Modest Proposal: Tax fat cats’ political donations to help raise money for e-books and other library services

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Meg WhitmanI’ve bemoaned the callousness of the elitists who can’t grasp the importance of libraries as source of books for the cash-strapped and the rest of us.

We need to narrow both the digital divide and the book divide and finance public libraries’ other valuable services. To give just one example, I invite skeptics to read how California is cutting out state funding for its local public libraries.

Now, via a MetaFilter item bought up on the Reading 2.0 list by a respected technical publisher, I see a library booster’s reference to billionaire Meg Whitman’s massive campaign donations to herself during her failed run for governor of the same state that’s starving its libraries. This one woman splurged $119 million on her campaign even before it was over (follow the link).

So here’s a Modest Proposal. All levels of government should tax political contributions 50 percent if they’re above a certain amount, with all of the resultant revenue going for e-books and other library services. Whitman-style donations to self need to be taxed 75 percent.

Politicians on the campaign trail spread lies and dirt. Libraries on the whole spread enlightenment, often of the corrective variety. If U.S. politicians can’t wean themselves off the teats of special interests groups, and if the Supreme Court won’t stop abetting this war against the commonweal—then maybe the voters could insist on this library tax.

Our presential candidates alone may raise well over a billion dollars for election or re-election this time around, with the elite dominating as usual; and under my proposal, hundreds of additional millions could go for America’s libraries. Fat cats could not argue back that massive campaign spending was a significant job creator. Ain’t so—at least not outside certain companies such as media conglomerates that tolerate bloated campaign spending in the interest of self-enrichment from paid ads and commercials. Instead, via the library tax, some of this money could serve as a stimulus that benefited the public in more direct ways.

The Supreme Court might well object to a library-related tax as an infringement of freedom of speech. Still, it’s fun to dream about—given the American political and corporate elites’ stunning lack of responsiveness to public needs.

Part of the MetaFilter thoughts from one soul: “Due to budget cuts the library no longer has evening hours, sorry, try again (and you also don’t get back the bus-fare or money you spent on a hack to get across town to the nearest branch, since other budget cuts closed the one in your neighborhood). OK, so you come back on the weekend. You ask the overworked librarian at the desk to sign up for a computer. She testily tells you that you’re at the wrong desk, and that sign-ups are at circulation. You feel foolish and go over to the circulation desk, who tells you that you need to sign up for a library card to use the computer. After filling out the forms the librarian starts to make your card for you, and informs you that she can’t process a card, since you have fines from 2 years ago that total fifty dollars. It’s an emergency, you say, you need to use the computer. She sighs heavily, informs you that it’s against policy, and then prints a guest pass anyway. You get 30 minutes at a time for a total of 2 hours per day. Computers are on the second floor.

“You go up to the second floor to find a total of 20 computers with a waiting list of 15 people. You do some quick math in your head, and realize you’re probably going to be here for a while, so you walk over to the magazine section, and read People while you wait. Finally, it’s your turn. You walk over to your terminal, and your time starts ticking. Your breath seizes in your chest, and you realize you have no idea what to do. You have the form that they gave you at the social services office, which has an address, which you sort of know what that does, but you can’t quite remember – 17 minutes, by the way. You try typing X City Social Services in a box at the top, a page comes back and says ‘address not found’ with a list of things below it. You’re panicking, because there’s a line forming (there always is) and the library will probably close before you can make it back on – 10 minutes, by the way. After a little more fumbling and clicking you have no luck, you’re kicked off, and immediately someone is standing behind you to use your computer. You relinquish your seat, and head back down stairs. You’re about to leave, already trying to think of who you know who has a computer who might let you use it, and might know about filling out these forms, but the only person you can think of is your friend in the county, and taking a bus out there would be awfully expensive.”

Where some of the collected thoughts at MetaFilter are wrong: Actually e-books are potentially far less expensive than paper books, which cost money to store and process. And theft of reading hardware? Well, the poorest book-lovers should receive free tablets to keep, not borrow. The hardware could be cost-justified via multiple uses—not just for family literacy and other reading but also for such as purposes as improved doctor-patient communications and, yes, the filling out of government forms. I don’t want tech to replace librarians. But at least it could streamline matters for both them and patrons.

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