This was a response that I wrote to a family friend who took issue with what she perceived to be the Democratic platform. It ended up being far longer than I expected, but every word was necessary. I hope you will read this in its entirety.
You said that conservatives believe that rights are endowed by our Creator while liberals believe that rights are provided by the government. I take issue with that notion; liberals believe that the government has a responsibility to protect and defend our God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not define them or interpret their limitations for us. As a Democrat, I take that to believe that each individual is entitled to live a free and happy life in any way they choose as long as they do not hurt another person or interfere with another person’s liberties. The government doesn’t give us our rights; it makes a promise to protect them. It is my belief that no person has the liberty to tell someone what is right for them. We don’t always stop to recognize that our circumstances are often much different from someone else’s, and that what might be right of us isn’t necessarily right for them. That is one of the primary reasons that I am so socially liberal; I can choose what is right for my own life as long as I don’t harm anyone else, but I have no right to tell someone else how to live their own life. In contrast, banning something like abortion or gay marriage imposes a single view on everyone with no room for personal choice. That is not freedom. That is not upholding the creed that “all men are created equal,” and that is where my biggest qualms with the Republican Party lie.
Our Constitution says, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” Telling someone that they do not have the right to make decisions about their own body or marry the person they love is not upholding our liberties. Denying help to the most vulnerable among us is not promoting “the general Welfare,” and stigmatizing them as lazy and parasitic is, in my view, obscenely iniquitous and injudicious. There will always be people who take advantage of the system, but the vast majority of people receiving government aid are hard-working, and often disadvantaged individuals: veterans, children, the disabled, single mothers, widows and widowers, the elderly, the mentally challenged… The notion that everyone can climb to the top if they just work hard is a myth. It sounds beautiful in theory, but the fact of the matter is that children who grow up in poverty have everything stacked against them. Yes, the occasional exception is out there, and my respect goes out to those incredible individuals, but this is not the reality for 99% of others who share their circumstances. People get caught up in a cycle of poverty that becomes near impossible to escape. If you grew up in a family that had nothing and you had to drop out of school to help pay the bills, when do you have time to get an education and make something of yourself? And the sad truth is that most of the people who live in these circumstances do not actually receive any federal or state aid. The ones that do receive food stamps and health care for their children, and my God, it’s the least that we can do for them. My cousin would not have health care or groceries without the state aid that her mother receives. Should we tell her mother that she just needs to go out and work harder to provide for her daughter, as if she isn’t already working as hard as she can? She was raised by parents who were drug addicts. There were times when she didn’t even have a place to live. She never had a chance to develop the life she deserved. Do her life circumstances not justify the paltry aid that she receives? Should we punish the innocent for being born into life circumstances they did not ask for or deserve? Should we not give them a chance to escape that cycle? What would our nation look like if we just left these people to fend for themselves? We would be ransacked by poverty, and it would seep into every corner of our nation.
I too believe that each individual is entitled to the fruits of their labor, but I don’t see this as a black and white issue. We are members of a dynamic economy that requires efforts and contributions from all angles in order to function properly. Businesses need labor to run efficiently and reap profits, and workers need businesses to offer them employment. Neither side can function or succeed without the other. At the same time, in order for any of this to be possible, we need a government that protects the common good and enforces protections to ensure that the market runs efficiently. Laissez faire sounds great in theory, but an entirely unregulated free market is an unpredictable and unstable system, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Adam Smith’s invisible hand is a guarantee. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” Many of the services provided by the government, like education and infrastructure, strengthen our nation and give us the opportunity to become active and productive participants in our society and economy. Research shows that no personal or government investment yields greater returns than education; yet, the education budget has been dramatically slashed at the federal and state levels over the past decade.
As a Democrat, I believe that our society and economy are dynamic entities, and no single person, industry, business, or government can succeed independently of their counterparts. As a result, we all have a responsibility to do our part to contribute to the “general welfare” of our nation. Citizens pay income and sales taxes, business provide jobs and markets, and the government provides services that protect and care for its people. The fruits of our labor include our personal income along with the services and infrastructure that our taxes buy for us. I don’t know about you, but I would rather not privatize and pay out of pocket for the use of freeways, first responders, education, and other publicly funded programs. That is why we pay taxes: so that these services and protections are available and accessible for all of us. I believe whole-heartedly in personal responsibility and individual rights, but we must not forget that it takes a group effort for an economy and society to exist in the first place—an economy and society that gives us the opportunity to cultivate our individual passions and achieve the life that we want for ourselves. I have worked tirelessly to accomplish the things that I have, but I could not have accomplished those things without the platform that was provided to me by my government and economy. No, our government is not perfect, but it has made this nation a better place to live than most places on earth. I believe that Senator Elizabeth Warren put it best: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
Under President Clinton, federal tax revenue hovered around 20% of GDP, approximately 2% higher than the average rate for the preceding five decades. While Americans in the top two tax brackets were paying higher tax rates, our economy was thriving, we were running budget surpluses, and unemployment was around 4.5%, the lowest it had been since World War II. Certainly, some of the policy changes that occurred under the Clinton Administration contributed to the financial crisis that occurred in the following decade, most notably the nullification of Glass-Steagall and the implementation of the Community Reinvestment Act. I don’t want you to think that I am disregarding these issues, I am just limiting my focus to tax rates and revenue at the moment. After the Bush tax cuts went into play, federal tax revenue fell to around 18% of GDP on average, although it dipped a bit lower than that for a few years. As a result of these tax cuts, the federal government lost $5.01 trillion in potential revenue since 2001. We had a solid and effective budget during the Clinton years (which to be fair, can be attributed to compromise between Congressional Republicans and the President) and a thriving economy, but the Bush Tax Cuts made it impossible to present a budget that was even remotely comparable to the previous decade. We no longer had money to effectively fund education, research, renewable energy, infrastructure and other discretionary spending that serves as an investment in a growing and innovative economy (things that we were easily paying for while still running a surplus under Clinton).
In my view, we did not have a spending issue at this point, we had a revenue issue. Perhaps this is where our ideologies differ, but I would personally rather pay a slightly higher tax rate and have a thriving economy that is rich with opportunity than pay a lower tax rate and have an economy that blatantly favors the highest earners. Statistics consistently and blatantly demonstrate that every time tax rates were reduced over the past century, the income inequality gap grew drastically. The poorest Americans got poorer, the richest Americans got richer, and the middle class remained hopelessly stagnant. This is the point where Republicans usually misinterpret or misrepresent Democratic views. We don’t believe that everyone should share an equal size piece of the pie; that is unrealistic, unfair, and fatal to a capitalist economy. What we do believe is that the income inequality gap should not be so needlessly massive. In the Reagan years alone, the top 1% of earners in the U.S. saw their incomes increase by 60% while the bottom 40% saw their incomes decrease by an average of 15%. Middle-class incomes largely stagnated or decreased slightly (all of these numbers come from the Congressional Budget Office). Under George W. Bush’s tax breaks and deregulation, the top 1% saw an additional 70% increase in their income while the bottom 40% lost another 15% and the middle-class once again remained stagnant. This can be largely attributed to the massive tax breaks given to the top 2% of earners. Rather than paying a ratio of their income in the same way that the other 98% of Americans did, these top earners were provided with credits, deductions, loopholes, and exemptions that allowed them to pay a lower percentage of their income in taxes than those in the bottom three tax brackets when all was said and done. Someone who makes $5 million per year only has to pay payroll taxes on their income up to $250,000. That is less than 1% of their income while you and I have to pay 6.2% of our total income to payroll taxes. I have no problem with entrepreneurs and innovators making enormous profits, but I do have a problem with them having more leeway in their taxes than the working class, especially when they never have to struggle to make ends meet.
When the financial crisis hit in 2009 and unemployment skyrocketed, the federal government took an average loss of $418.17 billion per year in income tax revenue for a total of $2.1 trillion by 2012. Most of these people ended up on the unemployment payroll which added even more to our loss in revenue. In the meantime, the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP actually shrank during each consecutive year at the fastest rate since World War II, something economists warned would result in further job loss. So, to answer your question: no, I do not think we have a spending problem. I think we have a revenue problem, a tax code problem, an unemployment problem, and a corporate regulation problem. In the U.S. today, the top 1% of earners own more than 40% of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 80% of U.S. workers own just 7%. Is there really nothing wrong with that picture? I’m not advocating for equal distribution, but, My God, could we level the playing field even just a little bit? Because of these statistics, Democrats do not see cutting spending as the solution; we see fair taxation and loophole/deduction closures as the solution. Cutting spending will do nothing to revive our economy and reduce unemployment. In fact, in a recent National Association for Business Economics poll of 49 nonpartisan economists, 95% of them agreed that spending cuts will hurt economic growth. Cutting spending results in cutting jobs and puts more people on unemployment. If you want to cut spending, let’s talk about corporate subsidies. Cutting oil subsidies alone would open up more than $8 billion for investments like education or paying off the debt. Furthermore, placing this financial debacle on the shoulders of President Obama is highly unfair, seeing as President Reagan tripled that nation debt by adding $2 trillion and Bush doubled it again adding another $4 trillion. The debt added under President Obama can be explained by the circumstances I discussed above, not by reckless spending as some people would have us believe.
The final point I would like to make is about who our political parties actually represent. Based on the recent political climate in Washington, I believe that Republicans seek to serve the interest of their corporate and religious sponsors while the Democrats seek to serve the people. More than 94% of Mitt Romney’s campaign donations came from corporate sponsors and financial institutions while 47% (ironic number) of Obama’s came from private individuals who gave $200 or less. The legislation alone tells the story. In the past 4 years, Republicans have introduced more than 1,000 bills trying to limit female reproductive rights, and focused the remainder of their efforts on stripping away corporate regulations and cutting tax rates for top earners. That is supposed to be a party that fights for the American people? They would like us to believe so, and at one point they were, but somewhere along the way that stopped being the truth. This is not the Republican Party that most of us once had enormous respect for. Democrats are certainly not perfect and they certainly serve their own special interest groups at times, but their mission has always been and always will be to fight for the individual citizen and ensure their right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, and they have never lost sight of that promise.
“It’s the Inequality, Stupid.” Mother Jones. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.
“Five Media Myths About Welfare.” FAIR Fairness Accuracy In Reporting. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.
“Recent US Federal Deficit Numbers.” US Federal Deficit by Year 2008_2017. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.
“USGovernmentRevenue.com Past Debt Briefing.” USGovernmentRevenue.com Past Debt Briefing. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.
“The Long Story of U.S. Debt, From 1790 to 2011, in 1 Little Chart.” The Atlantic. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.
History of Unemployment in the U.S. Infoplease, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2013. .