Tax Dollars at Work

Reconsidering the local mandate to hate government

Laguna Beach City Hall isn’t our first choice for nightlife, but that’s where we ended up one recent evening. 

“Watching our tax dollars at work,” we joked to the neighbors. Actually, we were supporting a remodeling project on the other side of our alley, but even here in the more liberal part of conservative Orange County, it’s customary to talk about government the way people in Berkeley talk about Richard Nixon: If you don’t sound a little snarky, it’s just awkward. 

As it happened, our tax dollars were working like little mine mules. What with the hearing and the gadflies and assorted community business, that poor City Council was there until almost midnight. It was actually impressive, the way the members handled all those hassles and lectern-thumpers. 

But, hey, don’t spread it around. And you didn’t hear it from me. 

A few days later, we needed to replace our daughter’s passport, an errand that required a special trip to the U.S. Post Office in Newport Beach. Oh, how I dreaded that trip. Nothing about passports ever seems easy. Not the special little square pictures, not the long lines, not the need for elaborate proof that you aren’t a shoe bomber. We gritted our teeth and braced for a test of endurance, but the episode took all of 10 minutes. 

The woman at the desk was efficient and funny. “Forty glorious years,” she deadpanned when we asked how long she’d been a federal employee. The new passport arrived early. Even the photo was better than expected. The passport thing had required a new copy of a birth certificate, which in turn had required a trip to another county, and that wait had only been five minutes—yet another bonus. We thought about sharing our pleasant surprises, but then reconsidered. It felt politically incorrect, somehow, to confess such sudden warmth for the public sector if you were going to live in O.C.

On the way home, though, we couldn’t help noticing the road’s smooth new coat of asphalt. Then we got into a conversation about the great books our daughter was reading in honors English at her public high school. Then we slowed because the California Highway Patrol had pulled over an annoying speeder who’d passed us a few minutes before.

You know how, when you’re not supposed to say something, it’s all you can think about? Here, where hating on government sometimes seems a full-time occupation—from the rhetoric of political activists to the libertarian editorial page of the local newspaper—it seemed all we could notice were the ways in which government was actually doing a decent job.

If I belonged to the tea party, all this would have felt like a nightmare. But I’m tired of this pretense that we aren’t all in it together. I’m tired of people who take advantage of clean beaches and pretty neighborhoods and great public universities and safe harbors, and then get ugly when it turns out all those things have price tags. They’re like cheapskates at a group lunch who sit for an hour parsing the bill to figure out who drank more wine and who owes what tenth of a percentage. 

And, yes, I realize there’s room for improvement. I yearn as deeply as the next guy for a Newport Beach lifeguard-sized pension. Still, a place as comparatively well-fed and well-heeled as Orange County shouldn’t have such a hard time anteing up for the common good.

Then again, what do I know? If I really had to watch my tax dollars at work, I’d probably nod off. Still, I like to think that before I did, I’d pay my fair share, and maybe—in these snarky times—thank a cop or a clerk or a teacher. 

I’d do it in a whisper, though. I’d like to eat lunch again in this town. 

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.

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