Thursday, September 22, 2011

Math is scarier than class warfare -- Sept. 22, 2011 column


Feisty Barack Obama tried to bluster his way to Democrats’ good graces by confronting the Republican whine about class warfare.

“This is not class warfare,” the president lectured Monday in the Rose Garden. “It’s math.”

Rather than blaming the rich, Obama argued for fairness in a tax system that lacks it. Most people approve of higher taxes for the wealthy, and they’re fine with corporations paying more, polls show.

Political campaigns are about contrasts. After capitulating to congressional Republicans after the 2010 election, Obama has turned toward his liberal roots.

Conservative Republicans meanwhile are doing their own math. Playing to tea party anger and alienation, Republicans propose to slash and burn federal programs they never liked while cutting taxes for “job creators.”

We have plenty of time to weigh these competing visions before November 2012. My guess is that despite the evidence of rising inequality, most Americans still want to believe we’re a small-d democratic, open, optimistic society. They’re deeply unhappy with the country’s direction but hope government can work again.

It’s worth remembering that the last two winning presidential contenders did so with pledges to bring the country together. As president, Obama and George W. (“uniter, not a divider”) Bush demonstrated how difficult it is to deliver on the promise.

Republicans like to say liberal Democrats are forever fomenting class warfare, but Democrats did learn something from the wretched John Edwards. Long before his personal and professional life imploded in scandal and federal court, Edwards proved that pitting the haves against the have-nots is dumb politics.

Edwards during the 2004 Democratic primaries presented a sharp view of “two Americas…one privileged, the other burdened…one America that does the work, another that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks.”

The Democrats rejected Edwards’ glass-half-empty populism, although the patrician John Kerry then picked him as his running mate.

Obama specifically shielded the poor and middle class in his proposal to tame the federal deficit through $4 trillion in cuts and revenues over 10 years. It’s about math, yes, and it’s also about choosing which services should be cut and whose taxes should be raised.

Republicans who cry class warfare don’t see their own choice to favor the rich with tax breaks as a form of class warfare.

Nobody wants to be one of the chumps Leona Helmsley disparaged in her famous remark that “only the little people pay taxes.” Even big people sometimes do go to jail for tax evasion, she learned.

Obama used the bully pulpit to float the principle that billionaire investor Warren Buffett and his kind should pay more in taxes than their secretaries – a no-brainer – but, disappointingly, the president didn’t send Congress a plan for accomplishing the goal.

Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary, told reporters, “Now there are lots of different ways to achieve that principle. We’re not going to give the Congress a detailed proposal for how to meet that specific principle now because there’s lots of different ways to do that.”

Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates are working the other side of the street. They are making political hay of the 46 percent of people who didn’t pay any income taxes at all this year.

What Republicans don’t explain is that two-thirds of people who pay no income tax do pay the payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare. Only about 18 percent pay neither income nor payroll taxes. Of these, more than half are elderly and more than one third are non-elderly with incomes under $20,000, according to the Tax Policy Center, which is run by two Washington think tanks, the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.

And even the poorest of the poor pay state and local sales taxes.

The American dream holds that anyone who works hard can climb the ladder and become rich. People who see themselves on the ladder are more agreeable to tax breaks for the wealthy.

These days, though, the poor and the middle class are losing ground. One in six Americans – 46.2 million -- live below the poverty line, the most since 1993. Almost 50 million Americans lack health insurance.

Americans also lack confidence that wealth is in their future. About eight in 10 people surveyed last month said it was unlikely their net worth would reach a million dollars in the next 10 years. Only one in five surveyed thought it was likely, the Associated Press-CNBC poll reported.

That math should trouble politicians of both parties.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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