Ok kids, who here gets an allowance? A few kids raise their hands. Ok, now do your parents give it to you? Nodding! Do you get to spend it on whatever you want? The beginnings of nodding but then the realization that the question is deeper than originally anticipated. Well, I get to spend it on…while they started to think about whatever it is that six year olds spend money on, I waited and let the question sink in. It was an early morning at PS31 in Brooklyn at their yearly career day and I was elected to represent my boss – a citywide politician who controls the NYC pension fund, manages billions of dollars in assets, oversees city contracting, and conducts citywide audits – at an elementary school career day.
The morning started with breakfast in the quaint school library on tables and chairs designed for children, with us “professionals” gathering around the danish and coffee table. The bit I had gone over in my head was quickly thrown out the window when I realized I would be surrounded by firefighters and teachers and pilots. Explaining politics, especially financial political offices, is tough enough to break down to well educated adults with an interest in local government. Today my job was explaining this to 6, 7, and 8 year olds.
Ok kids, now who here gets an allowance? What do you get to spend it on? Do you get to spend it on whatever you want? Sommmmeetimes. But sometimes you have to save it and put it in the bank, right? An unhappy reminder induced yeeeeeees. That’s kind of like what taxes are! Taxes are things that the Mayor takes away from everyone to buy things that we all need like teachers and firefighters and playgrounds. Who here likes playgrounds? (Hint: everybody likes playgrounds.) The teachers in the room were appreciative that the kids finally acknowledged their services as necessary, or at the very least felt proud to be compared to a playground.
Whether or not any of these kids now have a better understanding of local government, or would actively pursue a career in public service, I doubt despite my best efforts. But it did get me thinking about the foundation which we base our knowledge of government and taxes. Most of us, by which I mean myself, never had taxes explained to us. We didn’t get guest speakers or applicable metaphors for what government is and does until high school at which point you’re too rebellious to care about the morals and ethics of fair and equitable government. It’s something controlling, my parents are controlling; I hate my parents, I hate government. We don’t understand what government does with our money in great detail, we don’t get a tutorial in budgetary processes, we aren’t taught lessons in what FICA is or does, we just know that they took some of my hard earned money I made at KFC. We don’t see the line items for roads and police task forces; or the debates for funding for street signs. We don’t know where it goes, what it does when it gets there, or who’s doing it. We trust our elected officials to make these decisions for us. We trust they act honestly and with our best interests. This is why it has been so shockingly easy for those who do understand and control the systematic processes to abuse, corrupt, and steal in plain sight our allowance right out from our pockets.