THE 47% AND THE 99%

“Gotcha” politics rules again.  I don’t usually like it.  Searching for and pouncing on gaffes from campaigning politicians is an unattractive pastime. It brings out unattractive characteristics in otherwise reasonable people.  It generates schadenfreude.  (Okay, guys, let us form up our 4-part choir and join in singing, to the tune of the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, the Ode to Schadenfreude:

We indulge in schadenfreude
When the other guy gets screwed,
When the other candidate
Gets caught cavorting in the nude.

Someone else’s team gets faded,
Someone else’s house burns down,
Someone else’s bar gets raided,
Pass the cup of joy around.)

And I really don’t like it when the gaffe has been lying around online since May, and only finds its way into the larger public eye in September.   Not unlike, actually, that dumb anti-Muslim film trailer, which was apparently online for quite a while before September 11 presented the perfect occasion for wild indignation about it.  This reeks of premeditation.

But it’s hard to feel sorry for Mitt Romney for getting caught out saying that 47% of the US population (a) doesn’t pay federal income tax, (b) lives on and feels entitled to government handouts, (c) sees themselves as victims, and (d) will therefore undoubtedly vote for Obama.  How is this horsefeathers? Let me count the ways.  

1. Everybody who takes part in the money economy is paying somebody’s taxes; and almost everybody is paying some taxes in his or her own name.  The push that began in the 1980s to reduce the federal tax burden had the net effect of pushing a lot of that burden down the line to state and local governments, generally less trustworthy and efficient than the feds, and forcing them to raise their taxes, sometimes by more than the federal taxes fell.  

Local governments are now getting really ingenious about raising money and cutting services.  Here in Chicago, it now costs $250 to park illegally in a handicapped parking zone.  And people are getting ticketed for being photographed driving through a red light (that’s an expensive one too.)  

Everybody who works for a living is paying payroll taxes, which cover Social Security and Medicare.  A lot of working people who do pay income tax pay more in payroll taxes.  

Most people pay sales taxes.  Poor people pay a larger proportion of their income in sales taxes than rich people, because they have to spend pretty much all the income they take in.  

All homeowners pay real estate tax, and all renters pay their landlord’s real estate tax, though they don’t get credit for it.  

A lot of people get taxed on their utility and phone bills.  You get the idea.  Most of the people who aren’t paying federal income tax are paying a whole lot of other taxes.

2. The people who aren’t paying federal income tax are mostly exempted for some really good reasons.  Like being in the military in a combat zone.  Or just not having enough taxable income to be taxed on.  The personal exemption and standard deduction now shelter $31,000 from federal tax for a family of four.  That’s maybe 50% higher than the federal poverty level.  But the payroll tax is likely to eat up 15% of that, plus maybe another 10% for state and local taxes.  Which brings that family right back to the poverty line.  Seniors and people with disabilities who are living on Social Security are mostly exempt from federal income taxation, but if they work at all, they are paying payroll taxes, and as you will note from the previous heading, everybody pays sales taxes and most people pay real estate taxes.

3. Which brings us to Romney’s statement equating everybody who doesn’t pay federal income tax with recipients of federal handouts.  Well, yes, if you count military combat pay as a federal handout…  And seniors and people with disabilities…most people do not view Social Security retirement and disability benefits as “handouts.”  If Romney does, he’s likely to have problems with one of the biggest and most serious voting blocs in the country.  Ooops.

4. So we’ve got two groups of people, who may or may not overlap—people who don’t’ pay federal income tax, and people who get government handouts.  Do people in either of these categories “feel like victims” or “feel entitled to housing, medical care, and food”?  I know of no data on these questions.  I’m guessing Romney doesn’t either.  

5. But if they did, would that be so unreasonable?  To the extent that many of the people in these categories are trying to support their families on minimum wage or close to it, they have every right to feel like victims.  If the minimum wage had kept pace with the cost of living since 1970, it would now be $25.00/hour.  It’s not.  Isn’t that victimization?  (Romney, no doubt, would say that we should be providing minimum-wage workers with better jobs.  He doesn’t seem to have any detailed plan for doing it, and if he did, we would still have minimum-wage worker—just different ones, but, if Romney had his way, still earning the same wage.)

6. And, oh dear me, imagine the nerve of these people, many of them working full-time, or having worked most of their lives until they became too old or too infirm, and now feeling entitled to housing, food, and medical care!  Next thing you know, they’ll be claiming an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  

7. And saying that 47% of the population won’t vote for him because they’re lazy penniless deadbeats sounds a whole lot like making excuses for the inevitable—as Mayor Daley the Elder used to say, he’s going to lose the election because he won’t get enough votes.  You don’t excuse that by saying the people who won’t vote for you are all deadbeats.  

8. And finally, what overlap is there, if any, between the 47% who won’t vote for Romney and the 99% who have to split up 60% of the nation’s wealth among them, while the other 1% control 40% of that wealth?  Well, 4 out of 5 of the households among the 47% have less than $30,000 per year income.  And then, of course, there are the 7,000 millionaires who paid no federal income tax last year.  I bet they feel entitled.

So okay, I don’t exactly feel sorry for Romney, I just wish Mother Jones had spread his gaffe on the record a few months earlier.  Waiting until this close to the election smells a bit like premeditation.  

Red Emma


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