The Bush Tax Cuts and Faith in Humanity

As I listened to the President talk about the Bush Tax Cuts, I started to get that same queasy feeling in my stomach that I used to get when I listened to Al Gore – I started to wonder if the President and his advisors believe that the issue is too complicated for voters to understand.

It’s kind of abstract, but the reason I started writing this blog was because I was concerned that we as a nation had stopped making the leap of faith that most people had the ability to control their own lives. Not necessarily that people would achieve everything they wanted in life, but just that most people had the intelligence and skills to decide what was best for themselves and then pursue that path. This leap of faith, that most people can chose their own lives, is the starting point for democracy – you have to believe that at least fifty one percent of our population actually has the ability to choose their own lives and are actually smart enough to select the leaders of our country. And it is a leap of faith – there is no way to prove that fifty one percent of the people possess self-determination. You just have to believe.

Our country was founded on this leap of faith, this belief that men and women are equal in their ability to know what is best for themselves. It is something that is truly unique, and glorious, about the United States. When I voted for the President in 2008, one of the things I liked best about him was that he seemed to believe in the potential of every citizen to take greater control of their life, to participate in the American Dream. But when I listen to him talk about the Bush Tax cuts, I start to wonder.

Talking about the tax cuts should be a straightforward proposition. If you earned a million dollars in wages, gains and interest, you paid about 18% of your earnings in taxes. If you earned $50,000, you paid about 22% of your earnings in taxes. If we let the Bush Tax Cuts expire for Americans earning over $1 million, the percentage they pay will increase to 20%, or whatever the number is.

Again, this should be a simple issue – the numbers support the President’s position. But unless I missed something it seems like the President avoids talking about the percentages, instead defaulting to very simplistic language, saying “more” and “less” and “fair”. Maybe it’s the President, maybe it’s his advisors, but it feels like they don’t think the average voter will be able to understand the percentages and so voters should just be given the simple value judgments instead. Again, it feels as if they are worried about making the issue too complicated for voters.

I guess it’s possible to think that people who can’t understand that 16% is lower than 22% are still smart enough to control their own lives. But more likely it means that you think most people aren’t smart enough to be able to know what is best for themselves. More likely it means that you don’t have much faith in humanity.

This isn’t just a philosophic question. What you think people can achieve defines the role you see for government. If you think people can actually choose their lives then government’s role is to give people the skills and tools to take greater individual control. If you don’t think people can take control of their lives then the appropriate role for government is to protect people from the harshness of the world.

The Republican Party certainly has its own challenges with misanthropy. But I didn’t vote for John McCain in 2008, I voted for Obama, in part because he seemed to believe people could control their lives. I hope that hasn’t changed. I hope President Obama still has faith in humanity.

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