Mitt Romney, class warrior, is now on display in the infamous video of his appearance at a private, $50,000-a-plate fundraiser. Dismissing half of the American public (47 per cent) as self-styled victims, parasites, and Obama voters, he concludes, ‘My job is not to worry about those people’.
What makes them so contemptible? Forty-seven per cent of Americans ‘pay no income tax’, Romney declared, repeating a popular and grossly misleading right-wing talking point. Nearly two thirds of Americans who belong to the 47 per cent don’t pay taxes formally designated as ‘income taxes’, but they do pay taxes on their incomes, formally designated as payroll taxes. Social security and medicare taxes are automatically deducted from their paychecks. More than half of those who don’t pay these taxes are elderly people, many of whom probably paid them in the past.
This system of automatic payroll tax deductions ensures that salaried, lower and middle-class workers have much less control over their tax bills than rich and super-rich people, like Romney, who receive various forms of investment income, prepare their own tax returns, and take advantage of the many loopholes and shelters in our incredibly over-complicated tax code. For all we know, since Romney refuses to release more than two years worth of his returns, he is among the moochers who have paid little or no annual income taxes.
We do know that he shares the hostility to taxation especially prominent on the right and has paid taxes at the very low rate of 13.9 per cent, unlike many of the middle-income people he disdains, who are stuck with higher rates and proportionately higher taxes. Given his ideological leanings, he should make fun of these people for paying more than their fair share, not deride them for allegedly paying less.
Romney must recognise that his portrayal of half the population as freeloaders who pay no taxes is false: he may be socially inept and culturally clueless, but he does understand money. He may also realise that many of the people he dismisses as lazy, entitled Obama acolytes are Republicans, or labile voters that he and Paul Ryan are courting, like seniors dependent on Social Security and Medicare. But he was addressing a group of wealthy Republicans and, in an outburst of sincerity or pandering, confirming a prominent, right-wing vision of rich people carrying the country and its ungrateful, government dependents on their backs.
Romney’s widely discussed and debunked remarks may or may not accurately describe his thinking. (They do reveal a disconcertingly delusional belief that, as the scion of a millionaire governor and auto executive, he’s a self-made man who ‘inherited nothing’.) But his remarks do help explain why we can’t manage to conduct the informed debate about taxes and entitlements that the country so desperately needs. The real problems of deficits, entitlement spending, and an arbitrary, irrational tax system will not be solved by myths designed to influence elections.
‘Deficits don’t matter’, former Vice President Dick Cheney declared, not so long ago, while the Bush administration was preparing to amass a huge deficit with tax cuts for the rich and a war for which it did not budget. Today, deficits do matter, born-again deficit-hawk Republicans and Democrats generally agree, to no avail, partly because facts don’t matter, especially during campaigns. We should be engaged in a fact-based policy debate about balancing spending and tax reform. Instead we’re stuck in a myth-based, faux-philosophical fight over the role of government and the character of people who depend upon it.
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From a left-wing view, rich individuals and corporations who benefit from generous tax breaks are the welfare kings and queens. From a right-wing view, captured by Mitt Romney, it’s the rest of us. In fact, we’re all dependent on government, including Romney. Whether he flies commercial or in private jets, he’s dependent on the Federal Aviation Administration and airport controllers. If the companies he’s owned need educated workers, then they also need public schools. It’s elementary, and the very beginning of a debate, not the end of one.
But with their pretence of utter independence from government, Republicans have helped Democrats avoid hard questions about entitlements. Why not, for example, consider means testing for social security and medicare? (Currently rich people are eligible for social-security payments and practically required to receive medicare.) By promoting Ayn Rand-style fantasies of radical individualism, supposedly accessible to everyone, Republicans have made it easy for Democrats to craft the warm and fuzzy message that ‘we’re all in this together’.
But we’re apart. At least, we’re not reveling in our togetherness. We’re a heterogeneous nation of some 311million people separated by income, ideology, culture and religion. We don’t necessarily like or respect each other. How could we? Generally, politicians on all sides refrain from acknowledging these realities. Instead, they praise the proverbial ‘fundamental decency’ of the American people, as if we were one happy, uniformly ethical family. Really, it was sort of refreshing to hear Romney candidly express contempt for half of us. Still, we, and the politicians we elect, do have to work together. Presidents are supposed to respect and try to represent, in part, diverse, competing interests and ideals. Romney seems uninterested in doing so. George Bush called himself ‘the decider’. Romney looks more like the divider.
Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her most recent book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)