Politicians are not always good at the “telephone” game. Witness Mitt Romney.
“Telephone,” as you may remember from your childhood, is the game in which one person whispers a phrase to another person, who whispers it to another, and so on, until the last person in line. When the message reaches the final set of ears, it’s usually been misspoken so many times as to be unrecognizable to the original speaker.
That game came to mind this week when a video surfaced, depicting Romney speaking at a May 17 fund-raiser in Boca Raton, Fla. Romney is recorded saying, in part:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, 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. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what …
And I mean the president starts off with 48, 49 — he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.
All this was by way of explaining why he would not even attempt to sell these Americans on his message of low taxes against Obama’s plan to soak the rich.
After this revelation, liberals declared Romney’s candidacy dead (don’t worry; the man trailing Barack Obama by less than 3 percentage points on average has been similarly pronounced “dead” many times before). Conservatives, meanwhile, argued about whether Romney’s words would hurt his chances because they were, by his own admission, “not elegantly stated” — or whether Romney was telling a hard truth about government dependence that voters would receive well.
As much as I’d like to believe the latter group is correct, and as much as there is a fundamental truth here about the size, scope and role of government that distinguishes Romney from Obama in this race, I have to point out a problem. The “telephone” problem.
Set aside Romney’s incorrect conflation of: a) people who pay no federal income taxes, b) people who are dependent on government, and c) people who support Obama. There is some overlap among these groups, but they hardly represent a monolithic bloc totaling 47 percent of of the electorate.
The “47 percent” statistic itself is well-circulated among conservatives, but for a very different reason.
As far as I know — and I wasn’t the first person in this game of “telephone” — that statistic began as a counter-argument to the liberal claim that “the rich” don’t pay their fair share of taxes.
In recent years, the top 1 percent of earners in America have paid more than a third of all income taxes. The top 5 percent, about three-fifths.
The bottom 50 percent bear almost none of the income-tax burden (if they have jobs, they do contribute payroll taxes) because most of them pay nothing or are even net recipients.
So, the point of this “47 percent” statistic is to refute the “fair share” claim. After all, if 47 percent pay nothing and the top 5 percent pay a majority, how can we say “the rich” aren’t paying a “fair share”?
But this is not necessarily an argument for raising taxes on the 47 percent. In fact, conservative policy created much of the 47 percent.
The child tax credit is a social-conservative initiative. The refundable Earned Income Tax Credit is largely based on the “negative income tax” proposed almost 50 years ago by conservative economist Milton Friedman.
In theory, these tax credits ought to be a way to make government smaller and lower-income workers less dependent on it, by eliminating the need for Washington to spend billions on redundant, bureaucratic (but I repeat myself) programs that have not appreciably cut the poverty rate over time.
It hasn’t worked out that way, because those programs remain. But let’s not forget the real issue here for this election, and what probably was part of that first “telephone” whisper about the size and scope of government:
It’s the spending, stupid.
– By Kyle Wingfield