Feel free to skip it.
I've often enough talked about the very conservative nature of many of my coworkers. A body of (almost all) men who come in high proportions from military backgrounds, working in a profession that does not demand creativity or liberal education; this makes for a core demographic from the very marrow of the Republican Party. These are the guys who keep the Party's coffers full. This circumstance most often deprives me of much chance of gratifying conversation while I'm locked in a broom-closet-sized room for hours, or it restricts our interaction to aviation-related things. Honestly, I don't chafe at this too much; I've flown an airplane now for 15 years, and it is what it is. I'm the odd man out here, and I've long ago learned to be happy doing my own thing and making the best of it.
But sometimes it's hard to keep my mouth shut. I know my speaking up is unlikely to lead to anything positive, but I get tired of these guys automatically assuming that their (sometimes highly offensive) views are shared and welcome. And once in a blue moon this inauspicious beginning leads to an actual conversation. And it's unsettling to find that I'm not always able to mount much of a defense for my positions, at least on political matters.
I've noted many times that I'm not historically very political: I don't give money to the parties, I don't employ their yard signs or bumper stickers, I don't attend conventions or rallies. I'm mostly cynical--or at least highly skeptical--about strongly-held opinions from either party line. My strong-ish convictions present-day (which have led to a flurry of angry political posts) are more an instinctive recoil from the disastrous course of the Bush Administration, rather than a fervor for politics generally. I don't necessarily know how things OUGHT to be, but it's clear that our current state of affairs is shamefully wrong.
Not surprisingly, this is not the most effective bunker from which to launch an ideological offensive--or to defend against one.
My most recent pass through the Conservative's Gauntlet has (rightly) challenged me to support my thinking about economic and tax policy. This is a subject of which I'm pretty sketchily informed, but (again) I find my despair at the damage done by George W. Bush causes me to reactively espouse the polar opposite of anything I even think he advocates. So amid Republican talk of excessive taxation and the burdensome welfare state, I rush headlong to the other camp: the view that the rich in this country are living high on the hog at the expense of the economic lower and middle classes, and that W's tax cuts--promised for all but generally only delivered to the very rich--have disastrously deprived the country of revenue while lining the pockets of those whose pockets least needed lining. But I simply don't know enough to have come to all these conclusions on my own. And my defense of this view when challenged is correspondingly pathetic.
At least part of it: I think the fact that we have embarked on a multi-trillion-dollar war without raising any revenue, and that our national debt and budget deficits are in a perilous state, is indisputable. But what of the idea that the rich are being taxed to death?
Well, what does the data say? I did a little digging around the web and found several sites which corroborate some facts about American tax distribution which I might otherwise have been inclined to dispute. (This page at Wikipedia is a good summary.)
This is for income tax:
The top 0.1% pay 17% of the total income tax (from 9% of the earned income).
The top 1.0% pay 37% of the total income tax (from 19% of the earned income).
The top 5.0% pay 57% of the total income tax (from 33% of the earned income).
The top 10% pay 68% of the total tax.
The top 25% pay 85% of the total tax.
---and this surprising figure---
The bottom 50% pay 3.3% of the total income tax (from 13.4% of the income).
(These tax burden figures obviously do not demonstrate an even distribution across the population; nor do they correspond directly to the percentage of earned income for each group. However, they do mirror pretty closely the actual distribution of wealth in the country. Food for thought.)
This is quite a bit more progressive than I realized. And to look at only this one (admittedly large) tax, the top tiers are getting hit pretty good. (I suspect Jeffy will have some good perspective on these numbers.) It's the final figures in the above list--that 50% of the population pays almost no income tax, and that 75% of the population pays only about 15% of the total income taxes--that get raised again and again in taxation discussions with my conservative coworkers.
But there are other taxes, of course (though the income tax is by far the biggest single hit on my paycheck). According to this chart, income taxes were responsible for nearly half--45%--of total federal revenues in 2007. The next highest source, at 34%, was the payroll tax. And this tax is actually regressive: it's a flat tax rate for incomes up to about $100,000 and additional income above this level is exempt from the tax. The meaningful beneficiaries of the regressivity are a tiny proportion of the population, and they're the ones getting hit hardest by the income tax brackets; so this regressivity levels the field a bit. Not surprisingly from the figures above, 3/4 of Americans pay more in payroll taxes than they do in income taxes (since they're essentially not paying income tax).
(It's off track a bit, but sales taxes, which are state taxes, are arguably also regressive, since a poorer person is likely to spend virtually all their income to survive--and pay taxes on whatever they buy with that income--whereas a richer person will spend only a portion of their income to get by.)
Whatever the numbers, I find the whole subject raises a bunch of very basic questions which I've never really thought much about. Not just economic questions, but moral ones: If I object to the current structure, what do I think it should be? What is tax justice? Is the redistribution of wealth something that's in the legitimate domain of government? How much of an individual's income should go for the common good? It seems natural enough that people with higher incomes would pay more into government coffers than poorer folks, but I'm at sea about the particulars. How do we decide what proportion over and above that required to subsist is fair game for government seizure? Is it a fundamentally sound policy that the wealthy minority of a country provide a safety net for the poorer majority? What is due from those who have used the American system of personal freedoms and free enterprise to become successful? And, perhaps beneath all of this, what exactly is it the domain of government to do for its citizens?
Hell, I have only vague ideas of how I would answer many of these questions. Most discussion of these things seems to presuppose that we're settled in our views of these issues, but I'm certainly not; nor can I imagine I'm so much different from many people. For many of us, I suspect what we deem just is a function of where we are on the economic spectrum. (How many of us try to suss out what is right from what we want on these matters?) If you're poor, it only seems right that the world's richest country should lend a helping hand and provide some basic services--health care, basic nutrition, education, equal opportunity--to its needy citizens, regardless of where the money comes from; and if you're rich, it only seems right that the government not penalize you for your success, not get more of your success than you get yourself. Income tax rates as recently as the '70s ran as high as 70%! It's hard to see the justice of that. (Of course, a country's policy towards its needy--schools, housing, transportation, medical care--will have an impact on the quality of life of the rich folks who fund that policy, so it's all connected.)
It's not that this all causes me to now espouse the Angry White Republican's argument that he's being taxed to death; I can't bring myself to entertain the idea that the rich are suffering much under our current system relative to the rest of the country. But it does make me think about what I believe and why.
And my primary impression as I chew on all this is a growing conviction that government has become grossly bloated and is now beyond the control of its citizens (without even talking about the Bush Administration). While I feel comfortably laissez-faire about social issues--I think the mandating of behavior and morality is outside the legitimate purview of government--economic matters are harder, as they must involve the federal government. I have long marveled sourly at how our government gets a cut every time money changes hands: they tax my company on its earnings (and they tax the individual transactions from which those earnings accrue), they tax the wages paid to the employees, and then tax the usage of the remaining wages by the employee--and the income of the places which receive the employee's money! On and on. It results in a stupefying torrent of trillions of dollars flowing to Washington, and yet our federal budgets are in dire straits (and W has made them considerably worse). At some point the monster becomes all-consuming; the population takes on the role of iron lung for the government, which (it seems to me) inverts the natural order of things: the government should be supporting us, not vice-versa. WE are the important part of the equation, not THEM.
Lastly, it dawns on me that most of my coworkers are conservatives almost entirely on the basis of these economic and taxation issues (as befits people whose incomes put them in the high tax brackets). My own long-standing objection to the Republican Party is almost entirely based on their ideological adjacency to the church, and with the airless society they would mandate for us all. But the Republicans with whom I work don't seem to pay much attention to the church when they talk politics (though there are plenty of other things like jingoism and sexism and xenophobia and racism to keep me at arm's length). They're mostly default Christians--who would happily constrict others' freedoms, you know, "for their own good"--but their own convictions seem to stem from economics.
I might be willing to take a tour of the libertarian wing of their gilded palace--I kinda think of libertarianism as Republicans without Jeheezus; it's something that has some resonance for me. But the quest for votes has caused the libertarian hallway to lead right to the chapel door. And this societal vision is far more odious to me than paying too much in taxes.