One of America’s most enduring fault-lines is around convictions of personal self-sufficiency, and the very real degree of contempt that accompanies indicators of other people’s dependency. The “makers and takers” narrative is the most recent manifestation of this phenomenon, where people who “stand on our own two feet” engage in moral indignation aimed at those perceived as “sucking at the public tit.’
What is so ironic about this simplistic construct is that the self-proclaimed “makers” are the recipients of the largest percentage of government largesse. They just don’t see it that way. What they get is their due; what that other guy gets is charity.
It isn’t limited to corporatism, or crony capitalism or the tax loopholes and immense amounts of outright subsidy enjoyed by our so-called “captains of industry.” It goes much farther, and is frequently a product of well-meaning public policies.
I thought again about the multiple ways taxpayers subsidize the “haves” while I was reading a fascinating book about housing policy: The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving.
The mortgage interest deduction provides nearly 400 billion in subsidies to homeowners each year, propping up the market for single-family homes. Renters, of course, enjoy no such assistance. The unintended consequences of FHA mortgages have been amply documented–FHA regulations encouraged new construction to the detriment of repairs and improvements to existing housing stock, encouraged redlining (making it much more difficult for African-Americans to buy homes), and (by stipulating that homes had to be built far from “adverse influences” and in areas of “economic stability”) favored suburban over urban homeownership.
It’s not just FHA. Suburban development has been subsidized by everything from highway construction to artificially low gasoline prices. William Wimsatt wrote an article for the Washington Post a couple of years ago in which he detailed–and rebutted–five “myths” about the suburbs: myth number three was “the suburbs are a product of the free market.”
Taxpayer subsidies are everywhere–from the public schools that educate most American workers, to the “free” highways over which we ship our goods (if you ship by train, no such luck–pardon the pun, but you pay full freight), to the food stamps and other benefits that the makers scorn even while they supplement and thus enable the below-living-wage compensation paid by Walmart and its ilk.
The next time you hear a Tea Party crank fulminating over the cost of the hateful “Obamacare” and the illegitimacy of requiring that we all chip in to keep poor folks from dying, you might consider the fact that long before passage of the ACA, seventy percent of all medical costs in the US were being paid with tax dollars. From medical research to medical education to Medicare and Medicaid to emergency room services to the uninsured–we all paid for all of it. We just did it in the most inefficient possible way–a way that also, conveniently, allowed us to maintain the fiction that we had a “free market” health system. We didn’t, and we don’t.
What we have is an attitude: If a public service benefits me, it’s a natural outgrowth of the market. If it benefits poor people, it’s socialism.