Monday, May 7, 2001

College debate reveals national rifts

By Albert DiBartolomeo

The other day, while I was teaching a class, the discussion about "political language" got away from me and devolved into a heated argument about our President's desire to return to the American people trillions of dollars in tax revenue.

This is a night class, composed of a good number of working adults of both genders, as well as typically aged students, together representing a fair sample of American citizens.

The usual sides pitched camp. Those of conservative leanings wanted back some, if not all, of the taxes the government had sliced away from their gross incomes, and those of the liberal wing wanted the federal government to keep the money. As the putative impartial authority figure in the classroom, I tried my best to keep my own opinion to myself.

Earlier, I had driven over the ancient South Street Bridge, and again I imagined the final disintegration of some necessary structural element and the screaming plummet to the river below. The South Street Bridge - and quite a few of the city streets, in fact - are still riddled with potholes, and I've had to keep in my head a map of the holes so as to avoid having my kidneys jolted.

A lapse in concentration caused me to strike a pothole, and the sickening thunk was still fresh in my mind as the argument brewed. Between having the streets repaired and receiving a tax refund from the federal government, I prefer the former, and I let this slip out. The liberals acquired an ally and the conservatives a foe, and my entry into the fray only emboldened both sides. Gloves came off. The President was bashed for his apparent deficiency of smarts and the past president for his deficiency of integrity. Both sides took swipes at Al Gore, just for the fun of it.

But this was not a battle about the quality of our political leaders. Neither was the argument much about policy, Democratic or Republican. A tangent took us to the price of gasoline and from there it was a quick leap to "the environment." Those who wanted their taxes returned thought that the environment was fine and that antipollution regulations should not impede corporate health; the other side preferred an intact ozone layer and measures that would ensure a healthy ecology.

After a few other exchanges along these lines, it became clear to me that the argument was not so much between conservatives and liberals, but between the self-interested and those concerned for the common good. One side wanted to spend their taxes on themselves, while the other was willing to forego them so the government could spend the money on social programs and the like.

Both sides agreed that the federal government had a knack for wasting money, but whereas those who wanted more money in their pockets used fiscal ineptitude as one reason for the tax refund, the others did not.

I, too, am an American. If I didn't enjoy the comforts that come with money, I would have become a monk a long time ago. I have not. I wouldn't mind more money in my pocket, either, just for the sake of having it. But I don't want any of my taxes returned. I'd rather see the money benefit someone who needs it more than I do.

A few days after the President announced his desire to return tax revenue, I stood in a drugstore behind an elderly woman plainly having trouble buying her prescriptions. It made no sense to me to have taxes returned when this woman and many like her could not easily afford her essential medications.

Nor did it make sense when I drove home and passed examples of urban blight. I thought: Spend the taxes on prescription drugs for the elderly, fix the streets and the bridges, and provide excellent educational environments in the public schools. Getting the taxes back when these ills still exist in our country will only make me feel that Americans are the most spoiled, the most pampered, and the most rapacious of nationalities. I'd prefer to think otherwise.

Albert DiBartolomeo ( lives and writes in Philadelphia.
© Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.