Sunday, September 30, 2012

Romney - killed by the echo chamber

What's the origin of the 47% remark? Well, it's a combination of a fact mixed with a lot of prejudice and served with a thick helping of wilful blindness.

Let's go over it. The fact that all of this is based upon is the observation that between the effect of the recession on household incomes, and the raising of income tax thresholds since Reagan, around 47% of households pay no Federal income tax.

By itself, interesting, if not useful. Why not useful? Well, to begin with, the stat only describes one form of taxation, and one form of direct taxation at that.
  • Virtually all households pay property taxes, either directly, or as a portion of a rent negotiated with a landlord who knows property taxes will be an expense that needs covering.
  • Virtually all human beings in the US pay sales taxes, from seven year olds spending their pocket money to Warren Buffet.
  • Virtually all commerce involves taxes somewhere along the line.
Additionally, as many Democrats are keen to point out, a secondary set of income taxes, collectively called payroll taxes, are paid to cover the costs of some government services, such as social security and unemployment insurance - to ensure nobody feels like they're subsidizing those high-rollin' pensioners.

What people do not pay income taxes? Well, the list is broad, but it generally covers:
  • Most of the military. The starting pay for an infantryman, for example, is around $15k per year.
  • People who are between jobs, have paid income tax all their lives, and will pay them again, who may or may not be receiving services paid for out of payroll taxes.
  • People who are students, and expect to earn money and pay income taxes when they end their studies and get a job.
  • Pensioners, who have paid income taxes all their lives, and now are living from a combination of the services their payroll taxes covered, and private funds such as IRAs they saved while employed.
  • Hard working blue-collar workers, especially in the South, where wages are terrible. Many would welcome the chance to pay income taxes, if only their cheap employers would actually pay them enough to cover them.
  • Lazy people who live with their parents and can't be bothered to work
  • A small number of the very rich, who are able to afford the right tax accountants.
With me so far? At this point, the "47%" looks entirely uncontroversial. Only two groups, the last two, could be categorized as being able to pay taxes, but failing to do so out of a lack of civic responsibility

But... no, that's not how it was spun. The controversy over the "47%" started with a Washington Times column that highlighted the fact and... to give you some idea of the tone of the article, described these predominantly low income individuals as "Lucky Duckies". "Lucky". Because you have such a low income that even the politicians have recognized you probably can't afford to pay their salaries.

Where does Mitt Romney fit in to all this? Well, the fact half of households don't pay income taxes became a right wing talking point. It was repeated ad-nauseum. Because, apparently, paying taxes is the most awful thing a government can force you to do (what?), it became taken as read that this was a terribly unfair thing and that these people who weren't paying taxes were just mooching off the work of everyone else. And in comes Romney, and he makes a truly big mistake.

I don't mean Romney made a political error. You already know that. I mean what he told a group of rich doners at a private fundraising dinner was factually incorrect. He mixed the prejudiced version of the "half of all households" story, and blurted out a nonsense. You see, in right wing circles:
  • Democrats just want to take all the money from hardworking people and give it to lazy people.
  • Lazy people like getting free money.
  • Democrats do this because they think lazy people will vote for them.
So Romney stated the following:
  • That the 47% consists of people getting handouts, rather than people who earn so little they don't pay a particular tax, right at this second, although many - most even? - have done so in the past and/or the future.
  • That the demographics of the 47% consists pretty much entirely of Obama supporters. They'll never vote for Romney. Despite the military, pensioners, and southern blue collar workers, making up a large proportion of the 47%.
And then, to add insult to injury, knowing full well that "the 8%" (that is, those on unemployment benefits) are part of the 47% too, Romney made it clear he didn't care one hoot about them, despite the fact he's trying to run as someone who'll fix the economy.

The problem here is the echo chamber. Because people who live in the echo chamber don't get to hear the truth, if what they've heard is not the truth, until it's too late. Romney should have known on some level that what he was saying was utter rubbish, but was never handed that opportunity. If all you read is the Washington Times, all you watch is Fox News, and if you convince yourself that it's not worth getting your information outside of those circles because, well, people will lie, then more fool you. The facts about those not paying income tax were easy to see, but they were only drawn to Romney's attention long after he slipped up, and he slipped up after years upon years of being told, over and over again, that:
  • Half the population doesn't pay income tax
  • That half of the population are "lucky"
  • That half of the population is there by choice, are there because they're lazy
  • That Democrats prop up the lazy, because they want their votes.
When a lie is repeated often enough, even the smartest people out there start to believe it. Unfortunately for Romney, a smart, capable, individual who probably would make an excellent President, he chose to live in the echo chamber, where such lies are inevitable.

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