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Beth Shulman Headshot

Shame Is the Name of the Game

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I've been thinking about the difference between "shameless" and "shameful," and which label ought to apply to whom in the current health care debate. Both words seem at first to mean the same thing, another fluke of the wild 'n' crazy English language. But not in this argument.

House Democrats want to pay for part of their comprehensive health care reform package by a graduated tax that's downright shameless -- that is, it's offered bravely, without shame. Rep. Charles Rangel, for example, offers no excuses for a plan that would coax an extra 1 percent from comfortable married couples earning $350,000 a year. That's $3,500 a year from people bringing in $6,730 a week.

The surtax would double to 2 percent for those making more than half a million a year and go to 3 percent for the annual millionaires. Those folks are a tiny fraction of Americans. They make $19,230 per week. You'd think they might be willing to fork over about ten days' income, or $30,000 a year, to help bring health care to 47 million uninsured fellow Americans.

No way. Already, the push-back is in full swing -- and that's shameful. Republicans are pounding the Democrats for the very idea of raising taxes, and for doing it during a recession. It will halt spending! It will stunt economic growth! It will discourage investment!

Come on. Does anyone really think that someone making $6,730 a week or way more than that will fire people, or stop going out to eat, or stop buying stock, because she had to pay $3,500 more in taxes? Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein will wring his hands? Beverly Hills will shut down? This argument is both shameless in braving total ridicule and shameful in its hypocrisy.

Who, after all, had their taxes cut most over the past two decades? The wealthy. Who saw their incomes skyrocket while the rest of us felt lucky just to have any paycheck at all? And which jobs were the most likely to offer health insurance? Guess.

From 1979 to 2005, when national output more than doubled, after-tax income inched up just 6 percent for the bottom fifth of American households, after accounting for inflation. For the middle fifth of us, income rose 21 percent, but it leaped 80 percent for the top fifth -- and for the top 1 percent, who needed it least, income more than tripled, soaring by 228 percent.

Now the top 6 percent of Americans earn about a third of all the money in the country. Their jobs are by far the most likely to have health insurance attached: low-wage work has few or zero benefits, almost by definition. And taxes, meanwhile, actually fell 6 percent for the rich over last 15 years. Yes, middle-class taxes fell too -- by 1.7 percent.

Let's get real. The Republicans are shameless in their argument that the rich will suffer under Rep. Rangel's proposal, or other similar Democratic approaches. And it's shameful to keep denying health care coverage to the people who provide early childhood education for the children of the rich, or who clean their luxury hotel rooms and their corner offices, or wash the dishes in their fancy restaurants, or who care for their elderly parents.

We need comprehensive health care for every single American, regardless of income, and the rich should pay their fair share. And shame upon the shameless Republicans for their shameful argument against it.