I know I should be mortified by the lobbyist-organized mobs of angry Brooks Brothers mannequins who are now making headlines by shutting down congressional town hall meetings. I know I should be despondent during this, the Khaki Pants Offensive in the Great American Health Care and Tax War. And yet, I’m euphorically repeating one word over and over again with a big grin on my face.
Finally, there’s no pretense. Finally, the Me-First, Screw-Everyone-Else Crowd’s ugliest traits are there for all to behold.
The group’s core gripe is summarized in a letter I received that denounces a proposed surtax on the wealthy and corporations to pay for universal health care:
“Until recently, my family was in the top 3 percent of wage earners,” the affluent businessperson fumed in response to my July column on taxes. “We are in the group that pays close to 60 percent of this nation’s taxes. ... Think for a second how you would feel if you built a business and contributed more than your share to this country only to be treated like a pariah.”
This sob story about the persecuted rich fuels today’s “Tea Parties”—and I’m sure you’ve heard some version of it in your community.
I’m also fairly certain that when many of you run into the Me-First, Screw-Everyone-Else Crowd, you don’t feel like confronting the faux outrage. But on the off chance you do muster the masochistic impulse to engage, here’s a guide to navigating the conversation:
What They Will Scream: We can’t raise business taxes, because American businesses already pay excessively high taxes!
What You Should Say: Here’s the smallest violin in the world playing for the businesses. The Government Accountability Office reports that most U.S. corporations pay zero federal income tax. Additionally, as even the Bush Treasury Department admitted, America’s effective corporate tax rate is the third-lowest in the industrialized world.
What They Will Scream: But the rich still “pay close to 60 percent of this nation’s taxes!”
What You Should Say: Such statistics refer only to the federal income tax. When considering all of “this nation’s taxes” including payroll, state and local levies, the top 5 percent pay just 38.5 percent of the taxes.
What They Will Scream: But 38.5 percent is disproportionately high! See? You’ve proved that the rich “contribute more than their share” of taxes!
What You Should Say: Actually, they are paying almost exactly “their share.” According to the data, the wealthiest 5 percent of America pays 38.5 percent of the total taxes precisely because they make just about that share—a whopping 36.5 percent!—of total national income. Asking these folks to pay slightly more in taxes—and still less than they did during the go-go 1990s—is hardly extreme.
Stripped of facts, your conversation partner will soon turn to unscientific terrain, claiming it is immoral to “steal” and “redistribute” income via taxes. Of course, he will be specifically railing on “stealing” for stuff like health care, which he insists gets “redistributed” only to the undeserving and the “lazy” (a classic codeword for “minorities”). But he will also say it’s OK that government sent trillions of dollars to Wall Streeters.
And that’s when you should stop wasting your breath.
What you’ve discovered is that the Me-First, Screw-Everyone-Else Crowd isn’t interested in fairness, empiricism or morality.
With 22,000 of their fellow countrymen dying annually for lack of health insurance and with Warren Buffett paying a lower effective tax rate than his secretary, the Me-First, Screw-Everyone-Else Crowd is merely using the argot of fairness, empiricism and morality to hide its real motive: selfish greed.
No argument, however rational, is going to cure these narcissists of that grotesque disease.