A Tale of Two Socialisms

Or, How I learned to Sort of Embrace Taxation and Occasionally Stop Complaining

Many people in North America live in subdivisions, carved out spaces in suburbia where houses are deposited quickly and cheaply on the landscape like eggs from a giant bird.

In my subdivision, my neighborhood, we have a gate. We are a gated community. This sometimes sounds fancy to people who don’t know better, but what it really means is that we have an expensive and often annoying traffic flow device disguised as something stately.

In Georgia, this gate means that the roads in my neighborhood are private ones. Your tax dollars do not pave my streets. If they turn into bleached trails with potholes, you don’t have to worry about them unless you move here, or we dismantle the gate.

This also means that the homeowners, the HOA, are responsible for the roads. Snow? We have to remove it. Sinkhole? We have to fill it (or whatever one does). The home owners’ association in such a community is a nice microcosm of democracy, rights, responsibilities and one variety of socialism.

Socialism is like the word dessert; it can mean just about anything. Mango slices are dessert, pie is dessert, profiteroles…you get my point.

If you’re pro socialism, it refers to an idyllic life where everyone is healthy and educated and we’ve finally managed to eliminate poverty, racism, sexism…all the bad isms. If you’re con socialism, it’s a hellish nightmare of long bread lines, subpar cars, concrete apartment blocks, bloated bureaucracy and a fundament assault on your divinely instituted personal aristocratic way of life.

And a bunch of other definitions in between.

But many of the things we in America think of as "socialism" are really a shared responsibility, including costs, to provide for our community (or as they are called when they grow up, country) and its people. We share the burdens so more of us can share in the rewards.

Think about highways or the military. No one goes around describing our "free" military. Or how they visited the grandkids by traveling the "free" interstates. We don’t shake our fists at the "free" stop signs and stop lights that dot our roadways.

For some reason…or lack of reasoning, healthcare is treated differently. Unlike the abandonment of personal feudal militias for professional, national defense, we have clung to a patchwork system that insists that while it is not your job to pay for a soldier directly to protect your home and hearth, it is your responsibility to pay for the cancer that may attack the same. We see folks deride "Free Healthcare" as if that were an actual thing.

Back to the HOA.

In an HOA community, you don’t pay taxes, you pay dues. Or rather, the taxes you pay are called dues. The HOA itself is really a tiny parliament made up of one owner-representative from each house in the community. From among themselves, the HOA members choose a select number to serve on the board (and the board members select officers from themselves). In parliamentary terms the board is a government, and the HOA President is the Prime Minister.

In my neighborhood once a year we have a session of the HOA; or as we call it, an HOA meeting. Every house is called on to send an owner-delegate, though anyone can attend, only one vote per owner per house. In recent years it’s been easier to find a smart Trump than to get a good turnout. Yet every year people complain about this or that and those of us who have been on the board, or served the community in other capacities have to gently (??) remind them that they too can participate in the governing of the community’s daily affairs.

So dues…are set at the annual meeting, as part of the budget process. We pass a new budget for the coming year, and that includes the amount of taxes we need to raise per household to cover our expected expenditures and also prepare for future expenses. They ca go up, down or stay the same. Where this differs from, say, the federal budgetary process is that dues-payers know what they are paying for. And if they are unhappy with anything, they can address their issues at the meeting or through the online mailing list. If enough people concur, the board will change landscapers or water companies or the gate company or whatever.

While we all pay the same amount, we don’t all necessarily benefit equally. Houses on the end of a building (we’re a townhouse community) typically have more direct access to landscaping. The rows of houses at either end of the community have special needs because of their locations, needs that we all pay for even though I don’t get a closed-in back yard with occasional mud slides, or the lovely stench of the retention pond. But we do this, shoulder the responsibilities, because we are all affected by the issues.

Bad landscaping makes our neighborhood look bad. And that makes selling our homes harder. A broken detention pond can ruin the pipes and erode the soil on which the houses sit. Potholes can make us pay more in insurance.

When I was President, the board decided to recoat the asphalt. This is the cheapest and quickest way to refresh the look of our private roads. To do this we needed to levy a special one-time assessment of $90 per household. Some folks balked. We insisted. This was right before the housing crash last decade, and there were something like 4 or 6 houses on the market in our neighborhood, houses that hadn’t sold in 9+ months of being on the market. They were dragging down the values of all homes. After the refreshing of the asphalt, they all sold within a few months.

The balkers retracted their objections and praised the board for the work done, and marveled at how nice it was to drive on crisp black asphalt instead of grey gloomy asphalt. We had to raise taxes-but we did so in a way that proved beneficial to all and was demonstrably so. If you get thousands more for your house after investing less than a hundred, that’s a win kids.

In the larger world, this is not how our attitude towards taxation works. We have been taught some mushy harebrained nonsense about the British King being too taxy and that’s why the 13 colonies got rid of him. *Insert massive eye roll here.*

This is a convenient myth for politicians because we ordinary folks believe in it so deeply that we begrudgingly pay our taxes, complain, but still do it, while politicians use that money for all sorts of non-essential, non-beneficial-to-the-common-good things, all the while being paid under the table by big corporations whose lobbying nets them a tiny or non-existent tax bill.

Why aren’t we asking, "what do I get for my taxes?" Why aren’t we asking this of every Presidential, HoR and Senate candidate? Why aren’t we demanding that our political parties make clear commitments to the financial stewardship of the country? Oh sure, sometimes we’re told that our taxes are high because we are supporting so many people on a luxurious welfare system (see the second version of socialism above) and yet anyone familiar with the reality of welfare programs knows they aren’t easy to get, they aren’t usually sufficient, they demoralize and demonize people who may find themselves with a big stinky detention pond that they never bargained for. On top of this old welfare queen trope (and the recent "brown caravan of doom" racist bullshit), the entire federal mechanism is intentionally murky and shady in hopes that we’ll just get tired and go away. Back to work, you’ve got Senators to pay to make life easier for MegaAmericaCorp!

Because unlike the HOA of a small townhome community, we are distanced greatly from our "democracy." So we can’t stop the President while we’re walking the dogs and ask why we’re paying so much in landscaping and our bushes are still dying? Or, why are we paying so much for a military that is oversized and not enough on infrastructure? Just spitballing here. But this isn’t the way it should be. I should be able to have a reasonable conversation with my representative and Senators, without paying a bribe. And they should listen to our concerns and work on them instead of engaging as double agents for big business.

As with the HOA, the power is in our hands; it is past time we take control, and insist that our government fix the landscaping, and the roads, and the gate, and the roofs…for all of us, not just the few privileged.