September 21, 2012
Campaigning to the 53%: Do We All Vote Our Interest?
Posted by Christine Hurt

So, Mitt Romney's off-the-cuff remarks about the 47% are now part of social media history.  He has responded this (Friday) afternoon by releasing his tax returns.  (Politics are nothing if not fascinating.)

But what intrigued me by Mr. Romney's statements was the underlying assumption that we all vote our economic interest.  And not just that, but we all vote our short-term, bottom-line interest.  In short, we vote for the guy who lowers our tax bracket next year.  Perhaps on K Street, this is common knowledge in all campaign offices, Democrat or Republican.  But it was startling to me.

Here is the plucked-out quote:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect.

 

So, this statement could mean many things.  First, it could just be hyperbole.  There are a whole lot of people out there who aren't interested in lowering their taxes or keeping more of their own money.  Thousand points of light wouldn't resonate; you are a better director of your money than the government wouldn't resonate.  But his other statements about entitlements sugests that's not the gist.  The gist is more about net "takers" and "givers."  Only net "givers" want less taxes.

So second, it could be a description (whether one that is considered unfortunate or one that's embraced) of reality as Romney (and maybe all politicians, whichever party) sees it:  Americans who vote will only vote their short-term bottom-line interest.  So, if you aren't going to lower my income taxes or capital gain taxes or the entity-level taxes on my small business, I'm not voting for you.  If you raise those taxes, I really won't vote for you.  In essence, my vote is for sale.  Whether with tax breaks or vouchers or whatever.  If I'm a busienss, I won't vote for you unless you give my industry a tax break.  So, if I pay no taxes, you can't pander to me by lowering taxes, only by giving me more handouts.

But government spending (vouchers) or anti-spending (tax cuts) should be based on a greater good that is embraced by the majority:  lower taxes spurs innovation or economic growth or R&D or something.  Vouchers improve education nationwide.  [Name your government program] improves society.  Eliminating or limiting [name your government program] improves society.  Voters vote to improve society.  Right?  So, even if you raise my taxes, I should vote for you if I think raising taxes to pay down debt or improve social programs is a good idea.  And, there may be many reasons to vote for someone that are noneconomic short-term -- civil rights, reproductive freedom, etc.

I am bracketing here problems in the statement that others have pointed out -- many in the 47% pay other types of taxes; many are retired and have paid taxes before; many are retired but have grown children that pay taxes; many net "takers" have cognitive dissonance about the government subsidies they receive and don't often vote their interest.  So, to say that the entire 47% is already voting Democrat is wrong, just as the next conclusion that only a small percentage of folks that pay taxes ever vote Democrat is wrong.

What I'm more interested in is the surrendering of all pretense that a citizen's interest in government lies only in how many cents per dollar it is taxed -- not what government leaders do with those cents or what policies government leaders implement as they live off your cents. 

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