Nicholas Lemann on ‘Lucky Duckies’

by Reihan Salam

During the “47%” controversy, I was reminded of a Nicholas Lemann New Yorker article from 2001 on a closely related theme:

“I think we’ve got a major crisis in democracy,” DeMint said, in the slightly abashed tone of an amiable man who is expressing a concern that he knows may sound exaggerated, but, damn it, that was how he saw things. “We assume that voters will restrain the growth of government because it becomes burdensome to them personally. But today fewer and fewer people pay taxes, and more and more are dependent on government, so the politician who promises the most from government is likely to win. Every day, the Republican Party is losing constituents, because every day more people can vote themselves more benefits without paying for it. The tax code will destroy democracy, by putting us in a position where most voters don’t pay for government.”

What is interesting, however, is that Lemann, who is very much a left-liberal, said that “there is definitely something to it,” which is to say the DeMint thesis:

Clinton altered the social compact. If you divide the country into fifths by income, during his Presidency the federal tax rate, and the share of taxes paid, went up substantially for the top fifth, especially for the top one per cent, and down for the other four-fifths. Clinton didn’t take from the rich and give to the poor, he took from the rich and gave to the broad middle class. He raised the top income-tax rate from 31 per cent to 39.6, and he cut taxes for working people through measures like the child credit and the earned-income-tax credit, which come out to about twenty billion dollars and thirty billion dollars a year, respectively. The top one per cent now pay about a quarter of all federal taxes, and the top five per cent about two-fifths. (The reason these fortunate folks haven’t been more up in arms about their taxes increasing is that during the Clinton years their incomes rose much more than their taxes did.) “This progressive trend is probably one reason most of the public seems so indifferent to G.O.P. calls for big tax cuts,” Robert McIntyre, Washington’s leading liberal tax expert, wrote last summer–exactly Jim DeMint’s position. Clinton also created the impression that, if you’re middle class, the government, in return for your taxes, will give you what you need–family leave, more police officers and teachers–instead of giving your hard-earned money away to poor people. DeMint is right. Clinton moved most Americans in the direction of thinking of government more as a giver of benefits and less as a taker of taxes. That is not good for the Republican Party.

That is, Robert McIntyre, and by extension Lemann, entertained something like Mitt Romney’s implicit position on taxes. Lemann’s article is very much worth reading, as it sheds light on a number of issues.