Terrance Heath

Taxes & Waking Up With the House On Fire

Filed By Terrance Heath | July 16, 2012 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: Andrew Leonard, Lindsay Graham, pay your taxes, public workers

If your neighbor's house is on fire, you don't haggle over the price of your garden hose.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

I wasn't planning on writing about this today, but take a moment to Andrew Leonard's Salon piece, "Thank God for Taxes." Read it from beginning to end, and you'll understand how a moment of personal terror and loss - waking up with the house on fire - inspired Leonard to meditate on taxes, and bigstock-Fireman-2565259.jpgcompose a counterpoint to Lindsey Graham's equation of tax avoidance with patriotism.

If you're like me, "waking up to strange crackling and popping sounds" is nightmare you can readily identify with. I'm slightly paranoid leaving the house or going to bed with the stove still burning. It's nothing for me to get back out of bed or turn around and go back into the house to make absolutely sure all the burners are off. I was the last to go to bed the night of our most recent power outage, and I found myself getting out of bed to be sure that all the candles downstairs were extinguished. (I ran them under the faucet just to make sure.)

Midnight in Berkeley, Calif. I am standing barefoot in the middle of the street watching firefighters rush in and out of my home. My phone rings. It is my daughter, calling from a small town in Normandy, France.

"Dad," she says. "What's going on? I got an email from a neighbor saying our house is on fire?!"

Yes, I tell her. Our house is on fire. As I speak into the phone, I watch a chainsaw-wielding firefighter cut a hole in my roof. Two others are getting their oxygen tanks replaced.

"What happened?"

What happened was something that could have happened to anyone. Leonard, while grilling burgers earlier in the day, failed to notice a charcoal ember that slipped through the "decrepit ash catcher" under his grill and sat smoldering on the deck until it finally burst into flame. Meanwhile Leonard sent his son to play video games at friends house, and went to bed early, in preparation for a busy morning parsing the Supreme Court ruling on health care reform.

The first fire engine arrived within five minutes, followed quickly by six others. And - unlike the scene that played out in South Fulton, TN, a couple of years ago - fire fighters set to work putting out the fire. Leonard's home was saved from total destruction, and no one was hurt.

Amid the ruins of his home, Leonard's thoughts moved beyond his personal tragedy.

I'm a politically minded person who writes about economics, and in the days that have followed the fire I have been unable to resist the impulse to put every tendril of flame into larger context. Consider today's crappy Weber grills, where every new model seems to degrade into obsolescence faster than the previous one, a victim of the cost pressures midwifed by Wal-Mart-style globalization. Or how about the lifesaving value of insurance, a point brought home to me as never before on the very same day that John Roberts astoundingly upheld the constitutionality of healthcare reform. (Note to mandate-haters: If my mortgage lender hadn't required that I have home insurance, would I have plunked down that check to Farmers every one of the last 16 years?) Also of interest: prior to the fire, I had no conception of how big an economic event a disaster like mine is for other people. The hubbub of job-creating activity related to my home in the past few weeks has injected instant cash into the local economy - from Santa Rosa down to Watsonville. I am my own Keynesian-stimulus. Want to get the U.S. economy really moving? Burn everything down.

But most of all, I am emerging from this drama with a renewed appreciation for the value of my taxpayer-supported public services. The Berkeley Fire Department did right by me - not only by saving most of my house from burning to the ground, but also by demonstrating real human kindness and connection in the middle of fire and chaos. In the rubble, I found magic. And in a strange way, I feel like I deserved it. In Berkeley, we are addicted to high taxes - in the 25 years I've lived here, I can't even count how many times I and my fellow citizens have said a resounding yes to yet another tax hike or bond measure. Two weeks ago, I got my money's worth.

Of course, Leonard's taxes not only paid for the fire department that ultimately saved his home, but paid also for that same fire department to put out a similar fire in his community just a few days earlier, and would have paid for the same had any of his neighbors' homes caught fire that night. Indeed, at least one neighbor's home was imperiled, and saved by fire fighters. When the fire spread to a the wooden fence separating their two homes, fire fighters chopped down burning section of the fence, saving the neighbor's home from damage.

Had Berkely's been privatized, fire fighters would have checked to see if Leonard had paid his fee before putting the fire consuming his house. And if he hadn't, they could simply watch it burn.

Firefighters aren't afraid to break down windows and doors to douse flames, but a Tennessee family's failure to pay a $75 fee stopped firefighters dead in their tracks last week as a home burned to the ground.

South Fulton, Tenn., firefighters stood on the sidelines, watching as flames engulfed Gene Cranick's Obion County home. They refused to help because Cranick had not paid an annual "pay to spray" subscription fee.

"I just forgot to pay my $75," homeowner Gene Cranick said. "I did it last year, the year before. ... It slipped my mind."

The city of South Fulton charges that $75 fire protection fee to rural residents who live outside the city limits. When a household has not paid the fee, firefighters are required by law to not respond.

"We have to follow the rules and the ordinances set forth to us, and that's exactly what we do," said Jeff Vowell, South Fulton city manager

Perversely, if sparks from Leonard's house fire ignited the home of a neighbor who had paid her fee, the same fire department would be justified in putting out their paying customer's fire even as Leonard's home burned down. And yes, conservatives like Glenn Beck were quick to disparage Cranick and defend the fire department that let his home burn down over a $75 fee.

And the takeaway quote from Beck:

If you don't pay the 75 dollars then that hurts the fire department. They can't use those resources, and you'd be sponging off your neighbor's resources.

That's right. A matter of days after losing everything they owned, including their home, their pets, family photographs -- everything -- and all because of a delinquent $75 fee, Gene Cranick and his family were excoriated, scolded and teased by multimillionaire celebrity televangelist Glenn Beck in front of a radio audience estimated at upwards of 10 million listeners.

Welcome to the world of Glenn Beck and Linsdey Graham, where everything is privatized, and the FDR quote at the top of this post is turned on its head: Haggling over the price of a garden hose while your neighbor's house burns down is patriotism at its finest.

Mitt Romney's tax exploits are just as American as apple pie, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Graham worked hard to get the point across that "it's really American to avoid paying taxes, legally." No, really, it really is:

"As long as it was legal, I'm OK with it," Graham said. "I don't blame anybody for using the tax code to their advantage. I blame us for having it so complicated and confused. Pick a rate and make people pay it."

In the meantime, anything within the rules goes, he argued.

"It's a game we play," Graham said. "Every American tries to find the way to get the most deductions they can. I see nothing wrong with playing the game because we set it up to be a game."

Welcome to Mitt Romney's America, which has fewer fire departments who will put out a house fire without charging a fee.

Yesterday was the last day of school for public school students in Montgomery County, Maryland, where we live - including our nine-year-old son, who just completed the third grade. I began the morning by sending a one last email to his teacher. I asked her about the summer reading and math packets we were expecting our son to bring. I also thanked her for all the work she'd done to help our son this year.

As I thought about how much our son has grown and improved over the past year, and how very much the dedicated teachers and staff at his school had to do with those changes, I couldn't help being mystified at Mitt Romney's assertion that our children need fewer teachers. Mystified, that is, but not surprised.

After saying President Barack Obama does not care about the private sector, Mitt Romney on Friday dismissed unemployment in the public sector, saying the country does not need more firemen, policemen or teachers.

"He wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers," Romney said at a press conference. "He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."

Then there's the world that Andrew Leonard lives in. It's a world that still exists, though it's disappearing from America town by town; wiped out as "de facto austerity" starves cities and states of funding needed to keep public employees - like teachers, fire fighters, and police offiers - on the job.

In that disappearing world, you can wake up with the house on fire, and know that not only will the fire department come save your home - without checking your account status - but work to save your home and the memories it holds as if it were their own.

In that world, fire fighters took time to save his daughter's scrapbook, without having to consider whether it was within the terms of their contract.

I felt increasingly flustered, on the edge of tears. Desperate, I started opening the drawers of my daughter's dresser, though there was no reason why she would have put her scrapbook there.

Drawer after drawer was empty, scoured clean by the fabric restoration company. Until I reached the last drawer, at the bottom left-hand side of the dresser. And there, carefully protected from the fire and the smoke and the water and the dust, I saw, to my amazed delight, not just the scrapbook, but also all the family photos that had gone missing.

The more I think about this the more amazed I become. The firefighters told me that the fire had been an especially tricky one; they'd had to play whack-a-mole as it darted through the back wall from the basement to the attic. They were operating in the dark, in an old wooden house - just a few days earlier, a similar house had caught fire and the owner had died before the firefighters could get to her. Yet somehow, in the midst of all that madness, one of the firefighters had had the presence of mind and sensitivity to gather together some items that obviously held emotional significance for my family.

Was it the same guy who came out of the house with my Macbook and told me that he had put the charger underneath a tarp over the coffee table "because I know what a bitch it is to get those replaced"? I don't know. Was it the investigator who later attempted to console me by telling me that what I had done was not "a criminal act"?

"You made a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes. Hell, I once burned down my own barn, when a trash fire got out of control."

I don't know.

What I do know is that as I stared down at my daughter's scrapbook, nestled next to a picture of my mother and grandfather, the tears started to flow for real. I was sandbagged by a sense of real human connection. For what seems like a lifetime I've been immersed in political warfare in which public sector workers - our teachers, our police officers, our firefighters - have become little more than proxies for partisan bickering. When we read about the bankruptcy of San Bernardino, Calif., someone is sure to point out the firefighter who is pulling down $150,000 grand, or complain about the cost of pension obligations. When we look at public sector layoffs, someone else immediately launches into a lecture about how government austerity is crimping economic growth. Mitt Romney tells us that the "lesson" of Wisconsin is that Americans don't want to pay for any more teachers or firefighters or police officers and Democrats pounce. Obama's last budget would cut federal support for firefighting services, but not by as much as the most recent House appropriations bill. The International Association of Firefighters claims that government cutbacks will result in thousands more layoffs nationwide. Republicans shrug - the IAFF is another Obama-supporting union.

And so the bullshit battle rages! Far too often, we're forgetting what our public servants do. All I can think about, right now, is that even while risking his or her life to beat back the flames, a Berkeley firefighter took time out to make my daughter smile.

That firefighter deserves a raise. Put it on my next ballot, please.

All which raises some questions: Is this still the America we want to live in? Do we still believe it's worth paying for?

Think about it, the next time you smell smoke.

(Fireman stock photo via Bigstock)


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