The Indicator from Planet Money - Grateful For Taxes

In the modern U.S. people may avoid or begrudgingly pay taxes. But in ancient Athens, wealthy people considered it an honor.

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hi sexy question for you. It's a text time of course. I know you've been sweating laboring of your taxes night and day actually paying taxes.

No stressed, but you don't actually mind paying tax in principle to know the Indian knighted states today an estimated one out of every $6 goes untaxed everything that they can to lower the tax bill and the end up paying his Little Tikes as possible. That's quite a lot cuz I'm texting this country, but tax is otherwise it's been with us for a very very long time very long time certainly as far back as ancient Athens, which is like, you know for 500 years BC I didn't guess they had taxes back then taxes that fell largely on the wealthiest 1% of the population and believe it or not as wealthy Athenian citizens weren't just willing to pay but kind of like to brag about paying it was like a status symbol. I wish I felt that way about it.

From Planet Money. I'm stating that we sailed back in time to ancient Athens to learn about the taxes that people wanted to pay and what they got in return.

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Thomas Martin is a professor of Classics at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. And I came across a piece he wrote about taxes in ancient Athens in the conversation and a piece of pretty catchy headline only the richest Athenians pay taxes and they brag devices the professor. Tell us a little bit of Athens in the 4th and 5th Century BC for the times. I really prosperous and large communities. We think that there probably were up to 300,000 people are more living in the territory and I 25 by 30 miles. And by the time we are talking about Athens had been growing for, you know, a couple of centuries and it developed pretty robust infrastructure for the time with Lord fortification walls protecting them from enemy attack and especially to connect the city center to their International port on the sea, which was you know, some five or six miles away.

When was the real heart of what was going to be there? You can Amish success as an international trade power. How did the city pay for it for it to a variety of income streams from the information that we have. It seems like the most important streams were won the tax that they got from the Commerce that went in and out of their port which became ever more successful and by the 4th century was like just super International success and I impose a tax on the value of goods going in and out of the port of which a large amount was food if they had to import food just to stay alive to feed the population in early in the 400. They discovered some really lucrative veins of silver ore in their territory and for the next 200 years.

They were leasing out the operations of the Silver Mines to private entrepreneurs who would then pay in return for the right to know mine the silver and salad they had attacks on prostitution, which was not a legal and they also put in fines as the penalties for losing and lots of civil cases. And so those are the sort of major income streams. So I said he wasn't exactly a tax-free Paradise, but then it was no income or wealth tax in a big difference with what we have in the u.s. Today. How did how did Athens pay for its defense? It was the very richest Athenians who paid the bill really of Taxation if you want to come out that way but do you think inside a special word for in this is I think the key to understanding how they thought about this system. It was called a liturgy which literally means work for the people.

A public service and So based on your Property Holdings. If you were in what we would calculate the top 1% then you were expected to you when called upon in this would happen regularly to pay the entire cost of provisioning paying the wages and equipping one of these high-tech warships called a trireme for an entire year. Do you have to set up a sense of the scale of the cost of that that could range all the way up to 6000 day's wages, which is a considerable amount. Even for the rich you would be expected to actually command this warship loud. I was out on its missions whether it's patrolling the Seas to keep them safe or even going into battle, which is a scary proposition because the way these ships function was to Ram the enemy ship

It sucks that the very definition of a sunk cost for the road cuz you're sitting down below deck the rowing back where you can't see anything your stacked 3 on top of each other, right and people are of course literally scared so that they are losing all kinds of body fluids on you right because your role as you can to make this missile go as fast as possible to crash into the enemy from one second to the next weather is going to blow up in your face. That's not that doesn't sound Pleasant to meet other than bragging rights that made paying these taxes worthwhile. Oh, yeah, they took pride in it because of the status they could get but also because it literally brought them a life utility what that is to say the respect of their fellow-citizens.

I had actual I would even say material benefits genuine Social Capital very much. So, I mean it's from the society but it is definitely Capital sometimes in a literally material set. For example, if you were a rich person and you were brought into a legal suit to a civil case, you could in your defense speech safe when I performed my liturgy when I was paying for that try me when I was paying for that dramatic Festival to honor the gods. You know what I did I paid more than I had to end this established what your character as a good citizen who could be believed in a there was no open market for you could go buy that right? You can't go by social respect on Wall Street haven't but it is you well said it was real Capital that you could spend in the often contentious society. That was this non a fella Therrien direct democracy if there was one thing that you would recommend

Does it take away from the Athenian city-state for us to pick up on today in the United States? What would that be? It would be that serving the common good also brings individual benefits that whether you're talkin socially or economically those two things can and should go hand-in-hand because in the long run is history shows unless people serve both the common good and their individual interests. There isn't much hope for long-term flourishing that seems like a very fine point wins on the professor Mountain from Holy Cross in Massachusetts. Thank you for doing the indicator today. It's been a great pleasure. Thank you very much.

This episode of the indicator was produced by Emma Peasley and Jubal Huxtable was fact-checked by Sam Tsui. The indicator from planet money is a production of NPR.

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