Winning the Argument on Tax Cuts and Government Spending

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, a weekly U.S. Supreme Court case review podcast.  A complete collection of all Marc Seltzer’s writing and podcasts is available at


Vanessa S.
Vanessa S7 years ago

Thank you for this very thought-provoking article. I have to admit that I am young, and ignorant when it comes to politics and taxes. What it says in the article about tax payers getting back their tax dollars through social programs makes sense. But, at the same time, I think a large part of why people complain about their tax dollars going into these social programs is because of how these benefits are abused by the very people they were created to help. For example, I know of a family that is receiving close to $800 in food stamps every month, as well as full medicaid for their three children. While I am very happy that the children's needs are being met, the father shows no responsibility in keeping a job. Currently unemployed, he will only consider applying for or taking a job if it is a convenient match for him. Shouldn't the Department of Health and Human Resources require more from him? If tax payers are expected to provide his family with food and medical care, shouldn't the agencies resposible for giving out these benefits require him to do everything in his power to get himself and his family back on their feet? Even if it means applying for and working hard at jobs that he doesn't like until something that he would comes along? There are many other similar situations as well. This is something that, if resolved, could reduce the nation's debt. It seems to me we need to find more ways of lowering the spending, not just find ways to pay for more of it.

James D.
James D7 years ago

I encourage you to listen to Senator Sanders here:

I have just sent this email to my Senator. Please, rattle your Senator's cage as well.

Dear Senator Rockefeller,

I wish to voice my support for the position of Senator Bernie Sanders in relation to the debate on the Bush Tax Giveways to the Rich and the agreement recently reached between the White House and Congressional Republicans.

I encourage you to listen to Senator Sanders and vote down the agreement and let the Bush Giveaways expire. Then, work hard in the next session to address these issues from fresh ground. The Rich do not Need more of Our money handed to them. If Trillions of dollars are going to be handed out again, hand to people like me. I will Spend it, infuse it into the economy, buy American goods, etc. Those at the top will get their hands on it when it "trickles up" to them anyway!

Please, fight to right our Ship of State before it flounders and is the runation of Us All!

Thank you,

Nancy R.
Nancy R7 years ago

Ronald Ellsworth: sorry, but I must decline!

Nancy R.
Nancy R7 years ago

Jeffrey W.'s comment, on who tax dollars actually "belong" to, is thought-provoking. It raises questions about the social contract between citizens and government, and the role of government - for example, as representative and service provider. We certainly can't do without government, and must pay for what it provides. So it's a matter of continuously monitoring and changing the structure and services according to circumstances but in line with constitutional law.
It's true that individual "rights" have historically been seen as having priority over the the community or collective in the US. This was reinforced during the latter half of the 20th Century by constant anti-communist/socialist propaganda that permeated every part of American society. Since the fall of the USSR 20 years ago, the mindset has been hard to shake off. As a result, government taxation and spending is labeled as "socialist" whenever it suits the purposes of the political right wing. Hence basic health care provisions supported by the government are vilified as "socialist," and taxation of the rich and "redistribution of wealth" are "un-American."

Lindsey DTSW
.7 years ago

I think one of the problems is that so many people erroneously think that 'the rich' either don't pay taxes at all or pay only a pittance due to tax shelters and the like.

And yet the figures speak for themselves - and the IRS publishes those figures each year. For 2009, the top 10% of earners paid 73% of the federal taxes in this country. And 47% of the lowest earners paid no federal taxes at all.

I hope someday our government will consider going to the FairTax. Most of all I have what is almost certainly a vain hope that one day Americans will wake up and realize that we're being taxed into oblivion. That in our ever-increasing desire to have big government (through forcibly taking money out of our pockets) take care of our wants and needs we're creating a massive state of dependency.

Ronald Ellsworth
Ronald E7 years ago

Nancy for President!

Ronald Ellsworth
Ronald E7 years ago

That 2% declared war on the working class through the purchase of the US Congress. Maybe more civilized than the private armies that put down the workers in days of old but the result is the same. Seems fair to fight back.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Rie Rie T.
Ria T7 years ago

Must be in the air. Yesterday my email service was down and I wrote to the President and my Congresspeople about exactly this issue. May I respectfully recommend a book, "The Watchman's Rattle"? I'm being drug into change by this book. Blessings.

Steven H.
Steven H.7 years ago

Is it President McConnell