Tax the rich
Published in the Brookline
February 3, 2000
It took a while to notice Brookline's financial problems. When we first
moved here the town's high-income reputation distracted me, as did the
sky-high real estate prices, the fancy stores, and the well-regarded schools
and other town services. But it's finally sunk in: Despite all the money
in many residents' pockets, the town's own finances are on shaky ground.
I'd like to see the next Town Meeting broaden current revenue discussions
and plan for a fundamentally better future. My proposal: Tax the rich.
Hey, that's where the money is.
The town's financial problems appear in many guises. My family lives
in Brookline for the schools, but because of school budget restrictions
my daughter's kindergarten ended at noon last year, and she won't learn
a foreign language in the early grades. Another example: The town's revenue
mania routinely distorts debates over development projects like the Coolidge
Corner hotel and the extension of 10 Brookline Place over the MBTA station,
making irrelevant these projects' inherent merits and faults.
The lack of revenue makes it difficult to think beyond traditional budget
items like schools and fire stations. But with more money, we could do
better. We could make our affordable housing program meaningful rather
than pitiful. We could provide rent subsidies to independent store owners,
helping them compete with deep-pocket corporate chains. We could create
a local shuttle system and cut down on traffic.
We could, in other words, use our imaginations and live up to Brookline's
self-image. Instead of begging the state to send more money our way, instead
of overdeveloping every square inch of available space, instead of letting
services slide with the convenient excuse that we have no choice, let's
fix this problem ourselves.
Now, I'm no tax expert. Much of what I'm brainstorming about would take
some legislative maneuvering or constitutional tinkering to recreate Brookline
as a model of progressive taxation. But let's brainstorm together.
For a start, we could implement a steeply progressive town income tax.
Low-income households would pay no tax, moderate income residents an easily
affordable half a percent or so. Only past $100,000 a year would residents
begin to pay perhaps 1%. As income increases, so would the percentage,
with a much higher percentage for the truly wealthy. This could be administered
on a postcard-sized form, using the income line from the federal or state
Also appealing is a one-time tax on wealth, proposed recently by people
as different as Donald Trump and Robert Reich. This would be harder to
administer, and might require a constitutional amendment. But it seems
perfectly reasonable to levy a steep tax on multi-millionaires (do we
have any billionaires in town?). If they choose to leave town instead,
at least property costs might go down.
I know some people think we already pay too much in taxes. That's certainly
true for people near the bottom of the income distribution, who pay Social
Security taxes even when they don't earn enough to pay income tax. But
it's not true at the higher end of the middle and at the top. The stock
market goes up, the media extol the economic boom, people retire at laughably
low ages with unconscionably high fortunes, but the reality for half the
population remains very different. Despite the boom, the poor and working
class do worse and everyone's public realm deteriorates.
As an aside, some friends of mine who just moved from Canada to Australia
were tempted to move to Brookline instead, but among other factors they
preferred a country that provides frills like decent health care for all.
They could think of only one personal financial consideration on which
the US came out ahead--our shockingly low tax rate.
There are other sources of money beyond individuals. How about all those
chain stores rampaging through Coolidge Corner? Surely our town attorneys
could figure out a way to soak the corporations that own them. If the
chains abandoned Brookline, so much the better.
Let's get more money from the state when we can. But let's not count
on it. And let's not make believe we have no choice.
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