By James Kwak
I wanted to make a belated return to Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff’s article on reluctant safety net beneficiaries. Earlier this week I argued that their framing of an expanding safety net that has spread from the poor to the middle class is wrong, but otherwise the themes they discuss are very important.
Many liberals like to point out the apparent hypocrisy of the people featured in the article, who rail against big government, demand lower spending, and simultaneously rake in benefits from the federal government that they hate. The central figure in the article, Ki Gulbranson, works hard yet has barely enough money to support his family, even with the earned income tax credit* and reduced-price school lunches for his kids. His conclusion: the country is going bankrupt, but people don’t make enough money to pay more taxes, so we should have smaller government. He would rather go without his current benefits—but he can’t imagine retiring without Medicare and Social Security.
I don’t think Gulbranson is a hypocrite at all. I don’t think taking a benefit you don’t think should exist makes you a hypocrite, just like I don’t think Warren Buffett should voluntarily pay higher taxes. I think his position is one part magical thinking and one part principle.
The magical thinking is thinking that there is a difference between asking people to pay $100 more in taxes and asking them to take $100 less in benefits. It’s thinking that you can meaningfully reduce total government spending without undermining the very programs you will need to survive in retirement. As another interviewee said, without Medicare, his wife would go blind and he would die. (For a discussion of magical thinking in its pure form, see Greg Sargent’s column.)
But there may be a principle in there, too. The principle is that you should be self-reliant and not rely on your “grandchildren” to support you**—and if you don’t earn enough money, then you should make do with less. And some of the people saying this, like Gulbranson, fall squarely in the “don’t earn enough money” category. As Appelbaum and Gebeloff say (they can’t get any of their subjects to say it clearly),
“They say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.”
That may be unrealistic and foolhardy. It may also be irresponsible, especially if you’re supporting your children or your elderly parents. But it’s also a stand on some kind of principle; it certainly isn’t in their self-interest. And it’s music to the ears of Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, the Koch brothers, and all the other super-rich ideologues who want lower taxes.
Why? I think it’s another example of the fact that people’s self-identity is more deeply rooted than their material self-interest or, for that matter, their understanding of the world. If you see yourself as a tough, self-reliant yeoman farmer who can handle anything the world can throw at you, it’s easier to tell yourself you’ll be able to deal with hardship than to admit that maybe you can’t. If you think the world is divided between hard-working people who support their families and freeloaders who live off of other people’s taxes, it’s easier to see yourself forgoing government benefits than to see yourself as a freeloader.
This is one reason why so many “middle class” people are out there fighting to protect Herman Cain from big government.
* As I said in my earlier post, I don’t consider the EITC program a safety net program. I consider it a makeshift fix to the tax code to correct for the insanely high marginal rates people would other wise pay as they enter the workforce and for regressive payroll taxes.
** Government borrowing to finance current consumption is only to a small degree a transfer from future generations to ours (if we lived in a closed economy, there would be no transfer at all), but the image of burdening our grandchildren with debt seems to be deeply ingrained at this point.