Directing Anger Where it Belongs

Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff. Lots of Americans are angry. The tea party is angry about taxes and spending. Workers are angry about not having jobs or prospects. The middle-class is angry about getting squeezed. And they are all right to be angry. It doesn’t follow that the anger is directed at the causes of their problems. So let’s sort it out.

When we add Social Security, income, property and other local taxes, most of us pay about 40%. But the wealthiest are paying less than 20. If all the wealthy can afford is 20%, then perforce that’s all the rest of us can afford. And that’s what the Tea Partiers seem to be saying. Everybody wants the tax rates the wealthy get. In fact the extraordinarily wealthy patrons who are funding the Tea Party want to pay even less.

The code is replete with all sorts of special provisions, tax breaks for this or that industry or investor, billions of dollars in subsidies to agribusiness for products that do more harm than good, billions more to make it cheaper for companies to hire foreign workers abroad than American workers here, while some of the largest corporations with billions in revenue pay less than five percent and some get more in tax credits than they owe – no wonder the rest of us are complaining.

So get the government out of the tax subsidy business. Don’t subsidize agribusiness, oil, ethanol, or off shore tax shelters. Eliminate all the special provisions from the code and let everyone stand on their own two economic feet without government tax code handouts. That would instantly mean that everyone from mega-corporations and billionaires to Americans who work with their hands and their backs would pay their fair share.

The second part of the problem is spending. The tea party leadership is scaring us with deficits. That is very misleading. Any decent economist will explain to you that what we should do in a recession is spend as if we had full employment – that’s the way to bring the economy back, and when the economy comes back the tax load gets back into adjustment. That’s the benefit of a better economy. But cuts on the scale necessary to give us a balanced budget in the middle of a recession really are scary – and will beggar us all.

The tea party leadership also claims that government is bad, that everything government touches turns bad. Given that most businesses fail, there is as much evidence that whatever private industry touches turns bad or needs careful regulation so that we are not swindled, injured or duped. That some programs are bad doesn’t mean that all programs are bad. That some people and companies get deals they don’t deserve doesn’t mean that rebuilding roads, bridges, research facilities and public health systems are bad, or that we shouldn’t built a better electric grid, a more robust and distributed internet or the infrastructure we will need to protect our environment from global warming.

Some projects are too big for private industry to do without government building the essential infrastructure and creating the demand. That’s why government built the banking system in the eighteenth century, canals and railroads in the nineteenth, and the highway system and the internet in the twentieth just to name a few.

So yes, there’s a lot to be angry about – especially the way that some people are misleading a lot of Americans with bogus complaints as an excuse to get even larger breaks for themselves.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 22, 2011.

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