Where there’s smoke…

This question, as all good questions do, begins with a cast iron skillet.

My wife is—and this is putting it in a way only a loving and understanding husband can—security conscious. When I buried house keys in our back yard, she dug them up to make sure no rapey yard guy found them by accident and broke in. Or she dug them up to make sure when she got locked out twice while I was on the road that she would have no recourse but to wait until a neighbor came home so she could get back in the house. It doesn’t matter, because love means knowing when to let your wife dig up the back-up keys and hide them where no one will ever find them.

This story is about love. This story is about Valentines. This story is about a cast iron skillet and me searing meat for a Valentine’s dinner and ignoring the smoke billowing up around my face. Because, in case you haven’t experienced it, love means getting smoke in your face. And love sometimes means getting to know your public servants.

We’d been in the new house for less than a year, and my wife insisted (see above) on the Hollywood-style security in our suburban home. I—a frequent traveler of questionable repute —relented. We got the works. If a North Korean dictator woke up with a scorching case of scabies, our security system gave us a heads up.

I was cooking. It was February, a time of Hallmark love and dinners prepared with the kind of affection only societal obligation requires. I was searing meat in a house I’d known for less than a year. And, if you have ever cooked with a cast iron skillet you know what that can mean.

When the alarm sounded, I stumbled for the keypad to punch in the same number I did every time I came in at 3am. Nothing happened. The alarm kept making the kind of noise that brings the neighbors. It also brought a lot of sirens and a fairly muscular firefighter who came into my kitchen to make sure none of my property was at risk. I assured him that everything was fine and offered him Valentine’s dinner. He declined.

These two things do not play nicely together

These two things do not play nicely together

I also offered—if he wanted to drop by again—to donate to the next firehouse fundraising drive. Why? Because the poor and perfectly-muscled dude wasn’t making any extra money by getting up and coming to my house. In fact, he probably missed out on some pretty good firehouse chili. I felt sort of bad.

In the end—yes, after the second time it happened—it cost me exactly nothing. The only reason the fire department came to my house both times was because of the contract I had with the private security company. The firefighters got paid by the taxpayers to respond when I—a semi-privileged and cast-iron-skilleted suburban warrior—got jiggy with the chicken on a Valentine’s night when my home alarm was feeling a little needy. The public servants would have made the exact same salary regardless of whether they were fighting my seared chicken breast or a five-alarm fire.

And now that has me wondering why we bother.

Why do we pay taxes for firefighting? Honestly, is fire such a rampant problem in our society that we need to pay annual taxes to fund fire protection? I mean, we all know that firefighters spend most of their time sitting around frying turkeys and directing traffic after fender-benders that keep us from getting to Old Navy clearance sales. When it comes down to it, people who work hard enough can afford sprinkler systems that could do the same job as a bunch of guys who wash their trucks for half of their working day.

In fact, why do we bother paying for police officers when we could hire private security companies to make sure our property and persons were adequately protected?

Or why do we bother to pay taxes to fund people to teach our children?

Why do pay taxes to pay people to build our roads?

Or monitor disease outbreaks?

People who work hard enough can afford other people to protect them from those dangers, right? Why do we get government involved at all?

I guess it’s because we have decided that these all are important, nay, essential parts of maintaining a safe and orderly society. We want to make sure our houses don’t burn down. We want to make sure people don’t rob us. We want to make sure our children are educated. We consider all of those things an integral part of living and moving forward as a people.

And you know what? They are. I was joking before. Firefighters, police officers, and educators are among the bravest and most important people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. They deserve a portion of the money I make because they provide services I can’t always provide for myself. What’s more, they make sure other people in my community have the same protection, and that means my neighbors keep their houses, don’t become victims of crime, and have children who have a chance at education that turns them into productive members of society.

Why don’t we don’t actively fight against these taxes?

Why are we not arguing that we shouldn’t give firefighting and police protection handouts to people who haven’t worked to earn them?

We all don’t use those services equally. We may never use the services at all, but we don’t question their absolute necessity. Why is that?

I know there is a reason, because otherwise America wouldn’t be in the massive debate we are today. I know there is a reason, because I pay for fire insurance and fire security, but I also pay taxes for firefighters, the people I’m actually trusting to physically save me. It’s unquestionably the most important part of the process, and that’s the one we control via government rather than private industry. Why is that?

The only answer I’ve come up with is this: there has to be a line between what we pay a government to do and what we pay private industry to do, because we count on the free market to determine what’s good and bad, what’s really necessary and what’s unnecessary. Otherwise, capitalism is dead. Worse, I’m told it would make us commies. And as a guy who grew up in the 70s and 80s, I know that being a commie is gray and sucky.

So, if I’m to accept that because I really don’t want Obama making my lunch sandwiches or spraying for palmetto bugs in my house, where exactly am I to draw the line?

Should we stop funding public firefighters?

Should we stop paying for public education?

And if not, I ask why those services are more important than the doctor who has to operate on somebody in my family next month.

Oh, yeah, there’s that. Much like a stupid cooking mishap or my car getting burgled, we have a little family medical thing we have to take care of. It’s nothing too serious, but it came out of nowhere, and it is going to be the kind of expensive that would hurt the pocketbooks of people who don’t have decent insurance, the kind of people who don’t qualify for government assistance but also don’t have a guaranteed 100% payment and could end up spending a long time paying for the emergency care.

It’s made me think back to that cast iron skillet and wonder what would have happened if I had really started a grease fire and there weren’t such a thing as government-funded firefighters. How long would I be paying for that out-of-nowhere emergency? How would losing that money affect my ability to be a productive member of society?

I know there are people on both sides of the privatization debate. I have friends who would be much happier if we privatized everything from the Centers For Disease Control to the ATF. I have friends who would be happy if we had Karl Marx over for a beer and wings. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. The question is, how do we as a society decide where to draw that line?

I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I think the question is instructive in itself, and it might help us have a better discussion about how we think about what is essential for everyone.

Why are some things so essential that we make sure we fund them with taxes without complaint, and why are other things too important to let government handle?

Put another way, why do we pay taxes in case I set my house on fire but not in case I set myself on fire?