President Obama has now thrown down the gauntlet to Congress on taxes, arguing — and campaigning — that on the issue of tax burden fairness, “millionaires and billionaires” should pay more income tax. If the president truly seeks equity in income tax policy, he should propose that all Americans pay “something” in order to be part of the income tax-paying public.
According to the Tax Policy Center, 76 million tax filers (46 percent of all tax filers) will pay no income tax in 2011. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent of all taxpayers pays 40 percent of all income taxes. So 54 percent of all tax filers are “carrying” the 46 percent who pay nothing. That’s fundamentally unfair and has led over time to inequities and a dependency on government that is unhealthy for a free society.
Forced dependency ultimately breeds contempt, and even as Americans subject to reliance on benevolent government programs are grateful for a “safety net,” eventually that gratitude can yield to resentment. Then resentment can yield to anger at those responsible for dependency programs in spite of the good intentions of social policy advocates. Psychologists will even tell us that it helps an individual’s self-worth to be free — to have control over one’s destiny, no matter how small that morsel of freedom is.
Arguably, social policy imposed with good intentions to help those in need in America — the truly poor and otherwise disadvantaged — has created a growing culture of Americans who’ve benefited but also suffered from such dependency. Too many Americans became dependent on government programs starting with the Great Depression (the one in the 1930s); many have remained dependent ever since. Government housing programs that “warehoused” poor Americans in many big cities since the 1960s put a roof over their heads, but created a culture of angry residents and unsafe neighborhoods throughout urban America that remain today — largely in squalor.
But that’s what benevolent governments and liberal policymakers often do — spend federal money creating programs fostering inescapable dependency on government that consigns good and creative people to a life of reliance on government and programs that imprison them with little opportunity to break free. Of the trillions in taxpayer dollars that government has invested in the poor, one would expect ample evidence of progress to release the poor from government dependency and lives of poverty. Sadly, poverty levels of 12 percent in 1969 have grown to 15.1 percent today, hardly a ringing endorsement for the government’s ability to free citizens to “pursue happiness.” Besides, being in poverty is demeaning.
One way to instill pride in spite of dependency is to be a contributor to a better America, pride that policymakers should encourage in today’s culture of joblessness and global economic uncertainty. I recall in the 1990s examples presented during Congressional debates over welfare reform; some Americans were actually proud to file an income tax return for the first time. Doing so meant that the single mother struggling to survive had finally broken free of well-meaning government dependency. It was her own prideful declaration of independence.
As Congress and the president butt heads over whether or not to raise taxes in a down economy, and government assistance programs feel the pressure of America’s $14 trillion debt, it’s time for our leaders to conclude that not just the “rich,” but all Americans should share in the cost of government. Each of us should have some skin in the game of setting a future course for American prosperity and sharing the burden of an outrageous national debt.
When more Americans are riding in the wagon than Americans pulling the wagon, resentment builds against the passengers. That’s why the 76 million tax filers who pay no income tax should pay something to ease the collective tax burden and make a fair contribution, allowing them to join the ranks of those “pulling the wagon.” While forcing a commitment of those who use the same government services that taxpayers do to pay the “fair share” that Obama keeps stressing, more taxpayers will make the burden lighter for all.
Let’s face it, even the poor have some disposable income; with over 300 million cell phones in circulation today, almost everyone has one. Over 99 percent of all American households have at least one television set; cable television brags at over 56 million subscribers. Try driving through any neighborhood in the United States today at dusk. If you glance at apartments or houses there, you’ll see a television turned on in almost every household, likely hooked up to a cable system. Cigarettes sold worldwide number over 5.5 trillion per year; over 20 percent of Americans currently smoke.
Americans who smoke, own a television, or a cell phone can probably afford to pay — pick a minimum number, like $100 per year — and become an income tax payer in order to share the burden of government and be more entitled to have a say in public policy matters and American society. Just call those earning little income but paying the mandatory $100 very good citizens, contributing what they can for the common good, so that the 76 million who pay nothing will join the ranks of those who pay something. Then all income taxpayers will have a financial stake in a better America.
Perhaps it’s time for policymakers, joined by all who currently pay income taxes, to thoughtfully adopt the corollary of the Founding Fathers’ famous cry for justice, and declare, “no representation without taxation.”
George Nethercutt is the former congressman representing the 5th District of Washington. His column appears here once a month.