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Tragedy & taxes

Two recent tragedies -- in Minnesota and in Utah -- have held the nation's attention. The implications of these tragedies also deserve attention.

Those politicians who are always itching to raise tax rates have seized upon the neglected infrastructure of the country as another reason to do what they are always trying to do.

Those who live by talking points now have a great one: "How can we fight an expensive war and repair our neglected infrastructure without raising taxes?"

Plausible as this might sound, tax rates are not tax revenues. The two things have moved in opposite directions too many times, over too many years, for us to take these clever talking points at face value.

This administration is not the first one in which a reduction in tax rates has been followed by an increase in tax revenues. The same thing happened during the Reagan administration, the Kennedy administration and the Coolidge administration.

Tax rates and tax revenues have moved in opposite directions many times, not only at the federal level, but also at state and local levels, as well as in foreign countries.

How many times does it have to happen before people stop equating tax rates with tax revenues• Do the tax-and-spend politicians and their media supporters not know any better -- or are they counting on the rest of us not knowing any better?

Even if we were to assume that higher tax rates will automatically result in significantly higher tax revenues, the case for throwing more money at infrastructure would still be weak.

Some of the money already appropriated for maintaining and repairing infrastructure is being diverted into other pet projects of politicians.

Money supposedly set aside for repairing potholes and maintaining bridges is diverted to the building of bicycle paths or subsidizing ferries or buses. Pennsylvania has done that for mass transit. These other things have more of a political payoff.

Not only are there well-publicized ribbon-cutting ceremonies for building something new, many of these new things can be named for the politicians who had them built. Thus there are all sorts of government structures named for Sen. Ted Stevens in Alaska and for Sen. Robert Byrd in West Virginia.

But nobody names pothole repairs for anybody or puts any politician's name on the rivets used to repair an existing bridge.

Moreover, nobody blames a politician when a bridge collapses years after he put his name on some government building with money that could have been used to make bridges safer longer.

If the collapse occurs on somebody else's watch, it will be somebody else's political problem.

More tax revenue would just allow these same political games to be played with more money. More might be accomplished by forbidding any government facility from being named for anyone who is not already dead.

Maybe then we might get more potholes filled and more rusty rivets replaced on bridges.

The other recent tragedy that has held the nation's painful attention -- the mine cave-in in Utah -- also has implications that few seem to notice.

We could have far fewer men going down into those mines in the first place if we could use other readily available and economically viable substitutes for coal, such as nuclear power or more of our own oil.

Here, too, politics is the problem. The only "alternative energy sources" that are on the political agenda are those few very expensive options that environmentalist zealots approve.

Nuclear power is not on the green zealots' approved list, even though nuclear power is widely used in other countries.

Some say nuclear power is not safe. But nothing is categorically "safe." The only serious question is how its safety compares to that of alternative ways of generating energy.

Ask the families of the trapped miners if they think mining is safe. Ask them if they would rather face the grim reality of a death in their family or the hypothetical possibility of inconveniencing some caribou in Alaska.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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