Tax holiday hangover

This is what you get when you combine the ideologies of a militantly anti-tax party and a passionately pro-worker party that are fighting tooth and nail for the hearts and minds of the American people – a two-month payroll tax holiday that’s an irritant to small businesses and a patronizing kiss-on-the-cheek-and-we’ll-call-you-later to workers who have seen their real wages stagnate over the last decade. It’s like divorced parents competing for their child’s affection at Christmastime by each getting him one dress sock from Sears.

Meanwhile, 400 Americans own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the country combined, but to mention this is somehow seen as inexcusably loutish in today’s political climate. After all, cutting the taxes of those lucky 400 is about creating jobs; cutting the taxes of those “lucky duckies” in the bottom 50% is creeping socialism.

Of course, the worst part of this whole tax cut battle is that it’s made me agree with John Boehner. Sort of. While our wise leaders were debating whether we should extend the payroll tax cut for a year, two months, or not at all, Boehner appeared on Meet the Press to say that the two-month extension was a bad idea because it created uncertainty for workers and employers. Um, not so sure about the workers part. Really, what are they going to say? “My check is huge this week. Quick, take some more money out before I spend it on hearty, nutritious food my family didn’t plan on eating!” But it probably will cause small businesses undue confusion, and that makes it less than ideal.

Then again, I am enjoying how deftly the Democrats managed to paint anti-tax Republicans into a corner. If allowing the Bush II upper-income tax cuts to expire was a tax increase, as Republicans argued last year, then allowing the payroll tax to similarly rise would also be a tax increase – this time on lower-income Americans. There was no way around that one, though that didn’t stop some GOP leading lights from trying.

For instance, in June, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan called the proposed payroll tax cuts a “sugar high.” In September, Texas Rep. Pete Sessions called the payroll tax cut extension “a horrible idea.” And in early December, when asked whether allowing the payroll tax cut to expire would hurt the economy, Boehner said, “I’m not an economist. I don’t know what kind of impact it’s going to have on the economy.” Minutes later he appeared to reverse his stance, saying, “I don’t think there is any question that the payroll tax relief, in fact, helps the economy, in allowing more Americans … to keep more of their money.”

So why are Republicans so wishy-washy about a payroll tax cut when they were so gung-ho about extending the Bush II upper-income tax cuts? And how is it possible that an agreement between a party that hates taxes and a party that loves workers didn’t cut taxes much or really succeed in helping workers? A cynic would say that Republicans are more interested in cutting taxes for the wealthy than for anyone else and that Democrats aren’t as concerned about workers as they profess to be.

Call me a cynic.

Of course, our representatives in Congress are really just a reflection of ourselves, and in this case, that’s unfortunate. The prevailing narrative in many corners used to be that capitalist fat cats – including anyone who owned a business – were parasites on society who did no real work but reaped almost all the benefits. Now, many politicians and pundits would have us believe that to be rich is to automatically be a virtuous job creator who is self-evidently beyond reproach, as if the wealthy comprise the engine, fuel, and oil of the economy and everyone else is simply along for the ride.

Guess what, it’s possible for a small business owner to actually be interested in more than money (and even to make less than his or her employees do), and putting even more money in the pockets of the mega-rich does not necessarily help those less fortunate. If it did, why am I dropping coins in the Salvation Army bucket every Christmas? I should just send a check to the Walton family and count myself blessed.

The latest battle over taxes was one of the most amusing in recent memory, which automatically makes it one of the most tragic. Hopefully, we can get away from worn-out stereotypes and self-serving rhetoric and make our tax system work for everyone – and hopefully our political potentates can untie their tongues long enough to help.

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