04/16/2009 04:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Getting What We Pay For

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Igor Volsky

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On Wednesday, April 15, conservative organizations casted "tea party" gatherings as "anti-tax rallies" that were "part of a larger grassroots movement against government spending." Rupert Murdoch's Fox News and Fox Business Network prodigiously promoted the gatherings, as essentially every right-wing organization -- Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, Newt Gingrich's American Solutions for Winning the Future, Koch Industries' Americans for Prosperity, the Heritage Foundation, American Spectator, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican National Committee, and dozens of others -- spent heavily to organize and mobilize the protests. In the end, thousands of Americans did turn out for the protests and for the live shows with popular Fox News celebrities and dozens of Republican politicians. The "tea party" campaign successfully drove mainstream media coverage in print and on television, providing the illusion of widespread opposition to the federal government and President Obama's fiscal agenda. In reality, Americans are increasingly optimistic about the direction the nation is heading. As Obama's economic recovery and budget plans have begun to go into effect -- including the Making Work Pay tax cut for low- to middle-income working families -- Americans' views of income taxes are among the most positive in fifty years. "There's obviously nothing wrong with the right attempting to engage in protest politics," liberal blogger Duncan Black opines. "The problem is that it was never clear what they were protesting. So far, Obama has cut taxes for most of the population and...well, that's it."

Even as "the recession and the election of the nation's first African-American president" fuel a resurgence in "right-wing extremism," according to a new Department of Homeland Security report, conservative media used the Tea Party events to fan the flames of anger against government and Obama. "They want failure!" Rush Limbaugh said of tea party participants. "Of course they want him to fail!" he said. Tea party protesters carried signs with racist and violent messages and accused the federal government of heading "toward fascism" and "toward socialism" -- anti-government rhetoric promoted by Fox News' Glenn Beck. CNBC's Rick Santelli, whose on-air meltdown against poor homeowners in February helped spur the tea party campaign, argued that "this tea party phenomenon is steeped in American culture." The Daily Show's Jon Stewart put this minority rage into context, telling conservatives, "I think you might be confusing tyranny with losing."

"It's astroturf by some of the wealthiest people in America to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said recently when explaining the tea party campaign. As the Congressional Budget Office found in 2007, families "earning more than $1 million a year saw their federal tax rates drop more sharply than any group in the country as a result of President Bush's tax cuts." The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy are greater than the entire salary of most Americans. "When the tax cuts of recent years are fully in effect next year," an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found, "households with annual incomes of more than $1 million a year will receive tax cuts averaging $168,000, boosting their after-tax incomes by an average of 7.7 percent." A new Gallup poll has found that "just 23 percent" of Americans believe that upper-income taxpayers pay their "fair share," while 60 percent say they pay too little. Nevertheless, Republican leaders continue to push a fiscal agenda that includes revoking the stimulus and cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans even more. They propose lowering the 35 percent, 33 percent, and 28 percent income tax brackets to 25 percent, which the Progress Report's Pat Garofalo notes "are hugely regressive cuts that would gut government revenue."

: An honest discussion of fiscal policy begins with an understanding of not only who is paying the taxes, but also where the revenues go. As the CBPP explains, military spending, Social Security, and federal health insurance programs (Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children's Health Insurance Program), each comprise about 20 percent of the federal budget: $625 billion for defense and international security, including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, $617 billion for Social Security for 35 million retirees, and $599 billion to the health insurance programs. Medicare alone "provides health coverage to around 45 million people who are over the age of 65 or have disabilities." At 11 percent of the 2008 budget, the next largest component are safety net programs "that provide aid (other than health insurance or Social Security benefits) to individuals and families facing hardship," such as unemployment benefits and food assistance. All other government programs -- including veterans benefits, medical research, infrastructure, education, agriculture, and thousands of other efforts -- fall in the remaining fifth of the budget. This is why responsible fiscal reform tackles big-ticket items: ending the war in Iraq, ending Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, reforming health care, and "closing the carbon loophole" in our energy policy. Ending the status quo of increased dependence on the military-industrial complex, the inefficient health care industry, and a dangerously polluting fossil-fuel energy system will not only restore balance to the federal budget but rebuild the American economy.