It’s a funny thing. Only about two percent of Americans make up the wealthiest two percent of Americans. How is it then that so many Americans are willing to stand with Republicans in their efforts to lower taxes on the top two percent?
What is it about slogans like “no more taxes,” and “government spending is out of control” that are so appealing to the other ninety-eight percent of Americans? The 98% don’t really pay all that much in taxes, and they recoup a substantial amount of what they do pay through their use of social programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Veteran’s benefits, welfare, public education, transportation, environmental protection and unemployment insurance, etc.
Liberal commentators often skip over this question and jump into the fray accusing Republicans of greed, manipulation and deception. Rachel Maddow recently expressed concern that Democrats would compromise on the Bush tax cuts. She railed against the Republicans’ consistent refusal to compromise and extolled Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for blasting Republicans for cutting taxes on the wealthy at the same time as they complain about debt and deficits.
SANDERS: “We are now faced with the issue of what we do with the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, and if you can believe it, we have people here, many of my Republican colleagues who tell us, oh, I am so concerned with debt and deficits, I am terribly concerned with a trillion dollar national debt, terribly concerned, but wait a minute, its very important that we give, over a ten year period, 700 billion in tax breaks to the top 2 percent.”
“We talk about a lot of things on the floor of the Senate, but somehow we forget to talk about the reality of who is winning in this economy and who is losing, and it is very clear to anyone who spends two minutes studying the issue, the people on top are doing extraordinarily well at the same time as the middle class is collapsing and poverty is increasing.”
This is true, so why don’t Americans vote 98-2 in support of taxes and government spending? Why don’t Democrats have more traction when they argue for raising taxes on the wealthy and spending money on social programs?
Could it be that Americans don’t feel good about taxes and government spending because they really are naturally wary of big government? Remember that the nation was born of the fundamental principles that power corrupts and authority must be held in check. Yet the size and scope of government today dwarfs any monarchy or authority that the founding fathers could even have imagined. The British Empire of old doesn’t hold a candle to present day Washington.
This isn’t to say that Social Security and Medicare shouldn’t be revered and safeguarded. But costly foreign wars and catastrophic financial mismanagement have caused more than the usual doubt or dispair over government.
Anyone who argues in the public arena that taxes must be collected and spending authorized would do well to respect the public’s healthy skepticism. To speak to this concern is to talk about good management practices and improved efficiency; more persons served and better services with lower costs. This doesn’t have to hide the difficult decisions about balancing budgets and taking care of our fellow citizens. But it’s not enough to say the rich can afford to pay, or that Republicans want to cut spending on social programs, and think that you’ve won the argument.
Americans know that the breakdown in good government is in part because government’s very size and financial power have turned it into an unwieldy, unaccountable beast. How the public regains control is not yet known, but those working to preserve the social safety net, should avoid collisions with the public’s genuine desire for government reform.
Marc Seltzer is also a contributor to SupremePodcast.com, a weekly U.S. Supreme Court case review podcast. A complete collection of all Marc Seltzer’s writing and podcasts is available at marcseltzer.com.
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