President Obama likes to talk about Americans’ responsibility to pay their “fair share” of taxes. Many progressives are buying this rhetoric. Not me. Let me tell you why.
The idea of “fair share” attempts to start the discussion of taxation from the baseline of income – from the notion that if you make more you should pay more. This idea of equity in the tax system is apt, ceteris paribus. But in the current economic climate, it neglects a great deal, and it serves to take our eyes off of the other side of the ledger, which is how our government has squandered our treasure. The other side of the question of whether the rich, or anyone, should pay more taxes leaves out some important issues concerning why tax increases on "the rich," or anyone, are thought to be needed. If we don’t understand this point, we will all be hoodwinked and bamboozled by both Democrats and Republicans. This is not a ceteris paribus moment.
Over the past ten years, Wall Street and other players in the financial services industry (so-called; it is mostly, all too often, the financial “self-serving” industry) pieced together a stunning collection of economically destructive elements, which had the effect of throwing the world into the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. We are not out of the woods yet. In order to “save the economy,” taxpayer dollars were spent to rescue the banking and auto industries – from themselves (in my view, under the specific circumstances, a necessary evil). Millions of people, nonetheless, lost their jobs, all across the country, and the federal government had to provide financial band-aids and safety nets so that states and municipalities would not go bankrupt or default on their obligations to provide vital services to their people. Over the past ten years, the United States waged three wars of choice – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Not only did tens of thousands of people die, but the total financial tally is expected to exceed four trillion dollars, according to one university study. That’s where our money went, is going, and that’s why our government is begging for more, now that it has realized that it can’t have its cake and eat it too. That anyone is being asked to pay their “fair share,” whether they are "rich" or not quite so, leaves all of this out of the discussion. The federal government is asking for more money because of its profligacy and profligacy on the part of powerful private institutions who like laissez faire until they need a public life-line to save their interests. And now we are being asked – to borrow a line from my friends on the right – to “feed the beast” even more. We are not in a time where normal politics is a proper response from the citizenry. We should be outraged, but too many of us are not. Most of the so-called rich that are about to get hit with higher taxes, so that they pay their “fair share,” had very little to do with the wars of choice this country is still fighting, or the economic crisis caused by big banks and other financial institutions. They run beauty supply companies, bicycle manufacturers, and stationery stores; they run grocery stores and construction companies; they are engineering consultants and real estate lawyers and heart surgeons. While some Americans may not be sympathetic to these people because of their higher levels of income, it is still patently absurd to suggest that the reason the economy is in the condition it is in has to do with heart surgeons’ failure to pay their “fair share” of taxes. We are in the mess we are in because of government bumbling and incompetence. Progressives and conservatives can discover common ground on that point, even if they will go on, in the next instant, to fight viciously about specific policy matters. The present historical moment is creating strange bed-fellows indeed. While we need to address the stunning inequalities between rich and poor (and we must!), we must conclude that such will require a plan and national resolve. Neither the plan, nor the resolve is anywhere in sight, despite President Obama’s managerial, magisterial rhetoric. That is why we should all be concerned about whether the federal government, regardless of who is president, is disciplined enough to know what to do with any extra money we give it. We must consider that some of the “starve the beast” rhetoric that we hear on the right is apt, even if it is motivated by considerations and values that are not progressive ones. A government that wastes trillions of dollars of our treasure rescuing banks and launching wars of choice deserves to be starved, not fed. Stéphane Hessel’s book, Time for Outrage, has just been translated into English. Perhaps we should all pick up a copy and, at a minimum, gaze at the cover for a while. Indeed, it is a time for outrage, not capitulation to the requests of government for more of our hard-earned dollars to squander. The rhetoric of “paying one’s fair share” would be more apt in an America that has not created the most expensive blunders in the country’s history. As loony and as misguided as the TEA Party sometimes is, it has a point. “Taxed Enough Already” should be a progressive slogan as well, in view of the wars launched and in view of our government's preference for bailing out powerful interests while neglecting inequalities in education and income and wealth all across the nation. Where are the equivalent voices among progressives – voices that also insist, doggedly, that the beast be starved until government invests in all of its people, not just some of them? It can start by bringing our troops home without further delay, and by hitting the financial sector with targeted taxes and fees, as is now being proposed in Europe.
We don’t need more wars. We need sane and moral budget policies and we need to learn to live within our means. We need a Wall Street that serves the needs of the country, rather than merely its own rapacious desires. Until we get a government that shows concern for all of its people, it should be placed on a severe diet. And if more money is needed to address the domestic mess that the country is in, it should be taken out of the hides of those who caused the problems, not the folks who had nothing to do with the current problems and who do the work that keeps the country running.
Obama's "fair share" rhetoric may be good for a campaign, but in terms of policy it misses a great deal.