Four months in Brazil and I was gradually developing the skill of conversing in Portuguese. I could understand far more than I could say as is always the case when learning a new language .
For several weeks, my companion and I had been teaching a large family and preparing them for baptism. At least 3 generations lived under one roof in this small but typical Sao Paulo home. It was a warm summer holiday evening…either Christmas or New Years Eve and they had invited us to celebrate with them. There were large plates of food, lots of people and the place was overflowing with hospitality.
I’m one of those people who has a difficult time escaping from conversations I’d rather not be involved in when speaking English. Put me in a Portuguese situation and I’m practically an all ears prisoner. On this particular night I found myself trapped with the patriarch of the family in his late 60’s, Senhor Santanna.
For the most part, Brazilians were besides themselves when they had an audience with an American such as myself. There were usually a bunch of culture related questions and just a high degree of interest in all things USA. While these folks were usually equally proud of the uniqueness of Brazil, it was rare to find what I’d call a Brazilian patriot.
Senhor Santanna was a Brazilian patriot determined to convince me of his country’s superiority.
Brazil is a free country. Freer than the U.S.A!
I don’t pay taxes! I’ve worked 30 years and haven’t given one dime of my hard earned money to the government.
You Americans pay 20, 30, 40% of your money to the government. You are socialists.
The socialist United States was a foreign concept to me at the time. Like any other good American I had a gut-level hostility to the mere mention of socialism. I grew up in a fairly conservative stronghold that was fiercely capitalist and free market…anti-communist… Republican.
But still, in my inexperienced and not too politically savvy mind, less government hadn’t done my friend any favors either. If America was a socialist country then I’d take it.
While I was happy for Senhor Santanna’s proud tax free existence, I wasn’t blind. I was able to see his partially toothless smile and look around at his barefoot children and grandchildren. His home had spotty electricity. If there were zoning or building codes in the neighborhood I would have been shocked. I had walked to his home part way on dirt roads and choppy pavement. It wasn’t a favela by any means, but it wasn’t Copacaban either.
To this point in my life I hadn’t personally paid much in taxes myself. I had had a part-time job in high school at a pizza place and it seemed like a lot of money was taken out of my state regulated minimum wage check, but I’m sure it was probably in the 20% range. Anything I had bought with that money surely had sales tax attached too.
Still, I had benefited far more from this taxation than I had contributed to it starting with 13 years of free public education. I grew up in the suburbs where electric and phone lines were safely invisible and roads were new. I could ride my bike home late at night on well-lit, smoothly paved streets. While I don’t think my parents ever had much health or dental insurance on us, I had been blessed with beautiful white teeth kept healthier through clean public water supplies and fluoridation. What insurance they could afford to carry on us, their car and house was further regulated with price ceiling caps. My parents enjoyed other tax benefits by way of child credits and mortgage interest deductions to name a few.
And here was this Brazilian patriot telling me that all that American stuff was socialism.
Communist Russia was the socialism I knew!
I’m still not sure what level of socialism I’m comfortable with, but I think it’s fairly obvious that we already live it. To decry socialism now is to deny the very benefits we have all received from it.
I certainly wouldn’t want to jump full scale to either side of the socialist spectrum… 1980’s style Brazilian no-tax freedom on one end, nor 1980’s style Soviet communism on the other. Many of my Brazilian peers at the time felt their lives were void of opportunity much like I imagine a young adult in the former Soviet Union would have.
In my opinion if a government program’s sum existence provides more opportunity to the greater number of people than it restricts, I’m in. I imagine very few in American will agree on where that line should be drawn but at least let’s be honest with ourselves and admit that for everyone but pure libertarians the question is actually how much socialism we can accept, not whether to incorporate it at all…because that ship has already sailed.
*I’ve since learned that Brazil does indeed have an income tax so the only way that Senhor Santanna had never paid into it was that he lived below the poverty tier at the point where no taxes were collected …or he was a tax evader.
*Brazil also has a form of sales tax where substantial tarrifs are placed on certain goods making many items there much more expensive there than they are here. The cost is just incorporated into the item by the retailer and doesn’t show up on a receipt.
*I think the example is still valid as an anecdote here because the point is that there is no clear concrete line delineating different economic approaches. It’s all in perception.
*Sorry if I’ve gotten political. That’s not my blog’s purpose or aim. It was a missionary moment that shaped my beliefs and I thought it was timely, so I’ve shared.