Around the middle of the fourteenth century, French peasants, angered by the corruption and all-around uselessness of their country’s ruling class, erupted in violent revolt. In one especially infamous incident, an angry mob roasted a knight on a spit, in full view of his wife and children, then proceeded to force-feed them the flesh of their husband and father, respectively. After which, of course, a dozen or so of the mob’s men took turns raping the new widow then submitted her and her children to their own torturous deaths.
Now that’s class warfare.
Clearly, Congressional Republicans set the bar much lower, at least judging by the repeated accusations flung at the president in response to his plan to get Americans back to work and the federal budget back to black. From their alarmed protests, one could almost be led to believe that President Obama went forth from the Rose Garden Monday leading a charge on the Hamptons, pitchfork in hand.
But when cooler minds take a look at the president’s plan, what they find instead of raw, red-meat populism is a reasoned, rational, comprehensive approach to righting the country’s fiscal course. Indeed, what the president has managed to deliver is what economists across the political spectrum have been calling for all summer: short-term stimulus (in this case, the American Jobs Act) coupled with a long-term deficit-reduction strategy.
You can almost hear the screaming hordes, lustily demanding agricultural subsidy reform and radio spectrum auctions.
But of course, sensible minor reforms like these aren’t the holdup in the plan. What really has Republicans stoked – and their wealthy supporters along with them – is that the president’s vision of tax reform actually includes making them pay a little more. It is truly shameful, they claim, to correct the federal budget’s imbalance by asking a greater sacrifice from the one segment of our society that has sailed through the Great Recession practically unharmed.
At best, one could possibly argue that, by proposing to increase taxes on the wealthy, the president is merely stoking class resentment in a desperate attempt to improve his reelection chances. But arguing this ignores two facts.
First, the president didn’t create this resentment. But he is – at last – acknowledging it. Americans aren’t stupid, and they’ve known for a long time that their incomes have stagnated, if not altogether disappeared, while the rich have continued to get richer. And they don’t approve.
In a study by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely conducted in 2005, and published earlier this year, it was shown that while Americans assume wealth distribution to be more equal than it really is, their ideal distribution is even more equal still. In fact, the study’s participants preferred evil, socialist Sweden to the US in a blind side-by-side comparison.
But second, and more relevant to the petty politics of the moment, is the fact that accusing the president of waging class warfare would be a rather (amusing-if-it-weren’t-so-tragically) hypocritical charge on the part of Republicans.
They are the party, after all, who held the middle-class hostage last December in their battle to extend Bush’s tax cuts for the richest among us – and the entire country hostage this summer, repeatedly walking out of debt-ceiling negotiations over any mention of raising taxes at the top.
And it was during those very negotiations that Senator Cornyn declared on the floor of the Senate that 51 percent of American households didn’t pay any income tax in 2009, saying “to show how out of whack things have gotten, 30 percent of American households actually made money from the tax system by way of refundable tax credits.”
Now that’s injustice.
The fact is, those of us in the bottom ninety-percent have already paid dearly for this recession – in jobs and wages lost; in tax dollars bailing out a financial industry that is now turning record profits; and in facing down a future that is less secure, and less promising, than before. If the top ten want to complain about raising their marginal rates and taking away their estate tax protections, let them. Then raise their taxes anyway.
And to Senator Cornyn: I was one of those Americans who paid no income tax for 2009. The reason being my adjusted gross income was just over $3000. In fact, I received a small refund due to the Making Work Pay and Earned Income Credits – money you can be sure I put right back into the local economy.
If, however, you feel that some of those hard-earned dollars should have gone to the government rather than stayed in my pocket, feel free to suggest a ballpark figure. I’ll be happy to write a check.