February 16, 2003
I don't know if you're aware that there's a new accounting standard for public agencies such as libraries, aimed at making them give a more businesslike account of their use of public money, and the accrued value of their inventories. I think that's entirely reasonable. In fact, I think public agencies should make a point of discussing the returns they deliver on public investment.
But turnabout is fair play. We live in an era where disdain and even mockery of government, its employees, and the services they provide, are prevalent. When this attitude is widespread, it can hardly help increasing the likelihood that profit-maximizing companies will see tax-avoidance as the most rational strategy. Worse, it increases the likelihood that companies that do pay their just taxes, while other companies are claiming Bermudan citizenship, will start to see themselves not as good corporate citizens but as suckers.
And that would be a pity, not just because systematic tax avoidance increases the tax burden on the rest of us, and not just because it could cut into the government services we receive as individuals. It would be counterproductive for business as well, because diminished tax revenues make it more difficult for federal, state and local governments to provide the essential public services business relies on.
So let me tell you about a pipe dream I have. I'd like to see businesses use accounting standards that acknowledge all the public goods they make use of every day. I'd like to force them to realize that they are as dependent on government subsidies as any bureaucrat or welfare recipient.
I want to see business executives acknowledge the millions of tax dollars spent to bring water and sewer services out to new plants and office complexes they've built in the middle of nowhere. It would also be nice if they'd acknowledge the money spent by local and regional governments to provide them with police, fire and ambulance services, and the roads that bring their employees to work and their supplies to their factories and offices.
I'd like them to acknowledge the subsidy our tax dollars provide them in the form of highways, ports, inland waterways, airports, and air traffic control, as well as in the form of the government-created internet which allows them to do some business without ever leaving home. I want executives and politicians in western states to acknowledge that without tax-funded dams and reservoirs that provide water, the cities and businesses they've built in the desert could not survive.
I want executives to admit that the public picks up the tab to clean up messes they have created and walked away from, environmental damage caused by hazardous wastes, toxic spills, and effluent discharges into local waterways. I want them to account for the billions of dollars worth of resources their companies have extracted from public land -- and say "thank you, kindly," while they're at it, since that land belongs to all of us and to generations that haven't been born yet. I'd like them to admit that they have used up resources that cannot be replaced.
I'd like businesses to acknowledge the value of a workforce educated primarily in public schools, universities, and in some cases, community colleges that have tailored job-related training to the specific needs of area businesses -- especially if they've been given property tax abatements and therefore don't contribute a cent to their community's schools and colleges.
I want businesses to account for their use of research funded by government agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, as well as research funded by public universities -- especially when businesses like drug companies sell, at hugely inflated prices, products based on that tax-funded research. I'd like to see companies acknowledge the value of the public and academic libraries that purchase, preserve, and organize that research, and then supply it on demand when businesses need it.
I'd like to see executives acknowledge the extent to which they rely on government-collected data: census data, economic statistics, databases, maps, climate information, and financial data. I want them to account for their use of the legal system, which uses our tax dollars to enforce compliance with their contracts, adjudicate their disputes, and award and protect their patents and copyrights (if anything, too zealously). I'd like businesses to account for their use of our consulates and embassies and government agencies that protect and promote their business abroad.
You see, if business executives had to acknowledge the dollar value of free services they get from government, they might be forced to realize that, no matter how great their ideas and achievements, they didn't do it alone. They drew on a long legacy of shared public resources. They might even come to understand the value of paying their fair share. Better yet, they might realize they also have a responsibility to replenish the public resources they've been drawing down for decades.
A pipe dream, like I said. But a good one, don't you think?
*A version of this column appeared earlier in ExLibris, my e-zine for librarians.
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