Revolting: Cal Thomas’s Plutocratic Tax Fantasy

In order to take Cal Thomas seriously, one must be blissfully ignorant of his role as propagandist for the plutocracy and blindly accepting of the tortured logic that role necessitates. Before we turn to his latest piece of propaganda, which suggested that “wealth creators” contemplate a tax revolt if Congress “takes” more of their money, it is worth making a brief detour to illustrate, as we did here, here, and here, that even the most basic principles will be freely jettisoned by Thomas in the service of his masters. We will get to numbers in due course, but it is vital to understand the character of the creatures who would control our thoughts about the world in which we live.

On November 22nd, with the political corpse of Mitt Romney undergoing rigor mortis and losing heat rapidly, our Republican parasite jumped off in search of a new host, alighting on the plutocratic love doll known as Marco Rubio. Advancing the ludicrous proposition that Rubio will be able to sell (overt) plutocracy more effectively than Romney because he wraps the same bullshit in a more appealing, demographically-calibrated wrapper, Thomas opined that hoping for a reincarnation of Ronald Reagan was unwise “because the past is a dangerous place in which to live.” With lines like this on the editorial page, one has little need for comics. Surely there could be no better testament to the ignorance of Thomas’s audience in the contemporary, popular right than its willingness to swallow a statement from a supposed conservative that we should not live in the past. Conservatism, at least in theory,1 is all about living in the past, and Thomas’s schtick includes regular exhortations to return to the values of the good old days. You remember them, don’t you? In the good old days, public welfare meant that black people were given “separate but equal” restrooms instead of refundable tax credits (and the keys to the Oval Office). Yes, indeed, Cal, for some Americans the past really was a dangerous place in which to live.

Turning now to Thomas’s column on November 30th, featured in the Leesburg Daily Commercial and other outlets of right-wing dross across the land, we find a similarly risible opening gambit. On this occasion, the pundit who bravely bears the burden of ministering to the Republican Party’s troubled soul assumed the stance of a populist outsider disgusted with the performance of Congress. Expecting his readers to forget the mountainous manure pile of partisan propaganda that he has dumped on the American ideological landscape, Thomas chided “both parties” for what he expects to emerge from the latest episode of lame duck drama: each side taking some credit while coming up with “phony or inconsequential spending cuts.” To what should we attribute this rhetorical apostasy? Have Thomas’s feelings been hurt by his party’s failure to be all that he told them to be? Does he seek to reposition himself as a Tea Party favorite, bearing in mind that Rubio enjoys some support in those benighted quarters? Or is this a manifestation of pure plutocracy, shining through the partisan smokescreen like a large pile of gold in the Palm Beach sun?

Imposing a Light Tax Burden on Weak Minds

Issues of posture aside, the specifics of Cal Thomas’s case are shockingly weak – and terribly depressing given the credulity of his audience. We start, of course, with the brazen assertion that “[i]t is beyond argument that additional revenue isn’t the solution to the problem of uncontrolled spending.” Well, it may be beyond argument where you live, Cal, but in the real world mere ipse dixits tend to be crushed by facts. This being so, Thomas attempts to conjure up his own facts, with the assistance of a friendly website:

“Total revenue at all levels of government in the United States is ‘guesstimated’ to be $5.5 trillion in 2013.” [So saith his source.] Unfortunately, our projected debt will be $17.5 trillion. Absent reforms, the U.S. Senate Budget Committee predicts the federal government could be $20 trillion in debt by 2016. Clearly, it’s not lack of revenue that is driving the debt; it is lack of spending restraint.

For whom is Cal Thomas writing? Children? There are several howlers here that cannot be tolerated by any sound adult mind. First, we have an unmentioned and unprincipled shift from a discussion of revenue at all levels of government (which will, conveniently, maximize the size of that number) to a discussion of debt at the federal level. If we’re going to discuss the federal level, then we should only be considering federal revenue. The second major problem is a similar mistake, comparing revenue in one year to the debt which is the result of multiple years of annual deficits. And what does this, also unannounced, deception do? It makes the debt look very large. (Ooh, what a big, scary debt monster! Somebody call a superhero to kill it quick!) Thirdly, there is absolutely no mention of the one thing that lends context to any discussion of debt (or the distribution of income, to which we shall return); to wit, the size of the economy. And why is that never mentioned? Because it blows Cal Thomas’s argument right out of the water.

The facts, as opposed to the relentless propaganda of the plutocracy, reveal that the federal tax burden on the United States economy is lower than it has been for decades. We have discussed this before, but when the Leesburg Daily Commercial insists on printing the same lies over and over again we have to repeat ourselves, too. A recent chart in The New York Times2 provides much food for thought. Between 1980 and 2010, government spending at all levels did indeed increase, from 30.4% to 36.6% of GDP. But during that same time period – an era in which the plutocracy has made spectacular gains in its share of wealth and income – total government revenue has declined. Within that overall revenue decline, state revenue has actually increased slightly but federal revenue has done the exact opposite of what the propagandists want us to think. Federal income tax revenue fell from 9.0% to just 6.2% of GDP, while corporate income tax fell from 3.0% to 2.4%. The only area of increased revenue at the federal level has been payroll taxes, which went up from 5.9% to 6.7% – nowhere near enough to replace the revenue lost elsewhere. (Payroll taxes are notoriously regressive and therefore meet with little resistance from the people Cal Thomas services, tax-cutting rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.)  Thus, if federal revenue had managed to simply hold station as a percentage of GDP, Cal Thomas’s assertion about “uncontrolled spending” might have some force. But in the context of a long-term (as opposed to merely cyclical) decline in revenue, portraying federal taxation as excessively onerous should, in a rational world, disqualify one from sitting with the grown-ups.

It is incumbent on the few remaining grown-ups to recognize and correct these cognitive deficits, lest they infect the entire body politic and not just the village idiots who believe that Fox News is the only source of truth. And so, as a matter of public edification, we cite other extracts from Thomas’s column, and ask you to consider them in the light of the foregoing facts.

What is needed is a leader… who can organize nationally to keep government from constantly pilfering the assets of the productive….

As long as taxpayers continue to acquiesce to the politicians in their never-ending search for more revenue, they will keep taking it….

The government has become an enormous pan-handler, constantly asking for ever-greater amounts of other people’s money….

This relentless barrage could be described as the journalistic equivalent of Chinese water torture, steadily eroding the resistance to plutocracy that could be staged by a quaint fondness for objective reality. Indeed, resistance is the operative word here, for the public sphere was occupied by the plutocracy long ago. The rhetorical battle being waged today is not the first battle for territory, nor – sadly – is it an Assad-style suppression of insurrection. It is simply the work of the regime’s thought police, keeping the sheep in line with a few well-placed canine snarls.

The Revolution Has Already Been Fought… and Won

In between his not-so-subtle variations on the familiar theme, Cal Thomas called on taxpayers in general, and “wealth creators” in particular, to rekindle the spirit of the American Revolution and revolt against unjust taxation. Parliament in the 1700'sForcing Congress to address the spending side of the equation would apparently ensure that “future generations” would enjoy “their right to economic independence and economic growth.” Putting aside the technical quibble that the revolutionaries of the 1760s and 1770s took issue not so much with the amount of tax they paid but the fact that they were taxed by a distant Parliament in which they had no actual representation – something that today’s equivalent of plantation owners definitely cannot say – this bizarre appeal to patriotic virtue is intellectually and morally repugnant.

Once again, we return to our old friend, GDP. That big apple pie ain’t sliced quite the same way it once was. Consider this extract from a recent study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, as reported by the International Business Times:

Analysis of six decades of data found that the evidence does not suggest necessarily a relationship between tax policy with regard to the top tax rates and the size of the economic pie, but there may be a relationship to how the economic pie is sliced.

The top income tax rates have changed considerably since the end of World War II. In 1945, the richest families had to pay a marginal tax rate of more than 90 percent. Today, it is 35 percent. But both real GDP and real per capita GDP were growing more than twice as fast in the 1950s as in the 2000s.

At the same time, the average tax rate paid by the top 0.1 percent of U.S. families fell from about 50 percent to 25 percent in the last 60 years, while their share of income increased from 4.2 percent in 1945 to 12.3 percent in 2007, before falling to 9.2 percent due to the recession.

This concentration of financial (and therefore political) power is most emphatically not what Jefferson had in mind for the republic he helped create.  But when even Jefferson’s political descendants are little better than Cal Thomas, the threat of oligarchy can be fully actualized.

Black, White, and Grey: Barack Obama’s Great Obfuscation

Surprisingly, there was one thought in Cal Thomas’s column with which we could agree; namely, scorn for the “arbitrary figure” of $250,000 as a demarcation point for the “so-called ‘rich’.” Simply put, people making $250,000 a year are not the problem. They are not a threat to the republic, except for their tendency to align themselves with the top 0.1% featured above. And increasing their top marginal tax rate to 39.6% – or is it only 37.5% now? – is not going to change the slicing of the pie one little bit. Barack Obama’s framing of the equity issue – studiously avoiding the hard figures that only Bernie Sanders has the balls to wield in public – has been a masterclass in popular pacification, infinitely more effective than the snarling of the right’s attack dogs. While Cal Thomas is easily dismissed as a raving lunatic asking us to confuse black and white, Barack Obama’s color has been the perfect stalking horse for the white men who worship black ink. In the third quarter of 2012, after-tax corporate profits reached their highest percentage of GDP in history.

As we discussed during the great farce of an election, if Barack Obama is the worst that the plutocracy has to fear, then America’s owners are truly living in high clover. This widely misunderstood reality makes the current triumphalism at MSNBC even more grating than the perpetual inanity of Fox News. The people are being told that they won; that their interests are in safe hands. Let’s see what the distributions of wealth and income look like four years from now. Let’s see how real wages compare to corporate profits. Let’s see who won.

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  1. We have argued repeatedly that modern conservatism is, in fact, profoundly radical, ripping apart the social fabric that classical conservatives value on the altar of short-term wealth accumulation.
  2. A newspaper that Cal Thomas regularly derides as liberal, but which is in fact an essential bulwark of the aggressive American Empire, building consensus behind policies that are morally repugnant and counterproductive.

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