September 18, 2012

I thought we’d reached new heights of chutzpah in 2010 when Paul Ryan claimed to be a “fiscal conservative” — even though his original “Roadmap for America’s Future” added $62 trillion to the national debt before balancing the budget a half century from now.

Then that was topped in 2011 by the GOP’s galling refusal to raise the debt ceiling — despite having passed a Republican House budget that added nearly $6 trillion to the national debt in the next decade. As Bill Clinton might have said, it takes “brass” to stonewall on the debt limit when you’ve just voted to add trillions in fresh debt yourself.

But records are made to be broken. And so Mitt Romney’s fundraiser video riff now takes the chutzpah cake. What else can we say of a man who charges 47 percent of the country with being “dependent” “entitled” “victims,” because they don’t earn enough to pay federal income taxes? When the truth is that low earners were largely dropped from the rolls thanks to (sensible) Republican-supported policy that boosted the earned income tax credit? Which was itself the brainchild of conservative icon Milton Friedman!

And when those in the 47 percent who aren’t seniors or veterans are mostly poor workers whose payroll taxes, at 15.3 percent (since the employer side of the tax effectively comes out of workers’ wages), leaves them taxed at a higher rate than was Mitt Romney on his $20 million income last year?

To be so insultingly tone deaf and self-destructive even while being dead wrong and hypocritical on the substance is a perverse sort of accomplishment. It’s not easy to be this bad — but, like Roger Federer in his chosen field, Romney somehow makes it look effortless.

The interesting question is how this faulty “makers versus takers” narrative became so pervasive and unquestioned on the right that its casual endorsement by a GOP presidential candidate became a campaign crisis waiting to happen. What we’re learning is that this premise has become integral to the worldview of a broad swath of conservatism — even among presumably savvy donors who nod their heads in agreement when Romney offers it up, tut-tutting at the sad state of affairs to which the United States has descended.

This sentiment is linked to Paul Ryan’s bogus yet oft-repeated notion of the “hammock” of “dependency” that lies just around the corner for America on our current course — when the only thing raising federal spending in the past few years has been a response to the worst downturn since the Great Depression, and the only thing slated to raise spending materially in the years ahead is the retirement of the baby boomers, not some deviously constructed socialist “hammock.”

So how do these warped perspectives come to exercise such a grip on one side of the debate — even among GOP financiers who in their business lives wouldn’t think of making an investment without the kind of fact-based due diligence that they plainly don’t apply when it comes to forming their political views?

My hunch is we’re seeing the outgrowth of the self-contained opinion bubbles that leave even smart people dangerously insulated and thus prey to half-baked ideas. The intellectual hazard that comes with spending most of your waking hours only in the company of those who see things your way isn’t exclusively a Republican vulnerability, of course — but since today is Romney’s day, it’s worth drilling deeper into the conservative cocoon on taxes (and I’ll come back to the Democratic cocoon another time, I promise).

The Wall Street Journal’s influential editorial page is arguably the uber-propagandist here. I can’t count the number of times over the last decade that the Journal has peddled the misleading and incomplete notion that looking at what percent of Americans pay what percent of federal income taxes is the proper lens through which to assess who’s pulling the cart and who’s riding in it.

It is true that a small percentage of well-to-do Americans pay the lion’s share of federal income taxes. But there are two crucial facts that put that fact into context.

First, the reason a small group pays an outsized share of federal income taxes is because that group earns the lion’s share of the income. As earnings have become more concentrated at the top in recent years, income tax shares have followed.

The larger truth, however — which Journal editorialists almost never note — is that payroll taxes now account for fully 36 percent of federal revenue (up from 16 percent in 1960), versus 47 percent for incomes taxes (roughly in line with the 44 percent they represented in 1960). When you count the employer side contributions — which, as noted, economists say effectively come out of wages — most Americans now pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes.

What’s the upshot of this massive shift in the source of Uncle Sam’s revenue? When all federal taxes are taken into account, we have a modestly progressive tax system.

Hopefully this year’s debate moderators will make Romney confront these facts in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, let’s marvel at the ultimate truth revealed on that Palm Beach video: In the opponents he has drawn, Barack Obama may be the luckiest politician who ever lived.

Matt Miller is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a contributor to MSNBC. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.