Opinion

Reihan Salam

Actually, conservatives should favor even fewer people paying income tax

Reihan Salam
Sep 20, 2012 19:44 UTC

The outrage over Mitt Romney’s extended off-the-record riff to wealthy donors about the fact that “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax” has shown no sign of dying down. As of now, this looks like the defining moment of his presidential campaign. In lumping together those who have no federal income tax liability with those “who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them,” the former Massachusetts governor gave new life to every crude caricature of conservatives as class warriors for the ultrarich.

But did off-the-record Romney have a point? Is it a problem that we have narrowed the federal income tax base, or is there a case that conservatives seeking to contain the growth of government should strive to make the income tax base even narrower?

In a 2001 interview with Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker, Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina called the narrowing of the tax base “a major crisis in democracy.” Just months before the first Bush tax cut removed millions of households from the federal income tax rolls, DeMint warned that “the tax code will destroy democracy, by putting us in a position where most voters don’t pay for government.” DeMint’s dark premonition wasn’t enough to get President Bush to revamp his tax cut, but the idea has grown more popular among conservatives in the intervening years, hence Romney’s riff.

Critics of DeMintism point out that virtually all of the households that don’t pay federal income taxes pay other taxes, including payroll taxes and state and local taxes. Indeed, some pundits have declared that this is Romney’s saving grace: Hardly anyone in the GOP nominee’s 47 percent actually believes that he or she is part of the 47 percent.

The deeper problem isn’t that too few people are paying federal income taxes, as DeMint and Representative Michelle Bachmann and now Mitt Romney maintain. Rather, it is that most of the taxes we do pay, with the big exception of retail sales taxes, are quite stealthy. In the days before income tax withholding, taxpayers had to write checks to the federal government. Now, many taxpayers have a better sense of the size of their income tax refund than of what they’ve actually forked over to the federal government.

How the Occupy movement may yet lead America

Reihan Salam
Sep 14, 2012 17:07 UTC

This coming Monday, Sept. 17, is the first anniversary of the day when protesters gathered in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park under the banner of Occupy Wall Street. The occupation was first dreamed up by Kalle Lasn and Micah White, the close collaborators behind Adbusters, a slickly produced, high-art magazine that uses the tools of commercial culture to make the case against capitalism. Having decided that America needed an uprising akin to those that had shattered authoritarian governments across North Africa, Lasn and White chose a date, created an arresting image emblazoned with the Occupy Wall Street slogan, reached out to potential collaborators and then watched as their creation seized the imagination of millions of Americans.

One year on, the encampments that had sprung up in Lower Manhattan and in cities, college campuses and foreclosed homes across the country have for the most part been abandoned. And so at least some observers are inclined to think, or to hope, that the Occupy movement has been of little consequence. That would be a mistake. Occupy’s enduring significance lies not in the fact that some small number of direct actions continue under its banner, or that activists have made plans to commemorate “S17” in a series of new protests. Rather, Occupy succeeded in expanding the boundaries of our political conversation, creating new possibilities for the American left.

As our slow-motion economic crisis grinds on, it is worth asking: How might these possibilities be realized? For some, Occupy was a liberating experience of collective effervescence and of being one with a crowd. As one friend put it, it was “the unspeakable joy of taking to the streets, taking spaces, exploring new relations and environments” that resonated most. For others, it created a new sense of cross-class solidarity. Jeremy Kessler, a legal historian who covered the Occupy movement for the leftist literary journal N + 1 and the New Republic, senses that it has already shaped the political consciousness of younger left-liberals. “There is more skepticism towards the elite liberal consensus,” and so, “for instance, there is more support for the Chicago teachers union and more wariness towards anti-union reformers.” Ideological battle lines have in this sense grown sharper. Yet it is still not clear where Occupy, and the left, will go next.

Obama and the ghost of Walter Mondale

Reihan Salam
Sep 6, 2012 17:47 UTC

When Barack Obama accepts the Democratic presidential nomination in Charlotte, he will no doubt channel party heroes of the past like Bill Clinton and JFK and FDR, all of whom are celebrated still for their charisma and raw political skills. But he would do well to heed the wisdom of Walter Mondale.

Yes, that’s right. Most Democrats see Mondale as a faintly embarrassing relic from an era in which Democrats had lost their way, and of course there is something to that. He was also one of the last Democrats to make the case that government was worth paying for, not just by the rich but also by the middle-income households that rely on expensive social programs.

By the summer of 1984, Mondale, the former Minnesota senator who had served as vice-president under Jimmy Carter, knew that he was facing an uphill battle for the White House. The brutal Reagan recession had given way to a V-shaped Reagan recovery, and Reagan Democrats were thick on the ground. So Mondale decided to do something very strange at that year’s Democratic National Convention. Rather than make the most anodyne, ultra-cautious, poll-tested argument he and his team could conjure up, he told the truth as he understood it. “Mr. Reagan will raise your taxes,” he told the assembled delegates. “And so will I.”

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