The deeper problem with the “47 percent” argument is that it is right-wing Elizabeth Warrenism. It reflects the belief that federal income taxes are an expression of our togetherness. If you aren’t paying them — or aren’t paying enough — you are a subcitizen.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) says everyone should pay federal taxes, even if it’s “the price of two Happy Meals a year, $10.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said it’s an “injustice” that more people don’t pay income taxes. Warren wants to tax rich people as a statement of our patriotic commitment to one another; some conservatives apparently want to tax poor people and seniors for the same reason.
How does this look in the real world? If a couple earning $35,000 with two kids has no income tax liability thanks to various exemptions, deductions and credits (the child tax credit has been especially important in removing families from the rolls), how much should we tax them to get them to shape up and fly right? How much do they have to fork over to the Internal Revenue Service to learn a lesson in basic civics?
This line of argument represents a backdoor return to Country Club Republicanism, with the approval of part of the Republican base. Fear of the creation of a class of “takers” can slide into disdain for people who are too poor — or have too many kids or are too old — to pay their damn taxes. For a whiff of how politically unattractive this point of view can be, just look at the Romney fundraising video.