Clarity: One of Our Parties Truly Does Want to Take from the Poor and Give to the Rich
by Neil H. Buchanan
With Vladimir Putin now unmistakably threatening to use nuclear weapons if he is thwarted in his takeover of Ukraine (and who knows what other countries), this is a grim day indeed. The horrors happening in Eastern Europe necessarily dominate the headlines, and we all hope for the best while having a difficult time even fathoming what "the worst" might be.
Perhaps as a matter of denial or distraction, but mostly because I have no expertise in matters of war and peace, this column is not about any of that. I will, instead, focus on what in any other time would be very big news: the Republican Party has admitted at long last that it is the anti-Robin Hood party. If the world survives Russia's military assault, this will be a moment worth remembering, because the rich are not only going to continue to get richer, but Republicans are now even more unmistakably targeting the poor for further immiseration.
The Republicans' 2017 tax bill -- the only nontrivial piece of domestic legislation that they bothered to pass during the two years that they controlled both Houses of Congress while Donald Trump occupied the White House -- was grotesquely tilted toward the wealthiest Americans and big businesses. At the time, I referred to it as "their stroke-the-rich tax bill," which if anything was an understatement.
Even so, Republicans clung to their talking point that the 2017 bill constituted a tax cut for everyone, not only for the very richest among us. This was all merely rote repetition of the trickle-down trope, where showering benefits on the rich supposedly results in some of the goodies leaking down to the common folk. Republicans have been saying this for decades. It is their trope.
To be clear, the theory behind trickle-down economics is not wrong on its face; that is, there is a perfectly plausible sequence of reasoning that connects high-end tax cuts with expansion of businesses, increased hiring, higher labor productivity, and improved living standards for all. The problem is that that theory has been tested by real-world events again and again, and the unmistakable conclusion is that it does not work. There are plenty of areas in economics in which the empirical evidence is murky, but this is not one of them. The 2017 tax cuts for the rich failed to trickle down, just as all previous attempts had failed.
That does not mean, of course, that Republicans will stop lying about the miracles of trickle-down tax cuts. It seemed, however, that they had learned at least one lesson from Mitt Romney's defeat at the hands of Barack Obama in 2012, which is that it is bad politics to complain about low-income people who supposedly "pay no taxes." Romney became infamous for his ludicrously Scrooge-like comments about people "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."
Romney's cruel vision was, however, not his creation. Many Republicans around that time had glommed onto a claim that "47 percent of Americans pay no taxes," which was false but fit their framing of America as divided between the "makers and the takers," the former being the rich who pay for government and the latter being the half of the population that says gimme, gimme, gimme. Former Member of Congress Michelle Bachmann, who at the time defined the outer edges of Republican lunacy even as she was briefly taken seriously as a presidential candidate, was among the prominent Republicans who were saying that everyone should pay at least a dollar of taxes, so that they would have "skin in the game" of American democracy. (In today's Republican Party, of course, Bachmann would barely register on the loon meter.)
Again, that seething resentment against supposedly free-riding loafers had seemed to be dead and gone among prominent Republicans. Indeed, their 2017 tax bill itself took many people off the federal income tax rolls, by design. They bragged about it. Increasing the standard deduction meant that many people with relatively low incomes saw their federal income tax liability reduced to zero. (If you have, say, gross income of $20,000, doubling the standard deduction from $12,000 to $24,000 reduces your taxable income from $8000 to zero. That is what the 2017 bill did -- even as it was overwhelmingly devoted to doing plenty of very bad things.)
But cruelty never goes out of fashion. Rather than celebrating the fact that the federal income tax system recognizes the plight of the working poor by excusing them from the rolls, Republicans are back to playing the Romney/Bachmann game. Rick Scott, the junior U.S. Senator from Florida (and my state's former governor) has now eschewed Republican leader Mitch McConnell's strategy of having his party run on absolutely no agenda of its own (counting on "Let's go Brandon" being enough to win). Scott has issued a new manifesto, and it is a lulu.
The ideas in Scott's plan (more like a list of festering grievances) are mostly culture war staples, starting with the very first item on the list: "Our kids will say the pledge of allegiance, salute the Flag, learn that America is a great country, and choose the school that best fits them." Is that a legislative agenda? I guess, but that is hardly the point. In any case, it is easy to agree with the headline of Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin's assessment of Scott's plan: "He has done his party no favors."
Scott might be a back-bencher, but he is also the chair of his party's 2022 campaign committee in the Senate, meaning that his "plan" is not to be dismissed in the way that one might brush off a comment from any other nameless partisan. He claims to speak for his party and its candidates, and what he is saying is absurd -- both on the merits and even as a matter of pure politics. Scott, in other words, decided that the best way to help get Republicans elected to the Senate this year was to tie them to a very unpopular mishmash of gripes and regressive policies.
One of the moments where Scott comes closest to having a legislative agenda, in fact, is when he endorses a tax increase: "All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount. Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax." (His number is wrong, but never mind.) When he was called out on this, Scott did a rush appearance on Sean Hannity's entertainment program to deny that he was talking about a tax increase at all. Hannity helpfully noted that Scott's memo did not literally say that Republicans want to increase taxes. Right, it only says that many people who currently pay no federal income taxes must do so, increasing their tax bill from zero to something.
Again, this obsession with making sure that the poors stop freeloading is hardly a new thing for Republicans. The hyper-reactionary editorial board of The Wall Street Journal (even before Murdoch bought that newspaper) once referred to people who are too poor to pay federal income taxes as "lucky duckies" -- a turn of phrase so memorably inane that it has its own Wikipedia page.
Now, Republicans have embraced this ugliness once again, undermining their political ambitions. As one liberal columnist put it: "[T]he campaign ads practically write themselves. It’s easy to imagine commercials in the fall telling voters, 'Democrats want tax hikes on the wealthy, a leading Republican wants tax hikes on everyone else.'" (Again, I should emphasize that Scott clearly speaks for more than himself.) To be clear, I continue to believe that the Republicans' state-by-state anti-voting and partisan vote-counting campaign has already turned the US into a sham democracy. In a very real sense, then, this is all meaningless. But I digress.
Beyond the stupid politics of this -- as I put it in the title of this column, at long last providing clarity that one party in this country not only wants to give to the rich but affirmatively wants to take from the poor (and, I would add, from the near-poor and even from the middle class) -- I cannot allow the moment to pass without noting just how wrong the claim is that "half the country pays no taxes."
None of this is new, to say the least. Going back through the Dorf on Law archives, I found one of my columns from 2008 (!) that responded to an early use of the "skin in the game" framing from an anti-tax lobbying group that masquerades as a think-tank. And early in 2013 (shortly after Romney watched Obama take the oath of office for a second time), I ran through the responses to all of the lies that are embedded in this attack on the non-rich. In fact, nothing I say here in any substantive way adds to what I wrote way back then, because there is nothing new to say beyond: "Wait, they're back to this?!" The wrongness has been evident all along, and many of us have said so time and again.
Rather than ask readers to click on full-length columns from nine and fourteen years ago, however, I can shorthand the reasons why Republicans are completely wrong about this.
First, the Republicans dishonestly focus only on federal income taxes, which is designed to be the most (almost the only) progressive part of our overall tax system -- again, with the Republicans' full assent when it suits their purposes. This means that they ignore payroll taxes, which are collected by the federal government and are levied on the first dollar of income that a worker earns. They also ignore federal excise taxes and other ways in which the federal government taxes Americans.
Second, if Republicans truly believed their own arguments, they would say that working people pay the federal corporate income tax, because (in their view) businesses respond to higher taxes by reducing workers' wages. Even though that is not 100 percent true, it is at least the case that some of the (far-too-low, for other reasons) federal corporate tax burden is shifted onto workers. So everyone who works pays that tax, even people who are in the "zero bracket" that allows them not to pay the personal income tax directly.
Third, every state collects taxes, and every state's tax system is regressive. Most notably, sales taxes -- which the proudly "we have no income tax" states like Florida, Texas, and New Hampshire all lean on -- are extremely regressive and are paid by everyone -- even people who earn nothing at all.
Fourth, the symbolic move of making everyone pay at least a dollar in taxes can be easily neutralized. Donald Trump pays no taxes because he receives indirect subsidies from the government (and he cheats). We could separate the things that he pays from the subsidies that he receives and say: "He paid taxes!" and then give him his subsidies. That would not mean that he paid taxes as a net matter. Similarly, I could take a dollar from every poor person and add two dollars to the Earned-Income Tax Credit. Even by the low standards of political posturing, this symbolism is notably vacuous.
Finally, the whole idea that people need "skin in the game" to take an interest in their government makes no sense. Even taking Romney's disgusting framing of the issue seriously would suggest that lazy poor people very much have skin in the game, because they do not want their hammocks to be taken away from them (to use the word favored by Romney's former running mate). When Alaska was so awash in oil money that it started to send checks to all of its citizens, that did not give Alaskans reason not to care what their government did.
More broadly, people have skin in the game because their governments (at all levels) do things that shape our lives. The idea that Scott is pushing is that non-rich people cannot be trusted to care about their government unless the government does something that they dislike (collecting taxes). That is both crazy and insulting.
Everything old is new again. If Republicans want to brush the dust off of their failed 2012 playbook and start to tell all but the most fortunate Americans that their ride on the gravy train is over, I say: Go for it. It is incoherent and downright nasty, which makes it completely on-brand. And we should all appreciate the clarity.