Taxes and Summer in Buffalo

ArtVoice 7/28/11


I’ve been seeing a bumper crop of smiles around town this summer as Buffalonians venture out to explore their new parks and trails. Foremost is the plethora of new digs at both the Inner and Outer Harbors. The newly enhanced Commercial Slip is hosting at least one event per day, with more than 10,000 people enjoying part of their Fourth of July weekend at this new waterfront park. From there, you can now bike or hike on a spanking new riverfront trail, past the public transit trolley barn, to Buffalo Riverfest Park (a.k.a. “Peg’s Park”), a new waterfront venue in the city’s Old First Ward. It features a floating kayak and canoe launching dock, band shell, riverfront picnic tables, and a large lawn.

Across the river are about 10 miles of new bike trails, hooking up with, among other things, a new “Greenway Nature Trail,” the Tifft Farm Nature Preserve, the Times Beach Nature Preserve, the Small Boat Harbor, and the new Gallagher Beach boardwalk and pier. Venture out from the city and you’ll encounter more happy faces hiking on new trails in county parks and forests, or swimming at state-owned beaches. Take an evening stroll in Buffalo or its suburbs and you’ll encounter even more people enjoying free, open-air concerts hosted at public parks almost every night of the week. These are the things that, along with our weather, make Buffalo one of the best places a person can be in the summertime.

As we enjoy our seasonal paradise, it’s important to remember, however, that aliens didn’t land from outer space and build these parks for us. And they didn’t supply any extraterrestrial currency to help run and maintain them. Neither have they given intergalactic grants to support the public arts and performances that we often go to our parks to enjoy. We did this. We did it with our tax dollars. We should be proud of this collective achievement.

It wasn’t always easy for all of us to make the sacrifices needed to pay our taxes, but more so, it wasn’t at all easy to convince cash-strapped governments to give us back some of our money in the form of wonderful, life-enhancing amenities. But, thanks to the tireless efforts of a few community activists and politicians, we finally, after decades of organizing, politicking, and lobbying, saw some wonderful visions come to fruition. After years of watching large chunks of our publicly owned waterfront lie fallow, we now have a world-class river and lakefront park system, stretching the length of the city from the Lackawanna line in the south to the Tonawanda line in the north. Few cities in North America can boast of such a resource. We did this, so let’s give ourselves a pat on the back and go out into the sunshine, or a bright moonlit night, and celebrate.

We also need to understand that, burdensome as our taxes may be, in reality they don’t really amount to all that much. That’s because we are the third poorest, per capita, major American city. People who aren’t making money, while certainly sacrificing to pay their taxes, really aren’t paying that much. Ultimately, we enjoy these wonderful parks because our governments take money from the rich, on our behalf, by force.

This is a fact that bears repeating. We take money from the rich by force. Ultimately this is because the rich, as a group, historically and cross-culturally have given us millennia of evidence that they are pretty damn stingy and greedy—which makes sense as these are the very same traits that usually have made them and their families rich in the first place. This also bears repeating: It’s not the norm for hard work to lead to wealth. The working poor around the world comprise the hardest-working demographic, whether working three McJobs in the US, sweating in the sun as a migrant farm worker, or toiling in a Chinese sweatshop making iPods and Nikes. Ditto for the middle class. Thirty years at the DMV or the collection agency won’t make you rich. The rich either tend to be born rich, or they’ve found a way to amass the riches of other people’s labor. And they hold on to these riches—for generations.

With few exceptions, the rich just won’t give it up. Yes, there are “philanthropists” who donate tens of millions of dollars to build new wings on hospitals and museums, which they often name after themselves, but let’s really look critically at their so called “generosity.” Are they really making any sacrifices that significantly affect their quality of life?

A worker earning $14,000 per year is making a sacrifice when he or she drops a five-dollar bill into the collection bucket. There’s an on-the-spot economic calculation about what five dollars worth of food, entertainment, or new clothes they will have to forego buying that week. This is what we call sacrifice. If someone with $3 billion gives away $2 billion, he will still be a billionaire—which isn’t a shabby position to be in. They will still go to any restaurant they damn please and order whatever they want, regardless of the price. Sure, they might no longer be able to afford a 300-foot yacht, but they’ll still have their 60-footer to tool around on—which, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t as much of a sacrifice as giving up one meal that your belly tells you that you want to eat. Note to billionaires—we appreciate your generosity and would like you to keep it up, but let’s keep this whole thing in perspective.

The rich also won’t give it up when it comes to paying taxes, with their poop boys on talk radio and TV working overtime to contextualize this greed as a libertarian virtue—though in reality there is nothing libertarian about feudalism. When they do pay taxes, it’s not because they want to. It’s because the government uses the threat of force to take a small portion of their wealth from them.

Ultimately, after the loopholes are all used up, and the offshore tax havens all accounted for, the government will hit them with a tax levy. If they don’t pay it, the government will seize their wealth. If it’s not readily available, the government will take their house, sending nasty men and women with guns to effectuate this seizure. Usually it doesn’t come to this as the rich realize that there is less personal sacrifice if they just cut the damn check. But they have that choice.

This is the dirty truth behind how we fund our new parks. We use force to take back from the rich a small percentage of the wealth that we and our society have given and continue to give them every day. And just like with philanthropy, when a wealthy person pays taxes, no matter the rate or levy, it amounts to less of a real sacrifice than when a poor person pays taxes, no matter how small their bill might be in comparison.

Of course this force is a sort of “what goes around comes around” deal, as working and middle class folks oftentimes find their own wealth being seized by force, to be added to the portfolios of the rich, when banks foreclose on their homes and cars, when credit card companies garnish their wages, and so on. In fact, the use of government force to protect the wealth of the rich is much more common than the use of this force to get funds to build parks. Mess with the property of the rich and you’ll understand all too clearly what I’m referring to. Governments were created to protect their privilege. They just occasionally throw some scraps our way.

So it’s nice to celebrate those increasingly diminishing occasions when we can take wealth from the rich and use it to enhance the lives of everyone. I’m off to enjoy my new park!

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at, archived at, and available globally through syndication.

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