Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's only class warfare when the poor fight back

“Class warfare” has been one of the prevailing themes of this election season. While nearly everyone agrees that our federal deficit is in serious need of address, there are sharp divisions between Republicans and Democrats on how best to go about it.

Both parties have acknowledged that the government needs to spend less money. However, the Democrats are alone in believing the problem also requires additional revenue in the form of tax increases.

This was the chief underlying issue in last month’s debate over the “Buffett Rule,” a proposed modification to the federal tax code designed to ensure that every American who earns at least $1 million per year must pay a 30% income tax rate.  Presently, those earning over $389,000 per year are supposed to pay a 35% income tax rate, but many are utilizing loopholes to redefine their earnings as something other than income, allowing them to be taxed closer to 15%.

Democrats presented a sound argument in favor of the Buffett Rule. The United States has relied on a progressive income tax code for hundreds of years, which taxes wealthier citizens at a higher rate than those with less income. When multi-millionaire Mitt Romney can get away with paying the same amount of his yearly earnings to the federal government as a fast-food worker who makes $9,000 a year, it is a blatant subversion of the progressive tax. After all, money functions the same no matter how it’s classified by the tax code – if you want to buy a Lamborghini, the dealer is going to sell you the car regardless of whether you pay for it with earned income or capital gains.

Republicans, on the other hand, have decided that this amounts to a slap to the face of rich people everywhere. Even though taxation does not prevent wealthy people from living comfortably, Republicans fervently argued that a tax reform primarily affecting upper class citizens amounted to a “punishment” for being rich.

"I think [this concern is] about envy. I think it's about class warfare." Romney said in an interview with the Today Show, when questioned about the growing economic equality that the Buffett Rule was designed to help alleviate.

There are many problems with this argument. Chief among them is the implication that class warfare isn’t already happening all the time. Consider this quote from Rep. John Cornyn (R-TX), who believes that the Buffett Rule is a waste of time since wealthy people would figure out a way around the law.

“The wealthy have an army of lawyers and accountants who can help them work around this so-called ‘Buffett Tax.’ ” Cornyn said, in an MSNBC interview.

It’s a candid admission from Cornyn, right down to the fascinating choice of words. As the great comedian Bill Hicks once said, “A war is when two armies are fighting.” When only one side is armed with an “army” of lawyers and accountants (not to mention Republican congressmen), it’s easy to see who’s actually conducting all the warfare.

The United States is often lauded for fostering what we like to call the “American Dream” – the idea that anyone can go from rags to riches if they work hard enough. Yet this path of upward mobility can only be navigated with the help of government programs that perform that crucial first step of lifting people out of poverty in the first place. Whenever Republicans are asked about how to solve the government’s deficit woes, the only solutions they ever offer are to eliminate programs that primarily help the poor, like Medicare and Social Security. And because conservative plutocrats are the true base of the GOP, all  Republicans ever ask of the wealthy is how large their new tax break should be.

Sure sounds like class warfare to me. It’s almost like we’re playing a board game that rewards the player in the lead by allowing them to rewrite the rules any way they’d like. It’s no longer a fair competition. Those in the lead get a special advantage to ensure they never lose the lead again.

The American Dream today is a sad reflection of this awful board game. We’re all forced to play, but the only real chance of victory is if you were already winning from the start. Remember that the next time you hear someone cry “class warfare” against the rich. To them it’s just a game – one that can’t be played without people’s real lives at stake.

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