The two major presidential candidates have both set off political firestorms in recent weeks with controversial comments about the nature of the relationship between Americans and their government. First, President Barack Obama attracted a fusillade of attacks for his ill-advised use of the phrase “you didn’t build that.” Now, more recently, Governor Mitt Romney has become a bug on the nation’s political windshield because of his remarkable assertion that 47 percent of Americans are “dependent” on the government and think of themselves as “victims.”
Romney’s comments were not actually new or surprising to anyone who pays attention to the modern American conservative movement. Inhabitants of “free market” think tanks, radio talk show hosts and many other conservative politicians have been making the same argument for years. Their central claim: that a large proportion of Americans have “no skin in the game” because they don’t pay federal income taxes and that public “entitlements” are “out-of-control.”
A look at the facts, however, demonstrates that such contentions are, even when viewed through the most generous lens, plainly inaccurate.
A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities makes clear that virtually all Americans — even the very poor — pay significant chunks of their income in federal taxes, including payroll taxes and excise taxes on gasoline and other items.
Moreover, when state and local taxes are included, the poor often pay a higher percentage of their income than the wealthy. In North Carolina, the richest one percent of taxpayers pays a significantly lower share of their income in state and local taxes than do taxpayers at the middle and the bottom.
The Center has also debunked common mythology about “entitlement” spending. This 2007 report showed that, aside from the “big three” programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, so-called entitlement spending was and is taking a declining share of the gross domestic product.
So, given these hard data, how do we make sense of the demonstrably false claim that a huge proportion of Americans are, in effect, freeloaders? What lies behind it and how can we address it in a positive way so that the rancor and divisions it helps breed can be eased?
A look at the recent political rhubarb surrounding President Obama’s controversial “you didn’t build that” comment might actually help. Though the President’s comments have clearly been taken out of context by his political opponents, it’s true that his choice of words was poor and that it touched a nerve in millions of people whose nerves were already close to the surface.
Whether we like it or not, a large proportion of the American public has come to subscribe to a new and rather radical vision of the country in which: a) all private business owners are beleaguered heroes, b) their own government is the enemy (or at least a competitor), and c) in a rather massive bit of irony, that they are victims.
The origins of this attitude are clearly complex. Fears brought about by rapid economic and demographic change combined with incessant propaganda from the Fox Newses and Rush Limbaughs of the world clearly play a big role. Still, it must be noted that pundits and politicians of both parties have played “government is bad” card for decades. Moreover, there can be no doubt that many of our governmental structures and systems — like all large public and private structures — are bureaucratic and flawed.
Sadly, in the modern hyper-consumerist American society, too much of the citizenry has come to relate to government as it relates to a big box store — not as citizens and stakeholders, but as consumers whose goal is to get the most for him or herself at the cheapest possible price. Though understandable, this is a dangerous perversion of our system.
The American government was not designed to be “run like a business.” It was designed to be a unique and very public institution in which Americans come together collectively to accomplish great things that no individual or corporation could ever accomplish alone.
What is needed right now in the United States, perhaps more than just about anything else, is a revival of this public spirited attitude; a renewal of the once prevalent belief that public systems and structures are not “theirs” but “ours” — ours to co-own, to build and to share.
Founding father Ben Franklin once uttered the wry and now famous observation at the outset of the American experiment that “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” In 2012, Americans and their leaders would do well to remember and revive this truism — both with respect to the way they think about their fellow citizens and their government. : :
— Rob Schofield is the Director of Research and Policy Development at N.C. Policy Watch (ncpolicywatch.com).