The news from Washington these days is all about what the Speaker of the House, recently elected by the highly gerrymandered California 20th Congressional District, intends to do next — or rather, to NOT do next. And that's to not raise the national debt limit to authorize payment of the government’s debts. And these debts aren't for current expenditures: They represent debts incurred in some cases 20 or more years ago, when the actual amount of tax revenue was little more than a guess, and when tax rates were far higher than they are now. Our elected representatives committed to spending money, and then drastically reduced the amount of tax revenue to be collected.
Why would they do this? Why would they budget considerable expenditures, many of which were absolutely necessary, and then reduce the only sources of revenue a government has? The answer, my shocked readers, is to convey the impression excessive spending, and not absurd tax reductions, had produced the shortfall. And why did they think it would work? Because we’re idiots — or at least, some of us are.
How did this happen? As laws that were bought and paid for by lobbyists for the wealthy created more and more opportunities to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, taxes were reduced further and further. At the end of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, that portion of individual incomes more than $400,000 in a single year were taxed at 91 percent, which was almost as high as taxes at the end of World War II, when we were fighting for our lives. Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the rich, reduced that tax bracket’s rate (adjusted for inflation, of course) to 50 percent at the start of his administration, and then to 38 percent toward the end of it. The capital gains rate (and the rate on “carried interest” — the kind of money that hedge fund managers make — was reduced to 14 percent.
In 1980, I personally had, as Frank Sinatra said, a Very Good Year: I paid 41 percent of my income in state and federal income tax. It didn’t bother me a bit; I actually felt proud to be helping some of my less fortunate fellow citizens. That same year, Mitt Romney took home (I can’t bring myself to say “earned” or “made,” since he didn’t do either) just more than $20 million, and paid only 14 percent in income tax.
That’s why we’re running a deficit. That’s where the national debt came from.
Republicans hate to see the national debt grow. So do Democrats. But Democrats also hate to let problems go unsolved because voters are too cheap to fix them. COVID hit during Trump’s presidency, and resulted in more than $4 trillion in unforeseen and un-budgeted expenditures. No one thinks we shouldn’t have responded to the pandemic, and no one thinks Trump was responsible for the onset of the COVID pandemic. Unexpected disasters create the need to spend money, and if we don’t spend, the outcome can be much, much worse.
But when the need arises, we should raise taxes to pay whatever it takes to solve the problem. Similarly, if a large national debt is the problem, we should raise taxes to pay down the debt. We could do that right now. In fact, with the Republicans in tenuous control of the Congress, it could pass quickly, and we’d be on our way to eliminating that interest payment that consumes a fourth of the annual national budget. The Democratically-controlled Senate would pass it in a heartbeat.
But we won’t, because reducing taxes for the wealthiest Americans is the single most important goal of the Republican Party. Four hundred families contributed more than half of the total donations received by Republican candidates in the 2022 election cycle. In return, the Republican Party will get the money they need to pay for the lies that get trash like George Santos (if that’s really his name) elected. And he didn’t even get elected: The caricature he invented got elected.
George Santos isn't an aberration; he’s the product of the Republican dream: Lying to uninformed and uncritical voters in order to win. He couldn’t be MORE typical. And they need every vote in order to achieve their next dream of eliminating Social Security and Medicare, which together make up half of the federal budget. Surrender to Russia, and we won’t even need the other fourth of the budget to pay for our military. That’s where your vote for Republicans will take us.
But raising taxes won’t help if selfish people continue to find ways to avoid paying their share. The Internal Revenue Service estimates 10 percent of tax revenue that's owed isn't paid due to cheating. The IRS asked for more than 86,000 additional IRS agents (over a ten-year period) to go after tax cheats, but Republicans voted against it. Why worry about high tax rates when you can just lie and cheat and steal to evade taxes?
The role of money in the American political system has ballooned in recent years. In the 1998 election cycle, nearly $3 billion was spent on Congressional elections; last year, it reached almost $9 billion. Do I need to adjust those numbers to account for inflation? I already did. I’m an economist.
Think the system isn’t rigged? There are more than 20 lobbyists in Washington for every elected member of Congress. And it gets worse: According to Congressman Jared Golden, more than 400 former members of Congress were working as lobbyists as of August, 2021. Lobbyists often write the bills Congress members submit with their names at the top of the page. Their opinions far outweigh those reflected in public opinion surveys. A study done at Princeton in 2014 concluded in most cases public opinion has almost NO effect on legislation (https://act.represent.us/sign/problempoll-fba/).
An excellent video available on YouTube, “The Silent Killer of the Middle Class” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mt6O3US9IE4&t=78s), documents the massive tax evasion that deprives the government of the money needed to fix our broken society. Although it was produced 10 years ago, its message is even more meaningful today. Given the Republican party’s support of candidates who won only because they lied, their opposition to programs that make life bearable for tens of millions of Americans burdened by an economic system that shovels income upward to the top one percent, and their willingness to enable tax cheats and then tell voters deficits are caused by spending too much on helping the middle class, it’s hard to be optimistic.
Ronald Reagan said the most dangerous words he’d ever heard were these: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” This much is true: Republicans are ABSOLUTELY not here to help. Republican government is indeed not the solution, but rather the problem. But Democratic legislators DO reflect the will of the people, as shown in many public opinion surveys. They DO have the solution.
We’re at war, and your enemy lives next door. You have two years to defeat the enemy, so you’d best get started. Ignorance is treason: Inform yourself before you vote.
Les Pinter is a contributing columnist and a Springville resident. His column appears weekly in The Recorder. Pinter's book, HTTPV: How a Grocery Shopping Website Can Save America, is available in both Kindle and hardcopy formats on Amazon.com.Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.orgWhat won't the do?