Who Is Committing Class Warfare?

by Michael Sean Winters

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The GOP has been complaining that President Obama’s plan to pay for his jobs bill by instituting a surtax on those who make more than one million dollars per year amounts to “class warfare.” But, in fact, it is the GOP that is engaging in class warfare.

This fact came up during Tuesday night’s debate. Anderson Cooper, the moderator, asked the following question: “Congresswoman Bachmann, you said in the last debate that everyone should pay something. Does that mean that you would raise taxes on the 47 percent of Americans who currently don’t pay taxes?” Last night, Mr. Cooper admitted that he had made a mistake. It is not true that 47 percent of Americans currently don’t pay taxes. Where did this come from? It has been a staple of GOP talking points and campaign speeches all year. Mr. Cooper was simply repeating what he had heard before, many times.

47 percent of Americans do not pay any federal income taxes. The reason? Because they make so little money in the first place, they do not have any taxable income at the end of the year. They still pay federal payroll taxes. They still pay federal excise taxes. They still pay state and local property taxes. They still pay state and local sales taxes. (If Herman Cain has his way they will soon pay federal sales tax too, as well as federal income tax.) These various taxes the poor do pay represent a higher percentage of their income than most Americans pay in federal income tax. If you make 25k per year, chances are you do not qualify for kinds of deductions that help middle class taxpayers lower their tax bill, such as the home mortgage interest deduction. Nor do you benefit from the specific tax shelters and loopholes that litter the federal tax code, permitting the very wealthy to avoid paying a higher share of their income in taxes.

The tax code, then, tries to redress some of the imbalance in the economy itself. It is not just that the very wealthy have more income, it is that they can afford accountants and lobbyists and tax lawyers to help them avoid paying taxes. But, at a fundamental level, the tax code, as currently constructed, expects the wealthier to pay a higher percentage of their income in order to exempt the very poor from having to forfeit what little they have. The goal of such a policy is not only social justice, but social peace. Mr. Cain’s “9-9-9” proposal will drive more people into poverty. Gov. Perry plans to announce his version of a flat tax very shortly and, presumably, it will eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit which keeps millions of Americans above the poverty line. Setting aside considerations of distributive justice, to which the Catholic Church has long pledged itself, increasing the number of poor people in this country risks social upheaval, and I am not talking about more Occupy Wall Street protests. When poverty goes up, the abortion rate goes up. When poverty goes up, crime goes up.

I will grant that there is a certain compelling point to the Republican concern that, in a democracy, every one should pay something. I wish we had an economy in which everyone made more than 25k per year. I wish we had an economy in which the gap between the rich and poor was not increasing. I wish we lived in a country in which there was greater social mobility. In fact, many of those much maligned European countries that some GOP candidates denounce for their big-government, socialist tendencies, now have greater social mobility than the United States. It is one thing to say, as a matter of political principle, we will live with less social equality in order to have a more free society in which there is great social mobility. It is also fine to say, in order to have a more just society, we are willing to restrict the freedom of the marketplace and risk decreasing social mobility. But, in America today we have the worst of both worlds, less social mobility and a greater disparity of wealth.

If Americans can find a way to create a society that has either fewer poor people and/or greater social mobility, I would sign on to the idea that everyone should pay something. In the current socio-political climate, in which the poor and middle class have already paid for the greed and stupidity of the Wall Street banks, to attack the poor, to suggest that they are somehow not doing their part because they pay no federal income tax, to propose a flat tax and call it a fair tax, these all amount to not just class warfare. They amount to a program of social suicide.

It is unclear to me why the President has not been more effective in rebutting the charge of class warfare leveled against him. There is a ready Scripture passage that would do much to deflate it: “Whatever you do for these the least of my brethren…” Matthew 25. In arguing for programs that will help provide jobs to those who lack them, the least of the brethren, this text of Scripture seems on point. At a deeper level, Matthew 25 points to the need for social solidarity, and puts this need forward not in the dull, dry terms employed by Secretary Geithner, but in terms of a biblical mandate, indeed, as essential to salvation. The White House Communications team needs to keep their Bibles close at hand. It appears at the moment, that they do not know where the Good Book is, let alone what it says.

So, kudos to Mr. Cooper for at least admitting that he was wrong when he said that 47 percent of Americans do not pay any taxes. Will the GOP candidates do the same? Or will they continue to blame the poor for their condition, all the while promising to roll back the Dodd-Frank bill and, so, liberate Wall Street so it can once again consider no interest buts its own. That worked out so well last time, no?

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