect.

I believe those who say that "'job-creators' can't afford to pay 38 percent rather than 35 percent on their marginal income over $250,000" are either misguided or intentionally dishonest. I also believe a false austerity is being foisted on our society, and its long-term consequences are bad for the fabric of our democracy.

My local paper, The Everett Herald, has picked up the story. Judging from the comments, some conservatives may choose to see my gift as evidence that the wealthy will fund the arts with the money they save with lower tax rates. But the problem is that for every wealthy person who chooses to dig deep and bail out organizations that are in need, dozens more are pocketing their profits and not following through with their much-ballyhooed prediction that "the private sector will provide." The beauty of a more progressive tax code -- as we all enjoyed in the prosperous, Clinton-led 1990s -- is that the burden of funding the finer elements of society is spread fairly among those who can pay. Imagine worthwhile local causes not having to nervously wait for a generous donation -- which, all too often, fails to materialize.

With my donation, I hope to challenge people to imagine how a tax code that goes a little harder on the wealthy could be a virtually painless way to help balance our national budget while helping our communities enjoy a few fine points like schools, parks, libraries, symphonies, and arts centers. It's just so German, Dutch, and Canadian.

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio.

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