[Program Note: By popular request, I am reprinting the "meat" of Friday's column separately here today. I got a special request to run the "rant" portion as a standalone article, to facilitate linking to it. So if you've already read Friday Talking Points, Volume 155, there is no need to read the following -- but if you'd like to read the rant, without the rest of the FTP format, here you go.]
My "Class Warfare" Rant
Before I even begin here, I'd like to address what my critics will respond with, when they hear what I have to say. They're going to call these ideas "class warfare." You know what? They're right. I am calling on the middle class and the working class and all the other classes that make up over 19 out of every 20 Americans to start fighting back. Note that, please -- fighting back. Because there has indeed been class warfare waged in America in recent decades, and our class is losing -- and losing badly. The wealthiest of the wealthy -- the modern-day robber barons among us -- have been successfully waging class warfare on the rest of us for so long now that I am sick of it and I think it's time the rest of us fought back, rather than meekly submitting to the whims of the moneyed class. So, before my critics even have a chance to respond, I will save them the trouble -- you are damn right that there is class warfare happening in America. By admitting this, I'm urging the people who have borne the brunt of the situation to wake up and begin to stand up for what is right.
Republicans have been quite open about their desire to lower taxes to such a point that government becomes so small (as one taxcutting extremist so eloquently put it) that it can be "drowned in a bathtub." What we are seeing right now -- from Washington, D.C. to Madison, Wisconsin -- is the natural result of this. Republicans sense victory in their decades-long fight to completely dismantle every good thing that government does. They literally don't care that they're throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as evidenced by their recent deep cuts in aid to pregnant women and new mothers.
That is merely the most abhorrent example, I should point out. Republicans are slashing spending so drastically that we are in danger of becoming more like a Third World country than the largest economy on Earth. Don't believe me? Consider what is being cut, by governments at all levels. We are told that there is no money to keep the streetlights on all night, for instance. That's right -- just like those pathetic countries that can't keep the electricity on 24 hours a day, we can't even afford to light our roads at night anymore. We are told we can't afford to pay for the most basic of services from our governments any more -- things like police on the beat, firefighters who protect us, libraries to educate our young, and the teachers to teach them. So sorry, no money for such frivolities. But we can't even discuss the hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks we are handing out to the people who need it the least, because that would be unseemly, somehow.
House Republicans pledged to cut one hundred billion dollars from this year's federal budget. They aren't going to, because (thankfully) they can't do basic math. Instead, they're only cutting a little over sixty billion dollars this year -- all from basic government services like food safety inspectors, border patrol, nuclear weapons proliferation monitoring, basic disease prevention research, and a whole host of other things. Public television will be cut off entirely. To say nothing of the cuts to the poor, which will be deep and drastic as well. All while the wealthiest among us enjoy the lowest tax burden since Eisenhower was president.
Robert Reich recently pointed this out in rather stark terms:
Republicans would rather go after teachers and other public employees than have us look at the pay of Wall Street traders, private-equity managers, and heads of hedge funds -- many of whom wouldn't have their jobs today were it not for the giant taxpayer-supported bailout.
Last year, America's top thirteen hedge-fund managers earned an average of $1 billion each. One of them took home $5 billion. Much of their income is taxed as capital gains -- at 15 percent -- due to a tax loophole that Republican members of Congress have steadfastly guarded.
If the earnings of those thirteen hedge-fund managers were taxed as ordinary income, the revenues generated would pay the salaries and benefits of over 5 million teachers. Who is more valuable to our society -- thirteen hedge-fund managers or 5 million teachers? Let's make the question even simpler. Who is more valuable: One hedge fund manager or one teacher?
People who make money off of what is essentially gambling wind up paying a much lower tax rate than a teacher, or a firefighter, or a policeman, or even their own secretary. This is obscene. Senator Bernie Sanders recently pointed out a few other obscenities in our tax structure:
The deficit primarily has been caused by two wars unfunded, huge tax breaks to people who don't need it, an insurance-company-written Medicare Part D prescription drug program, and the bailout of Wall Street.
The cause of it is not hungry children in this country or people who are sleeping out on the street. So, we have got to deal with the deficit, but you do it in a fair and progressive way. For example, this year alone, we're losing a hundred billion dollars in revenue because corporations, the wealthy, are stashing their money in tax havens in the Cayman Islands.
This year, ExxonMobil, the most profitable corporation in the history of the world, is not paying a nickel in federal income taxes, despite having made $19 billion last year. In 2005, one-quarter of corporation -- large corporations in America making a trillion in revenue didn't pay a nickel in taxes. You have got a military budget which in many ways is still fighting the old Cold War.
So, I believe that we have to move toward significant deficit reduction, but you don't do it on the backs of the middle class and working families who are already suffering as a result of this Wall Street-caused recession.
You want to know the way to raise money? Put a transaction fee on Wall Street, so maybe we can curb some of the speculation and raise some money.
I'll take this one step further -- you want to know the way to save Social Security? Make it a true flat tax -- everybody pays exactly the same rate. You may think this is how it works now, but you would be wrong. Because while cops and firefighters and bus drivers and teachers and soldiers and sailors and janitors and construction workers and librarians all do indeed pay exactly the same rate, the wealthiest wage-earners pay a far, far smaller percentage. It's a fact -- look it up. Make Social Security payroll taxes completely flat -- by removing the "earnings cap" altogether -- and you would "save Social Security" for the next 75 years (at least). With no cuts in benefits, no borrowed money, and no raise in anyone's retirement age. In fact, this is a pathetically easy way to fix the program which pretty much everyone can understand, and which would only affect those who make over one hundred thousand dollars a year -- everyone else could probably even enjoy paying a slightly lower rate. It's easy, it's fair, it's a "flat tax" (which Republicans are supposed to love, right?), and it would likely lower taxes for 95 percent of workers. But it is rarely, if ever even discussed in Washington -- because whenever anyone brings it up, the cries of "class warfare" begin. Which is just downright pathetic.
Corporations love to whine about how American corporate taxes are "the highest in the world," but they never seem to mention the fact that most giant corporations pay little or no taxes whatsoever, because of the loopholes their wholly-owned subsidiary (or "Congress," as we so quaintly still call it) creates for them to exploit. They're not even subtle about it, either -- take a look in any corporate annual report, and then compare their profit numbers to the profits they report on their income taxes. To their investors, the corporations actually brag about their immense profits, but these profits completely disappear when they fill out their taxes. Hey presto! The practice of keeping such a "second set of books" is almost universal in the American business community. What's even more astonishing is that it's fully legal for them to do so.
The share of total government income which comes from corporate taxes has actually shrunk drastically from what it was even a few decades ago. What this means is that your income taxes are a bigger share of what government takes in, because corporations have been getting away with not paying their fair share for decades now. And that's not even the worst part.
This is the first period in American history -- perhaps in the history of the entire world -- where we have gone to war (in not just one, but two wars) and refused to raise the money to pay for what our leaders told us were wars that were necessary to fight for our own security. Let me repeat that, in case you missed it -- when a country goes to war, it raises the taxes to pay for it. Until now. Instead, we were told to "go shopping." What we are seeing right now in our budget battles is a direct result of this inability to perform such basic mathematics.
You want to cut $100 billion from the budget? How about we get out of Afghanistan, then? That would pretty much save us the money that the Republicans want to hack out of services right here at home. We'd rather pay to train police halfway around the world than to pay for the policeman who patrols your own street. How is that setting our priorities straight? We pay more for our military than just about the rest of the world combined, and yet we can't afford to pave our own roads. Once again, a hallmark of the Third World right here at home.
It wouldn't be so blatant if Washington hadn't just extended the tax cuts which were enacted at the beginning of our two wars. Seven hundred billion dollars in tax cuts for people making over a quarter of a million dollars per year was added to our deficit as a direct result. Which makes all the Republican claims about being "deficit hawks" a cruel, cruel joke. Let's see... take our current deficit... add hundreds of billions in tax cuts for the wealthy... then subtract sixty billion in cuts. What do you get? A deficit which is hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars bigger. It's basic math, folks. Thirteen hedge fund managers versus five million teachers. It's a matter of priorities, and Washington's priorities are just flat-out backwards.
This sad jest of misplaced priorities can be seen in Republican attitudes towards people who work for a living versus the bankers who destroyed our economy. When the subject of bonuses -- bonuses, for Pete's sake, of millions upon millions of dollars each, for the very people who had tanked America's financial system and whose companies had been bailed out by public money -- was brought up in Washington, Republicans howled that "private employment contracts" were sacred. "Sacred!" they told us. We couldn't possibly force these financial geniuses to give up million-dollar bonuses which they "earned" in the same year they destroyed their companies and almost destroyed our whole economy, because employment contracts were so untouchably sacred. These geniuses might actually take other jobs in other countries if we didn't hand over bags and bags of taxpayer money to them, as a personal reward for the biggest financial screwup in human history, we were told (as if such an exodus of "geniuses" would have been some sort of "bad thing" for America).
Compare this with what Republicans are saying now about public employee Unions. Union workers, according to Republicans, are going to just have to tighten their belt and buck up, because it's deficit-cutting time. No mention that these Union workers bargained for pensions and medical benefits long ago -- giving up raises in pay to gain them -- in hard-and-fast employment contracts with their employer, the government. What happened to the sanctity of employment contracts? Whisssh! Right out the old window. When public money was used to save the banks, million-dollar bonuses had to be paid out or else Western civilization would have collapsed, Republicans told us. When public money was used to save the auto industry, well, the Union folks are just going to have to suck it up and not get that pension they worked decades for -- and were promised in employment contracts. Tough luck, Joe Autoworker. You see, some employment contracts are more equal than others.
Like I said, it is a cruel joke. Republicans -- and many Democrats, when you get right down to it -- who defended the bankers' truckloads of money in bonuses, are now joining in the Union-bashing with outright glee. The governor of Wisconsin is even rumored to be considering calling out the National Guard to break a teachers' strike today -- something most Americans thought was a thing only read about in history books.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are working hard to slash the jobs of hundreds of thousands of cops, firefighters, teachers, researchers, construction workers, food safety inspectors, border patrol, and too many other valuable members of the workforce to even name. You know what their leader had to say about these thousands of jobs they were killing? "So be it." Really -- that is their attitude to laying off massive amounts of people in recessionary times -- "So be it." I'm surprised he didn't just say "Let them eat cake," personally. Republicans have not done one thing so far to create jobs. Not one bill to create one job has even been considered by the new Republican House. The only time the subject came up was when they voted down an extension of unemployment benefits. They're destroying good jobs at will, but refusing to even address the issue of creating jobs -- all so billionaires can continue to pay the lowest taxes they've paid in half a century. Their priorities are clear as an expensive crystal wineglass.
Which is why you can't say I'm proposing to wage class warfare, here. I am not encouraging class warfare in any way. I'm merely pointing out that this war is already raging. In fact, the millionaires and billionaires are pretty damn close to declaring total victory in this war. They're about to con America into giving up many of the basic services American governments have been able to provide for hundreds of years -- things like streets which are lit at night, and libraries that are open every day of the week. They're about to fire teachers and cops and all the rest of them, just so they can keep on cutting taxes on the robber barons of the new century. Which means I am proposing nothing new here.
What I am in fact proposing is that the public see the term "class warfare" for what it is -- a supposedly-bad term for what should really be called "the middle class fighting back." Because once you see through these particular "clothes" on the modern-day Emperors, it becomes a lot easier to realize that class warfare has been raging for a long time now -- and the 95 percent of us out here who have been continually screwed during this battle are about to lose again (even more drastically, this time) if we don't start ranting about it in earnest.
I wonder how much airfare to Wisconsin would cost....
-- Chris Weigant