about the psychology of taxes


Naturally, the top 1% are advocating the interests of their own class, sometimes ridiculously so. I'll never forget the time a woman wrote to the (Portland) Oregonian, saying, "I pay $100,000 a year in income taxes, but I'm not rich..."

What is more puzzling and infuriating is the stubbornness of people who are not rich, who are downright poor in some cases, arguing for special privileges for the top income levels.

When I read the comments in the online edition of my local newspaper, I see a subset of readers who seem to have Stockholm syndrome in connection with the rich. Their attitude typifies the saying, "Republicans think that the rich don't have enough money and poor people have too much." That is, they insist on the need for tax cuts for the super-rich and express clear disdain, even hatred, for the poor.

Judging from the nearly universal semi-literacy of their writings, I would guess that the annual incomes of these writers are closer to $25,000 than to $250,000, and so I have wondered about the mindset that underlies their opinions.

The first ingredient in that mindset is the right-wing media, not only Fox News and AM radio, but magazines, public access television, and megachurches that have mysteriously sprung up full grown in America's suburbs to preach a "gospel" that owes more to the Republican Party platform than to the words of Jesus. It's possible to live in a total information environment that not only pushes right-wing politics 24/7 but also tells its audience that other sources of information are "biased."

The second ingredient in this mindset is continual exposure to entertainment media that present glamorous, fantasy lifestyles instead of ordinary people. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous is one of the most obvious examples, but we can also note the absence of working class or even typical middle class people in network dramas and comedies. This is in contrast to what one sees on foreign television programs, namely, ordinary-looking characters who live the same unglamorous lives that their real-life counterparts would.

American culture, especially commercial culture, plays a role, too. From childhood, we are taught "work hard and you'll get ahead," with "ahead" meaning "financially secure." This conditioning makes it easy for Americans to believe that all wealthy people acquired their wealth through hard work (as opposed to inheriting it or playing financial games while seated at a computer) while all poor people are lazy.

A bit of fear may be involved as well. Someone whose livelihood is somehow dependent on investments or purchases by the super-wealthy may worry that a few hundred or a few thousand extra dollars in taxes will discourage multimillionaires and billionaires from investing and spending.

They may not know enough about accounting to realize that businesses pay income tax on profits, not on total income. As such, they may be susceptible to right-wing propagandists who say that high income taxes cause businesses to fail or that low or non-existent income taxes will cause businesses to step up hiring, even in the absence of customers.

Finally, I believe that a bit of magical thinking is involved. When a person of modest means promotes the interests of people who make as much in a year as the typical American will make in a lifetime, I see someone who is thinking, "Maybe if I praise rich people and despise poor people enough, God will see that I deserve to be rich--or that I at least deserve not to fall into poverty."

Taken together, these factors may explain why the whining of the super-rich about a negligible tax increase resonates so strongly with Americans who will never have to pay it.

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