Four Histories of the Right's 47 Percent Theory

Sep 20, 2012Mike Konczal

As you've likely heard, Mitt Romney was recorded at a fundraiser saying that "there are 47 percent who are with [President Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it [...] These are people who pay no income tax."

The right is splitting over whether or not the 47 percent argument is worth defending. It's important to understand that, while it is true that 47 percent of households don't pay a federal income tax, the distribution of the tax burden isn't what the 47 percent theory is about. The 47 percent theory is all about grand political battles. My colleague Mark Schmitt has one examination of where this theory comes from hereBrian Beutler also investigates the background of the 47 percent meme, and Kevin Drum does a history of the EITC here.

Digging into different arguments, there are two distinct parts to a good 47 percent theory. The first is who creates and sustains the 47 percent as a political agent. This can't be the bipartisan set of policymakers who wanted to do income support through work requirements as well as expand certain credits, particularly the child credit; it needs to be agents with specific, outside political goals. Those who pay little or no income tax are a coherent group that acts like a special interest or a class. Instead of the young and the old, as well as the working poor moving into and out of the EITC, this group of people is stable enough that it can act as a coherent political class, but it needs to be created and sustained. Who does it?

The second part of a good 47 percent theory is that the consequences need to be terrible because the stakes are so high. Rather than successfully transitioning people out of poverty and into work, the consequences are negative for our country. But how high are those stakes, and what do they represent?

Let's start at the beginning. Where does this meme start?

1. Trickle On Trickle Down: The Lucky Duckies of the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page: Let's look at the Wall Street Journal's opinion page, November 20, 2002, "The Non-Taxpaying Class: Those lucky duckies":

"Who are these lucky duckies? They are the beneficiaries of tax policies that have expanded the personal exemption and standard deduction and targeted certain voter groups by introducing a welter of tax credits for things like child care and education [...] The 1986 tax reform, for example, with its giant increase in the personal exemption and standard deduction, took six to seven million people off the tax rolls [...] This complicated system of progressivity and targeted rewards is creating a nation of two different tax-paying classes: those who pay a lot and those who pay very little. And as fewer and fewer people are responsible for paying more and more of all taxes, the constituency for tax cutting, much less for tax reform, is eroding. Workers who pay little or no taxes can hardly be expected to care about tax relief for everybody else. They are also that much more detached from recognizing the costs of government.

All of which suggests that the last thing the White House should do now is come up with more exemptions, deductions and credits that will shrink the tax-paying population even further."
This argument was developed in future editorals. A few weeks later, in  "Lucky Duckies Again: Look at who won't pay taxes under Bush's plan", the Journal noted that "No doubt the Bush team proposed this tilt toward lower income taxpayers to mute the class-warrior critics, not that we've noticed any lower decibel level."
Who? Interestingly enough, this looks like an internal fight among conservatives and Republicans. That's how Krugman read it at the time, and it seems obvious from that last sentence. The Bush tax cuts are going to be across all families, and the editorial is warning that this is the wrong approach. It should focus just on the rich, corporations, and capital income holders. The editorial is clear that they don't want to raise taxes on those who are exempted from the federal income tax; they just fear that these across-the-board tax cuts will knock a lot of people out of the system.
This was a correct assertion, as this number skyrocketed after the George W. Bush tax cuts. To whatever extent the Bush team didn't want to do this, they felt boxed in politically. As a top Bush administration official later told Ezra Klein, “Do you think we wanted to include a welfare payment to people who don’t pay taxes and call it a tax cut? No. But that’s what we needed to do to get it done.”
Consequences? The editorial warned that this policy would buy them no room with the "class-warrior critics," and that's probably a fair assessment. Repealing the Bush tax cuts has been a consistent goal for Democrats, and their preferred approach is even worse than the Wall Street Journal could have imagined. The Journal just wanted tax cuts on those making over $250,000, and warned about cutting at the bottom end of the spectrum because of the lucky duckies. Now the situation is reversed, and President Obama is looking to keep the tax cuts for those making under $250,000 and repeal the rest.
There's the idea that as a policy matter workers will simply not care for cutting taxes or for tax reform more broadly. This is why Romney can say "So our message of low taxes doesn't connect." But this isn't played up in apocalyptic terms. The editorials seemed more concerned that the federal tax code will retain its progressivity under this tax cut, rather than the lucky duckies initating a new culture war. This is in stark opposition to:
2. The Battle: Right Wing Think Tanks and the New Culture War: Let's jump forward, and see how the expensive, Washington D.C. think tanks react to President Obama. President Obama is a wonky technocrat, and much of his policy borrows from conservative policy of the 1990s (health care) or bipartisan policy of the 2000s (cap-and-trade) or policy that was new and open to debate (post-crisis financial regulations). The new president of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur C. Brooks, writes a book called The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future. How does he think of the 47 percent? Focusing on "long-term strategies to keep the young in the 30 percent coalition," he writes:
Federal tax policies are ensuring that an increasing number of people in our society will never develop a pocketbook interest in free enterprise. Even as they grow older, develop their careers, and earn more money, many will never pay a dollar in federal income tax because they'll never catch up with an increasingly progressive tax system.
To put a modern twist on an old axiom, a man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart. But a man who is still a socialist at 40 has no head-or pays no taxes. The current trend will increase the percentage of Americans who are permanent net takers from our society, who use more in public resources than they contribute, and for whom a free-enterprise system of entrepreneurship and limited government holds few obvious personal rewards. In a nutshell, the strategy is to make fewer and fewer people pay all the taxes and bear the brunt of paying for a growing government [...] After President Obama's budget stimulus and the proposed tax changes of 2011 [...] this proportion will increast to almost 47 percent. [...]
Simply stated, in the future there will be fewer and fewer people with "skin in the game." Nonpayers will outnumber the payers. We will enventually reach a threshold beyond which most Americans have no economic incentive to defend free enterprise because it is so far from their interest to do so. The young sympathizers of socialism today may be the grown-up defenders of socialism tomorrow.
As Mark Schmitt wrote, "this theory that we're headed toward a radical egalitarian state is being developed is the American Enterprise Institute, the oldest of the conservative think tanks and one that, much like Romney, has forsaken the traditional business-minded conservatism of, say, the first President Bush, for hard conservatism in which everything is a grand showdown of incompatible worldviews." And The Battle was the first statement that President Obama was at the vanguard of a new culture war on economic issues. Instead of wanting a government that consumes 25 percent of GDP and has a public welfare state versus one that consumes 19 percent and has a private welfare state, he is the economic equivalent of Robert Mapplethorpe. The right takes this book seriously; the author of the most prominent critical review of the book from the right was canned from his think tank job a month after it came out.
Who? The "30 percent" are the ones behind this expansion of people who don't pay federal income taxes, and they'll continue to expand it. Now before you think you wandered into a Wu-Tang song, we should clarify Brooks' definition of the 30 percent and the 70 percent. The 30 percent are a group of people who "reject the free enterprise system culturally." The free enterprise system stands in "stark contrast to European-style social democracy." The 30 percent "twists equality of opportunity into equality of outcome." Any idea that American liberalism stands in contrast to free market laissez-faire and Marxism isn't explored; the 30 percent are entirely the bad guys, waiting to fundamentally change the country. Jonathan Chait wrote an excellent review of the book here,
Consequences? The big consequence is that this locks young people into socialism and the intellectual space of the 30 percent coalition, building their power. Having never paid taxes, they and others who benefit will think of government as free. So the 30 percent are then capable of continuing to seize more centralized control of the economy and defeat the cultural forces of free enterprise. The Battle is obsessed with how President Obama won in 2008; one conclusion is that the 30 percent doesn't need to win people over intellectually, but just needs to keep enough people not paying taxes so that they'll form a coherent base, particularly the young. But the 30 percent culture allows Romney to note that those who oppose his message "are dependent upon government [and] believe that they are victims."

3. The Hammock. During the Q&A part of this 2011 Paul Ryan speech at Heritage (19m35s), Ryan noted:

I think it's 49 percent of people who don't pay taxes today, though there are other taxes. Here's the danger I think we have. We're coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society and that could become very dangerous if it sets in as a permanent condition. Because what we'll end up doing is we will convert our safety net system - which is necessary I believe, to help people who can't help themselves, to help people who are down on their luck get back on their feet - we could turn that into a hammock that ends up lulling people into lives of dependency and complacency, which drains them of the incentives and the will to make the most of their lives.

Who? The do-gooders who created the social safety net.  It's too generous, too unconditional and not tied enough to work. In a practical way, it is the safety net itself that is creating this condition. Rather than the correct interpretation that people who are not paying taxes are receiving income support that requires work or various, purposely chosen tax credits, this indicts everything from health care to unemployment insurance (which, by definition, you needed to have worked to receive). This is a smart approach, because while going after the "30 percent" isn't really a political platform, dramatically reducing the social safety net is.

Consequences? It's not clear what "complacency" means in this condition, but dependency means that more and more income will come from the government. As this happens, their ability to take personal responsibility will fall apart. People will be beyond the ability to help themselves, hypnotized as they are by the siren's call of the welfare state. This is why Romney can say "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

4. Takers and Public Choice:
From Reason Magazine a while ago:
DeMint: Almost half of Americans are getting something from government, and the other half are paying for it. And we're on a track where 60 percent are getting something from government and 40 percent are paying for it. You can't sustain a democracy with that mix.
Reason: Because the 60 percent is going to be voting a bigger and bigger share of the 40 percent's money?
DeMint: It's hard to win elections when you're talking about limited government if the constituents want more from government. You see that phenomenon on display in Greece. When the country is going down in flames, there are still people in the street, demonstrating for more government benefits. We've got to understand we're in trouble, that we don't have much time. 
Or this from Steve Doocey on Fox and Friends: "Coming up! A controversial question. With 47% of Americans not paying taxes – 47% – should those who don’t pay be allowed to vote?"
Who? The 47 percent themselves. As predicted by Public Choice theory, those at the bottom half of the income scale vote into office people willing to take from the top half of the income scale. Since the average is above the median in income, there's always redistribution from the average to the median to be done. Here the intellectuals of the 30 percent, or the welfare state, or GOP strategy are all secondary; the ravages of democracy are the culprit.
Consequences? The system eventually collapses into itself, as those at the margin work less and also join in demanding more. DeMint alludes to Greece, where the collapse of the government seems almost to be part of the plan to then take over the state, which is consistent with the right's conspiracy theory of the Cloward-Piven strategy. But this focus on stop-gating the median voter allows for Romney to think "What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents."

Presumably there are more. What else is missing?

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