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Gerry Kearns Headshot

47 Percent -- Political Analysis or Philosophy of Government

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On NBC's Meet the Press this past weekend, Senataor Kelly Ayotte (Republican, New Hampshire) defended Mitt Romney's remarks about the 47 percent of U.S. citizens who pay no income tax: "my job is not to worry about those people." Ayotte insisted: "That was a political analysis at a fundraiser but it is certainly not a governing philosophy." What merit is there in this distinction?

In the first place, Ayotte is correct that Romney was asked how he would get elected and not how he would govern. His point was that President Obama starts off with nearly half the electorate in his pocket because he will have the unquestioning support of the 47 percent of the electorate who pay no income tax. Romney offers two reasons why these people are not receptive to the Republican message. Paying no income tax, "our message of low taxes doesn't connect." On the other hand, these people "believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it" and thus "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

There is no intelligent way of reading this second point other than to believe that alongside tax cuts for those paying income tax, the Republican party is offering spending cuts to programs such as health care, food and housing. Those people who feel entitled to such programs will not vote for a party that promises to cut them. Romney's point is that those who pay no income tax have no reason to vote for tax cuts and those who rely upon welfare have no purpose in voting for spending cuts, and yet that is what the Republican party repeatedly offers.

Now, as Norah McAlvanah reported back in May, Romney was speaking to a room full of the super-rich. This was a $50,000-a-plate dinner for 150 guests at the home in Boca Raton, Florida, of private equity manager, Marc Leder. As it happens the cost of the dinner was just about the median household income in the United States in 2010, as reported in a study for the U.S. Bureau of the Census ($50,054). In other words, about half the U.S. population share households that must survive for a year on less than these Floridan supporters of Mitt Romney were able to drop for one evening with their candidate. In breaking this story, the magazine Mother Jones, reported that Leder "has donated $225,000 to the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future and $63,330 to the Romney Victory PAC." Are we to assume that this group of the super-rich know that they are paying only for a political analysis and not for a philosophy of government? In other words, that they know are they paying for a message that will be announced at each election, but that they know will not to be the basis of their candidate's practice in government?

This is always possible, of course. In the UK, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has recently apologized for Lib Dems breaking the promise on which they had campaigned for election, that they would not raise university tuition fees above the £3,000 per annum current in 2010, whereas once in coalition they agreed to an increase to £9,000 per annum: "There's no easy way to say this: we made a pledge, we didn't stick to it - and for that I am sorry." Facing tough questions on immigration during a recent interview on the Spanish-language TV channel, Univision, President Obama counted the failure to secure comprehensive immigration reform, a campaign pledge, as the major shortcoming of his first term. Obama continued, however, by placing the responsibility with the failure of pressure from out-of-doors that might have compelled a Republican Senate to have acquiesced in his ambition: "you can't change Washington from the inside." But this is where the super-rich are different. Unlike the middle-class students disappointed in Clegg, or the undocumented workers disappointed in Obama, the super-rich get what they are promised from Republicans.

When George W. Bush was running for office, he promised tax cuts and spending reductions; the standard Republican mantra. He delivered on the first. For income earned over $388,350 per year, he reduced the rate from 39 percent to 35 percent. For individuals filing separately, he reduced from 36 percent to 33 percent the tax due on income between $178,650 and $388,350 (the lower boundary was a little higher for households or married families filing as a unit). Together, these reductions are worth about $25,000 per year to the top 1 percent of tax-filing units, households, families or individuals-filing-separately (actually, the figure is $24,935, according to the analysis of the Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution).

The Bush tax cuts also included reductions in capital gains tax and on income from real estate. For 2013 it is estimated by the Tax Policy Center that on the basis of the Bush tax plan, 61.2 percent of the tax deduction over the rates prevailing when Bush came into office in 2001 would go to the top fifth of tax-paying units (taxable incomes over $216,085 per annum), fully one-quarter to the top 1 percent (over $569,944) and one-eighth (13.1 percent) to the top tenth of the one-percent. One out of very eight redistributed dollars go from public spending to the one in a thousand tax-paying units who have incomes over two-and-a-half million dollars a year ($2,474,273). In 2013, the poorer four fifths of American taxpayers would see an average benefit of $1,136 from the Bush tax cuts, the top one fifth would see $9,334, but the people who might afford a $50,000-a-plate dinner, the top 0.1 percent, would get an average of $391,089.

And this is before we even begin to think about the effect of corporate lobbying on legislation and on the implementation of regulations. It's the rich what gets the gravy. It's the poor what gets the blame. The rich get the government they pay for. The gap between political analysis and governing philosophy is not so wide where it touches their concerns. But those who only have their vote and can't pin a check to it end up betting and hoping. Although it is another matter altogether, why, like turkeys voting for Christmas, they should see any merit in trusting the 0.1 percent who so openly sneer at the 47 pecent.

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