“Taxed Enough Already”: A Case for the Tea Partiers

[Those in the Tea Party movement, who are frustrated and fed up with American government] shouldn’t be laughed at. It’s not a joke. Ridiculing the Tea Party shenanigans is a terrible mistake. Why are those voices of discontent being mobilized by the extreme Right?”  –Noam Chomsky, 8 April 2010

A correspondent sends an apposite description of the Tea Party protests:

“An astroturf campaign that has become a mass movement”

that is, a fake grass-roots movement begun by business interests, some associated with the Republican party, to prevent tax rises for social spending – but which unexpectedly came to attract many Americans in the wake of the financial collapse and bank bailouts of 2008.

By 2010 the business publication The Economist was describing Tea Partiers as “America’s most vibrant political force.” The name “Tea Party” is a reference to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when British colonists in New England (disguised as Indians) destroyed tea taxed by the British government when the colonists had no representation in the British Parliament. Contemporary Tea Partiers say the first word is an acronym for “taxed enough already.”

Particularly after their protest of the administration’s so-called health-reform bill, the Tea Partiers have attracted hysterical condemnation from supporters of the administration Television news channel and website MSNBC (Microsoft and NBC) has been particularly scornful; The Nation magazine has called for prosecutions for “sedition” [sic]; and leading New York Times columnist Frank Rich has written several columns (“vibrant with class hatred,” says media critic Alexander Cockburn) dismissing the Tea Partiers at length as simply “racists.”

Rich’s oft-repeated charge lends support to the important argument put forth by Walter Benn Michaels in “The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality” (2006), that American liberals have substituted race for class: instead of challenging the class divisions in America , they have preferred to accept the structure of privilege in America so long as its racially balanced at every level. Beginning a generation ago, Neoliberalism was a counter-attack to the social critique of the “the Sixties,” and self-styled liberals acquiesced in the program by means of identity politics, making race not class the progressive cause. “What color are the rich kids?” was said to be their concern…

Liberals dismiss as racist what is really class protest. And many Americans – particularly those outside the politically active 20 percent or so of the population (roughly those who have gone to good colleges) – have good reason to protest. Real wages have not risen in America in thirty years, while the (accelerating!) concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny minority has reached unprecedented heights in recent years. The concentration of wealth in America actually declined from the Great Crash of 1929 to the late 1960s – but then the course reversed, gathered speed, and reaches today pre-Depression levels.

People are noticing, and that’s a threat to established political control in America. For at least a decade, according to Harvard’s Vanishing Voter Project, about 75 percent of Americans have felt that even presidential elections don’t matter, that they’re just some kind of game being played by rich contributors, party bosses, and the media. That’s hard to deny, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the politics grown outside that carefully fenced garden should contain some luxuriant varieties, along with some quite sensible critiques. We are perhaps seeing the beginning of a more serious politics in America – or not.

Noam Chomsky described the situation two months ago, on the important television program Democracy Now!:

Grievances aren’t invented. I mean, for the American population, the last thirty years have been some of the worst in economic history. It’s a rich country, but real wages have stagnated or declined, working hours have shot up, benefits have gone down, and people are in real trouble and now in very real trouble after the bubbles burst. And they’re angry. And they want to know, ‘What happened to me? You know, I’m a hard-working, white, God-fearing American. You know, how come this is happening to me?’

That’s pretty much the Nazi appeal. The grievances were real. And one of the possibilities is what Rush Limbaugh tells you: ‘Well, it’s happening to you because of those bad guys out there.’ OK, in the Nazi case, it was the Jews and the Bolsheviks. Here, it’s the rich Democrats who run Wall Street and run the media and give everything away to illegal immigrants, and so on and so forth. It sort of peaked during the Sarah Palin period. And it’s kind of interesting … that of all the candidates, Sarah Palin is the only one who used the phrase ‘working class.’ She was talking to the working people … they’re the ones who are suffering. So, there are models that are not very attractive.”

It’s difficult to see how a more attractive model can be put forth without reversing the increasing concentration of wealth. The grievances expressed by the Tea Partiers must be responded to. Here are some suggestions:

[1] They are demanding justice, specifically tax justice, justice regarding income. The Internal Revenue Code is said to be more than twice as long as the KJV of the Bible, and the IRC is the principal instrument for the vast concentration of wealth in very few hands that’s occurred in the last few years. So what do we do? “Get rid of the infamous thing,” as Voltaire said, during the Enlightenment. (He was of course talking about something else.)

Abolish the internal revenue code and establish a low, flat tax on all income. In order to begin to redress the extreme imbalance in wealth in this country, we should perhaps abolish all income taxes. If you tax something, you usually get less of it (that at least is the theory behind raising the taxes on cigarette smoking, and it seems to work). But against the idea of abolition is the sense that in a democracy of one person one vote, we should all contribute at least a little to the functioning of that government. So a low, flat tax — and no Internal Revenue Code.

But we shouldn’t stop there. During the administration of President Richard Nixon, almost forty years ago, a bill that would have established a negative income tax (NIT) almost made it through Congress. Such a proposal joined to a low flat tax could provide an income at the level of a living wage for all Americans. The plan was set out in detail by the late economist Milton Friedman in 1962 in his book “Capitalism and Freedom.”

With an NIT, the need for minimum wage, food stamps, welfare, and even social security would be eliminated — along with the vast and expensive bureaucracies that administer them. The NIT would be in effect a guaranteed annual income (GAI) at the level of a living wage.

Perhaps even more importantly, some degree of liberty would be restored to our work. The need to take any job that’s offered in order to eat regularly and feed one’s family would no longer exist. On the other side, the disappearance of the minimum wage would restore employment to being a capitalist act between consenting adults. Take the job at the wage offered if you want to — but you don’t have to.

Our gimcrack system of minimum wage, food stamps, welfare, and social security doesn’t even work. Today a family of four living on minimum wage cannot afford the average two-bedroom apartment in any community in the United States.

Such a bailout for the rest of us would do far more to end the recession than the bailout of the Bankers. All admit that consumer spending is the crucial support for the real economy. At the dawn of the automobile industry, Henry Ford paid high wages so that his workers could afford the cars that they were building. Now we can’t even employ 10% — some say more than 20% — of those who want to work.

A populace with a guaranteed annual income at the level of a living wage would have to spend it, providing the demand immediately that the administration’s stimulus program is supposed to provide a good way down the road.

How would we pay for it? It’s interesting that that question wasn’t asked a year ago when vast sums were required to bail out the banks. Nor was it heard during the last administration or this one when billions of dollars were said to be needed to kill people in the Middle East.

[2] Tax wealth (as opposed to income). Tax something and you get less of it, as we said, and we don’t want less wealth but rather less differential wealth. Income disparities don’t capture the real nature of economic inequality in America, because the rich don’t take their money in income but, say, capital gains. The distribution of wealth is much more unequal than the distribution of income. The bottom 60% of households possess only 4% of the nation’s wealth. The top 20% has 50% of the income but 85% of the wealth.

Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of families. The wealthiest 1 percent of families owns more than a third of the nation’s net worth, the top 10% of families owns over 70%, and the bottom 40% of the population owns far less than 1%.

A steeply graduated tax on wealth would exempt 95% of all Americans. Only the top 1% would pay noticeable amounts — and toward the top of that 1%, they should be quite noticeable.

But there’s another source of money to pay for the GAI at the level of a living wage that will restore consumer demand:

[3] Bring the troops home and stop paying vast amounts for imperial wars. Bring the troops home, not just from the Middle East, where the administration is killing people to secure control over world oil supplies and is lying about what it doing; it’s not stopping terrorism but creating it. Bring the troops home also from the more than 700 [sic] military bases that he US has around the world.

The US spends more on the military each year than the entire rest of the world. A generation ago, we were told that would stop after the fall of Communism. The peace divided could be returned to the people. It didn’t happen.

That military and those bases are supposed to be defending us against terrorism, but the dirty little secret — in fact it’s a filthy big secret — is that the US needs the threat of terrorism to justify its military incursion into the Middle East.

And terrorism is a real threat, as a result of the US invasion and occupation of foreign lands, notably the Middle East. And why? If the primary product of Iraq were asparagus, do you think that we would have half the American army there?

If the USG really wanted to defend us against terrorism, it would do things it has avoided doing, like securing our ports. (I have a friend who says it would be easy to get a nuclear bomb into New York harbor: “Just wrap it in a bale of marijuana,” he says.)

Of course, it’s no joking matter. The prospects are serious indeed, but instead of dealing with them, our government says it’s stopping terrorism by killing people in Pakistani villages with drone rockets.

[4] We can also afford to provide healthcare, and without the administration’s “Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act.” We already had a system, established more than 40 years ago, that provides for medical care if you’re old enough – Medicare is available only to those over 65. The solution to the so-called healthcare crisis was obvious – Medicare for all. Instead we have Obamacare, rightly called “an absolute gift to the [insurance] industry.”

[5] Liberty must be physical as well as mental. The CEO of the yuppie grocery Whole Foods, Inc., wrote in the Wall Street Journal that there is no “intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter … This “right” has never existed in America.” Americans in his view have only the right to starve, or die of exposure, unless they rent themselves to people like him. But that is hardly the blessings of liberty that the government is established to secure.

“The earth belongs to the living,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, two years after the writing of the Constitution, and he meant specifically the things needed for human flourishing. But of course “Mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.”

The blessings of liberty are of two sorts; (a) the things that give us liberty, the free use of our bodies, and (b) the things that liberty gives us, the free use of our minds. And these things belong to us not as handouts form a Lady Bountiful government, but as rights that it is the responsibility of government to secure, according to the Tea Partiers’ better angels. That much seems right.


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