Everyone loves to hate taxes, but no one loves to hate them more than a politician in the run up to a big election -- particularly in times of great economic pain. The summary of our nation's love affair with "tax hate" is summed up in a hefty dose of political irony by newly picked V.P. candidate Paul Ryan, in a statement that sounds an awful lot like a complete apostasy from modern conservatism.
From page 60 of Paul Ryan's budget:
... these tax preferences are disproportionately used by upper-income individuals. ... A code with high rates and lots of loopholes benefits those who can afford the best lawyers and lobbyists in Washington... those with political muscle usually take the path of least resistance by pushing for special deductions and carve-outs... There's nothing fair about that.
Okay, playing "gotcha" with Paul Ryan's budget aside, if we zoom out to see the big picture we find that the talking points on the right and left are sculpted to elicit anger at a certain class of people in order to advance their respective agendas. Listening carefully, we find that we're instructed to hate the poor, or the rich, and if you hate one of them enough, we can fix the economy. Well, some folks are hard to hate. Others, not so much.
Bill Gates gives an estimated minimum of $1.5 billion annually through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Even Microsoft's staunchest critics have trouble mustering hate against that kind of charitable giving. The hate on Walmart, in contrast, knows no bounds. The Walton family owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of our country, and is accused of driving America's small businesses to extinction, saddling communities with higher health care costs, and offering lower than livable wages ($8.50 per hour is the average).
But let's stop here for a moment to reflect on the polarity of wealth in our country. According to the Census Bureau, 15.1 percent of Americans were living in poverty in 2010. In 2009, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the "wealthiest 1% of U.S. households had [a] net worth that was 225 times greater than the median or typical household's net worth in 2009. This is the highest ratio on record." Further, it calculates the average wealth of someone in the top 1 percent at $14 million, and those at the bottom 20 percent at -$27,200 (negative wealth).
Both Republicans and Democrats agree that economic mobility is important, and this is where we find more bad news. This report, published by the Century Foundation, examined the subject of economic mobility in the United States. It followed 6,000 people born between 1942 and 1972, and concluded:
- When fathers' and sons' earnings are averaged over the course of their lifetimes, we find very little economic mobility in America.
- Scandinavia, Germany and Canada have greater economic mobility than we do.
- A person born into the top 20 percent is five times more likely to remain there than the chances of a person born into the bottom 20 percent to get to into that top 20 percent.
- Top economists are puzzled by why there is so little economic mobility here.
That last bit flies in the face of the any-idiot-should-know tone of our policy debates; the fact of the matter is that the fixing of our economy isn't simple.
There are a host of socioeconomic forces set against the poor, for instance, that aren't directly related to the subject of tax code, but seem to greatly influence economic mobility. Yet, those who champion the rights of businesses limit their electable merit because they are also saddled with the politics of tearing down the maddeningly few remaining paths out of poverty.
Confusingly, politicians clamoring for your vote ask you to hate the evil poor for choosing to be poor, or hate the evil rich for causing the recession. But the real eye-popping bit of truly bipartisan "conventional wisdom" in the populace would seem to be the disproportionate amount of blame ascribed to the government. If the Walton family can own more than 40 percent of our nation's wealth, who should we suppose is really in charge of our economy?
We shouldn't be taught to hate the poor any more than we should be taught to hate the rich. If we must hate someone, why not hate those who spend fortunes on the most vile campaign ads you've ever seen? They're remaking the country in their hateful image.
The part of the class warfare crisis that should alarm us all, as the country braces itself for a potential hydroplane to the right and the repealing of so much social legislation, is the sure knowledge of what happens when you corner a desperate person who only wants to live. With so much hate seeded in the country, we may just learn the difference between catchy, hyperbolic "class warfare" and the real thing.