Civil Defense, John F. Kavanaugh in America Magazine

Civil Defense JOHN F. KAVANAUGH | OCTOBER 3, 2011

In early September The Wall Street Journal and NBC News conducted a poll that presages an election year of deep political turmoil. Of the Americans interviewed, 73 percent judged the United States to be headed in the wrong direction (no doubt for contradictory reasons). Only 44 percent of those polled approve of President Obamas leadership; 33 percent approve of his economic plans. Congress was held in worse regard: 82 percent judged the two houses unfavorably. In fact, more than half (54 percent) would prefer that the whole gang (including their own senators and representatives) be thrown out. Many commentators think the discontent is due to the terrible economic mess we are in. That is only part of the problem. It is exacerbated by hardened ideologies.

I have been wondering lately whether there is much value in writing about our political economy, so calcified is our national discourse. Why, after all, write a column asking for more civil debate from a relatively small readership when a media giant like Rush Limbaugh can rant over and over at 15 or 20 million listeners that President Obama wants to destroy the United States by destroying our economy? Even with the readership of a magazine like America, it becomes evident, after sifting through readers comments on our Web site, that there is little chance of persuasion in the presence of fixed opinion.

Even carefully mounted arguments meet with name-calling. If a columnist or blogger expresses concern about the inequitable distribution of wealth and income or the plight of workers or unions, this is often ridiculed by commenters as leftism, class warfare or socialism.

Discussions in the Catholic press thus mirror the polarization of the mass media, depending on whether we get our information from MSNBC or Fox News. Even carefully mounted arguments offered in our newspapers of record meet with little more than namecalling.

The prestigious financier Warren Buffett recently wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times. He pointed out that some of the super-rich, who make money from money, often pay less in taxes than people who make money from a job: The mega-rich pay income taxes at a rate of 15 percent on most of their earnings but pay practically nothing in payroll taxes. Its a different story for the middle class: typically, they fall into the 15 percent and 25 percent income tax brackets, and then are hit with heavy payroll taxes to boot.

A frequently heard response to the Buffett column was that his ideas were job killers, even though Buffett had pointed out that an average of two million jobs a year were added between 1980 and 2000 prior to the Bush tax cut. But one of the mind-boggling refutations of his proposals was that he is a socialist. Warren Buffet: a socialist? Yes, you heard it right.

This should come as no surprise when one reflects on how the word socialism is batted around. Obamacare, we are told, is socialized medicine. This is so preposterous, one might have thought the president had actually proposed a single-payer or three-tiered plan that would cover everyone in the country. Then at least we could have seriously debated two truly competing plans for saving our troubled health care system.

If we ever come to agree to overhaul our tax code completely, let it be accompanied by an admission that the poor indeed already pay taxes. Since April, the mantra has been circulated by some news outlets that 47 percent of all households pay not a single dime in taxes. Even if that figure is true for income taxes, it will come as a surprise to middle class and poor families who pay federal payroll, state and municipal taxes. As the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates, the bottom quarter of taxpayers paid 12.3 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes in 2010. So much for not a single dime.

To bring up such facts will inevitably be brushed off by some readers as just another salvo in the class war against the rich. This is simply not the case. I have only admiration for many wealthy families who have a profound commitment to service and solicitude for those in need. But if there is some kind of class war going on in our money-media society, it has already been declared against the working middle class and the poor. The only socialism we have in this country is for the super-rich and bailed-out banks.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

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