Richard Burr and Tom Tillis voted enthusiastically last week for the Senate tax bill. No hesitation on the home front. The North Carolina boys are all in for the McConnell-Trump knavery.
Burr and Tillis know, or should, the following. The United States is the wealthiest country on earth. It also has higher poverty, and especially, child poverty rates than any other advanced nation. It has the advanced world’s greatest income inequality – the largest gaps between rich and poor. It has among the worst economic mobility rates – if you’re born poor here, you are more apt to stay that way than in other major countries. Our radical economic polarization continues to rise annually. We are the richest, the poorest and the most unequal nation in the world. And North Carolina is worse, on all these measures, than the nation as a whole.
So what is the Tillis-Burr remedy? They voted to borrow over a trillion dollars to create the largest tax cut in history – calling it a cut – but, a la North Carolina, it will raise taxes for the bottom half to give gigantic cuts to the richest corporations and the one-percenters. The bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation found that, on average, taxpayers earning $75,000 or less will end up paying more in taxes. The bottom 80 percent will enjoy a cut of 0.3 percent, one-third of a percent. The top 1 percent will get about 20 times that. Thirteen million will lose their health care.
Alan Auerbach, a UC-Berkeley tax expert who does research with the head of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, said most all of the benefits “go to very high-income people.” Calling this abomination a middle class tax cut is a mocking lie. Can you imagine voting to tax penniless graduate students to give further largesse to millionaires and billionaires? Can you imagine cheering it?
Thomas Piketty, who has taught the world so much about yawning and dangerous economic disparity, writes that inequality in the United States right now is “probably higher than in any other society, at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.” Still, apparently, it’s not high enough for Burr and Tillis. Emmanuel Saez, the Berkeley professor who has done more than anyone to explore the challenges of American economic immobility, said the “bill is the reverse of what we need at a time of populist backlash against inequitable gains from globalization in advanced economies.”
Polls indicate over six of every 10 Americans think the new tax bill favors the rich at the expense of the middle class. But Republican leaders have been clear that neither unpopularity nor potentially disastrous impacts matter. Rep. Chris Collins (N.Y.) reported: “My donors are basically saying get it done or don’t ever call me again.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) said failure to pass the giveaway would crush the Republican Party and “the financial contributions will stop.” Gary Cohn, the White House’s leading economic adviser, made clear “the most excited group out there about the tax plan are the big CEOs.” This is the first amendment Citizens United lusts for.
Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page published a huge study two years ago, based on data collected between 1981 and 2002. It concluded: “America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened … the preferences of the average (citizen) appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” All that matters, they determined, are the dictates of the donor class. The two professors could have short-circuited the massive project and just interviewed Burr and Tillis.
This is not a mistake. It is not a policy error or miscalculation. It is a crime. It is a middle-class-crushing penalty, not a boon. And for many poor people, poised to lose health care, it is a potential death warrant.
Burr and Tillis announce – if millions are in poverty, well, tough. If the poorest are required to pay more and left again in the shadows without medical treatment, we’re unmoved. Our paymasters have spoken. We are their lapdogs. For us, those at the bottom don’t actually exist. All that matters is the money.
Our senators taunt us as well. This is not the world’s greatest democracy, they effectively explain; it is an oligarchy, a calamitous banana republic. Don’t be so naïve. America has nothing to do with liberty and justice for all. We are the walking, talking, embodied proof of that. Get used to it.
Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.