I’m in the 47%

21/09/2012 § 2 Comments

There’s been a kerfuffle over Mitt Romney’s videotaped comments at a Florida fundraiser. Just to refresh, here are the reported comments:

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. But that’s an entitlement, and the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.

This episode revealed two things about US politics, one an old characteristic and one a new trend.

The old characteristic is essentially rhetorical: carefully construct arguments so that they are technically correct, but use them to imply something different. Delong does the detailed work on the 47% figure:

…the 47% talking point was constructed:

Last year 47% of tax units paid no net federal income taxes.

Low-information voters are supposed to hear this and process it as “47% pay no taxes” and conclude “they–not me–are moochers!”

Republican operatives and candidates are supposed to know that almost every word in “last year 47% of tax units paid no net federal income taxes” is necessary for the deception. “Last year” because right now the share of taxpayers is far below normal because of the lesser depression–and that is a good thing. “Tax units” because we are talking not about a share of Americans but rather of pieces of paper flowing through the IRS. “Federal” because lots of people pay state and local taxes. “Income” because lots of people pay payroll taxes. “Net” because for historical reasons we channel our Child and Earned Income Tax Credits–programs loved by, among others, Ronald Reagan–through the IRS rather than through HHS.

This has, of course, been going on forever. Carefully choose the base period or the sample frame or the specific behaviour/impact/result, and the statistic will tell the story you want to tell. People want to believe statistics that reinforce their priors, so it gets endlessly repeated but without the qualifiers.

The newer trend is described both by DeLong and by Krugman: the professionals believing the propaganda. In the 1970s and 1980s, all the same messages were around. But the professionals — the politicians and their handlers — knew it was propaganda for the rubes. They knew how things really worked. They just said these things for the camera, but behind closed doors they acted differently.

What seems to have happened over the last 15 years is that a large number of elites have started to believe their own hype. They really do truly believe that they are Masters of the Universe. They really do truly believe that half the US is moochers. They truly believe that they are in a cultural war between clean, honest, Christian living and secular humanist dependency socialismcommunismanarchism. And they are trying to run the country with that mindset.

As a small counterbalance, as a wee grain of factual sand in the gears of this smoothly running propaganda machine, let me proudly stand up and declare myself one of the 47%. I am a tax unit. I send in my US tax forms every year to the international returns processing centre in Texas. Every year, it is a nil return. Zip, zero, zilch, nada. I don’t pay US federal income taxes. Why? Well, because the law says that (a) there is a foreign earned income exclusion — a certain amount of overseas earning are ignored, and (b) the US and NZ have a double-taxation agreement that offsets taxes due one country by taxes paid in the other. Most US citizens overseas would be in the same boat.

I don’t tend to think of myself as a moocher, a victim trapped by dependency. But who am I going to believe, Mitt Romney or my own lying eyes?


Tagged: , ,

§ 2 Responses to I’m in the 47%

  • wellygnome says:

    New Zealand is just as bad as the United States re: taxing citizens on worldwide income.
    If you are still a resident for tax purposes you better file that return – it’s catching a lot of FIFO workers in Australia out!
    As for the elites believing their own hype, how could they not? They’ve essentially won a meritocratic lottery where at each “hurdle” they have beat thousands of people with similar levels of intellectual aptitude.
    This Chrystia Freeland article is good :http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/01/the-rise-of-the-new-global-elite/308343/

  • RTB30 says:

    If you rely on Mitt Romney’s construction of the argument instead of your own, the point that matters is that you aren’t going to vote for him. So, if you want to actually be “a wee grain of factual sand in the gears”, you are going to need to declare that you are going to vote for him, in spite of being in the “47%”.

    Personally, I think it is easier and much more truthful to say that his “47%” statement is wrong. There are many people in that 47% who will vote for him. He is right that his message of tax cuts probably doesn’t resonate very well with people in that category, but that doesn’t mean that people in that category won’t vote for him. People usually don’t make their voting decisions based purely on the financial benefit to their own pocketbook of those decisions. That impact is far too indirect, and there are LOTS of other issues up for debate besides.

What’s this?

You are currently reading I’m in the 47% at Groping towards Bethlehem.


%d bloggers like this: