Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Showing Up in Person for Society
Last Friday I drove to the county courthouse, as I do every year at this time, to pay my property tax in person. It’s one of those civic actions — sort of like voting, only more expensive — that make me feel like a member of the community.
Paying income tax never feels like that. Estimated taxes still get sent by mail to Sacramento or to an IRS regional processing center and the tax return itself is now filed electronically by my accountant. There’s not much connection, if any at all, between the money going out and what it’s buying. That’s a big part of government’s PR problem.
In the lobby of the courthouse, there’s a directory of all the services, which reminds you of where the tax money is going — law enforcement, parks, roads, planning and so on. You may not approve of it all, but at least you can see it’s going somewhere.
Most years I go in on the day the tax is due, and there’s a line going out the door of the tax collector’s office. As often as not, there’s someone in the line that I know, and we strike up a brief conversation. I suspect that I’m not the only one who feels a bit more connected for paying in person, rather than by mail or online. This year I went in the day before the deadline, and there were only a couple of people in line and it was over in a minute or two.
I really hope that was because I was early, and not because people don’t want to be bothered by doing things in person. We are losing far too many civic rituals to the Internet and other forms of electronic automation, even to snail mail, as with voting by absentee ballot.
For many years, it used to be a big thing to go down to the courthouse on election night. I live in a small (by California standards) and politically passionate county, where city council and county races are hotly contested, as are local ballot measures. Election night was one time that people of all political stripes were together in the same basement room, and astonishingly cordial.
It was a true community gathering in the best sense, and there were memorable moments. In 1994 I worked as a consultant on the campaign of the late Kathleen Akao, a local attorney who challenged an unpopular gubernatorial appointee for superior court judge. In the county’s 144-year history, no sitting judge had ever lost an election, but Akao campaigned hard, drew support from every segment of the community, and pulled off a stunning upset, winning with 54 percent of the vote.
By ten o’clock that night, it was clear that she would win, and about a half hour later, she walked into the room, which erupted in spontaneous applause. Democracy in action, and all the more impressive because of the cross-section of people present.
Four years later, in 1998, the county got new computers and began to put election results online. All at once there was nobody in the basement of the courthouse on election night. Instead, people went to the victory party of their favorite candidate and huddled around the computer to find out who was winning. There were no chance encounters with people on the other side.
From a technological point of view it was unquestionably an improvement over having people running downstairs from the elections office and putting the latest results on the board. From a human and community standpoint, something was irretrievably lost in the switch. I, for one, miss it.