Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's Amazing How Much Context a Sound Bite Misses

I have a friend whose in-laws are strong Southern conservative Republicans, and since his marriage, I've noticed strange (for him) talking points creeping into our conversations about politics.  The one that bothered me the most was the oft cited claim that some large percentage of Americans don't pay federal income taxes.  Right from the off, I would argue about the other taxes that people pay, but to no avail.  My buddy, rightly, sees himself and his family as a part of the middle class that is being squeezed from all sides.  However, he saves his strongest criticisms for those below him on the economic ladder, a point I've raised to him continually.  Finally, a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has come out essentially de-bunking that tax line by providing a more complete picture of the tax burdens of the lower classes.  It is well worth the read.

And on a final note, I find it totally tiresome, this effort to demonize the middle class, working class and the working poor, and the various government programs currently in place to help ease their financial burdens.  That demonization is made easier when you play class warfare, but not in the way that most people hear it from conservatives and Republicans.  This particular brand of class warfare is from the top down, and I would argue that this brand of top down warfare started in January 1981 (and that war is almost won, in my opinion).  The idea that only some are paying federal income taxes, while others leech off of the success of their "economic betters," fits comfortably within that brand.  How many times have we heard about "punishing the successful?"

Folks like my friend, I believe, understand that they will not be able to go after folks like the Wall Street denizens who brought this country to its knees, because they bought the fictional line from the movie "Wall Street" that "greed is good."  Folks like my friend, I believe, understand that most of our politicians are bought and paid for, regardless of party, and only grandstand for the middle classes and below.  Yet, folks like my friend, I believe, feel the need, maybe to build self-esteem or to re-direct their frustrations, to snarl at those who aren't as fortunate.  They are comfortable using the phrase "my tax dollars," when speaking derisively about someone with food stamps, for example.  Yet, they rarely express that same derision toward American corporations that make the old "welfare queen" look as poor as she actually is. 

This report on how the lower classes pay a multiplicity of taxes will help to blunt the context free statement that some large percentage of Americans "don't even pay federal income taxes (which of course becomes shortened to just "taxes")."  But until these same folks look more closely at who actually has been "taking" from the rest of us, we will continue to bankroll those least in need of our hard earned money.


Anonymous said...

The value of the article you cite is that it reminds us that there are all kinds of taxes that we pay. Though federal income tax is sometimes the most obvious one, there are lots of others. Still, the fact remains that a significant percentage of people—whether it is 40% or 51% are not paying federal income tax. Your effort (I think half hearted) to understand why this worries people is both a little sad and funny. To be concerned about this phenomenon does not necessarily indicate a need to build self esteem or that a person has built up frustrations. Is those really the only reasons you can imagine? Perhaps people who are shocked by this fact have a principled concern about a society with so many “free riders” who are consuming resources without even making a token payment for them. You also assume that these 51% of the population are simply “less fortunate.” I think that may apply to some of those folks affected by the economy but there is also a hard core of people who simply don’t want to work or are unable to function as responsible citizens. Having everyone make an investment in society, even a small one, makes them more likely to participate and protect the society. The same way owning a house makes people more concerned about their neighborhood—less likely to riot and burn the neighborhood down. I wouldn’t argue that people need to pay on a 1 to 1 basis for the services they consume, but paying nothing creates perverse incentives. How many people can we afford who simply feed off of society without contributing?
You will surely point out that there are all kinds of other imbalances in the tax code that need to be addressed, and that’s true. But that doesn’t make this one go away.

50sense said...

Dear anonymous, thanks for proving the writer's point.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if 50sense pays any federal income tax?