We ran into two well-known political reporters in the lobby of a building in downtown Washington yesterday. It was late in the afternoon, but both radiated energy and good cheer. Before rushing off to their cable news appearances, both made jokes about Mitt Romney‘s now-famous 47 percent. They seemed almost giddy.
There’s nothing the Washington press corps enjoys more than a late-breaking campaign scandal, especially one that confirms their suspicions about a candidate virtually none of them are going to vote for anyway. By describing half the American population as freeloaders, Romney achieved a twofer: he handed the Obama campaign yet another issue to demagogue, and its handmaidens in the press something new to yap about. And yap they will. Endlessly. Self-righteously. Joyfully. In Washington, it’s like Christmas.
Lost in the noise is the fact that what Romney said is true, most of it anyway. And here’s the truest part: An ever-shrinking number of Americans finance an ever-growing proportion of the government’s budget. The tax code is becoming steadily more progressive, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who understands power politics. It’s always easier to force sacrifice on an unpopular minority than it is to ask the majority to pony up.
Why is this bad? Leave aside the question of whether a tax system this lopsided is fair — and by the way, it’s not — and consider a more practical question: Does it work?
Not for long. Like everyone else, rich people respond to incentives. Ask the thousands of high earners who’ve fled California in recent years for Scottsdale and Jackson Hole. Betting the budget on a small, highly mobile group of people doesn’t constitute responsible economic planning.
But that’s not the biggest problem. The scariest effect of a tax code that passes over the bottom half of the population is what happens to that 50 percent. People tend to cherish and take care of the things they pay for and therefore own, countries included. The opposite is also true. When was the last time you changed the oil in a rental car?
There will always be some who for whatever reason find themselves dependent on the charity of others. But when half the population is along for the ride, the system becomes dangerously out of balance. Things fall apart.
This isn’t right-wing theorizing. Decent neighborhoods collapse this way. So do whole societies.
Romney should say this. Loudly and often and without embarrassment. As he suggested at his secretly videotaped fundraiser in Boca Raton, America is at the tipping point. Many Americans sense this, and not just conservatives but independents and hard-working Democrats and anyone else who understands the degrading and destabilizing effects of dependency. Romney’s remarks are defensible. He should defend them.
Yes, we’re aware of his limitations as a public speaker, not to mention as a political philosopher. We’re all too well acquainted with the cowardly instincts of his campaign staff, as well as with their ineptitude. But he has no choice. There can be no needle threading. He said it. He can either explain it and run on it, or he can lose because of it.