Looking for Rage in All the Wrong Places

We Americans live in a country engaged in the longest war of its entire history — in Afghanistan — which is now in its ninth year with no end in sight. No military or political leader of our country can explain to us why we are fighting this war, how we are going to win it, or what benefit will accrue if and when we do. (Yes, yes, we understand why we started the war, the question is why are we still fighting it?) When they try, they talk about the central front in the war on terror, a war that has no fronts and has no center. They talk about denying Al Qaeda a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to attack us again, a mission that was accomplished a few weeks into the war (and an argument that could as effectively justify an invasion of Florida). They talk about defeating the Taliban, which has never attacked our country and poses no serious threat to it.

We are borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to fight this war, saddling future generations with an enormous debt. We are killing our young people in the prosecution of this war. We are killing innocent civilians with our excellent weapons, thus engendering hatreds that will last for generations. And yet, almost no one in public life is objecting to this situation, let alone expressing outrage about it.

Instead, people by the hundreds are screaming invective and spewing their anger about being overtaxed. They live in the same country we do, a country that is not only at war, but a country (according to the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center) whose middle class this year (family of four, median income) paid less than 5 per cent of its income in federal income taxes, a burden that is as light as it has ever been, is in fact the second-lightest in 50 years. Even when you include payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare (which are more investments and fees than taxes), the Congressional Budget Office says the entire burden is at its lowest in decades. The effective tax rate for this family has been falling continually since 1980, when it was 12 per cent of income. [Details from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities] For this we get outrage and marching in the streets.

More outrage, around tax day (April 15), about a study that found 47% of American households would pay no federal income taxes this year. We might have expected outrage that so many Americans had been pushed into poverty, but that is not what we got. We got anger that these slackers are not paying any taxes, which is not what the study said. These “slackers” ¬†— the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the elderly — must still pay sales taxes, property taxes if they still have a home, the aforementioned payroll taxes if they still have a job, car taxes, and so on. But they didn’t make enough to trigger the income tax, for which one outrage-monger (Glen Beck) proposed that they be drafted and made to fight our wars of choice. (Having just escaped the mythical death panels of the health-care legislation, grandma now faces the threat of the draft?)

We live in a country that 18 months ago was brought to its knees, along with much of the rest of the world, by the untrammeled greed of the biggest players in the enormous casino that global “investment banking” has become. People in the millions lost their jobs, their homes, their health and their self-respect as a direct consequence of the Masters of the Universe (thank you, Tom Wolfe) placing huge bets with borrowed money — bets that they, themselves, did not understand. Our country had to borrow trillions of dollars, again to the possible detriment of our grandchildren, to buy more chips for the players so they did not have to leave the tables and check out of their complimentary rooms.

This week we have been told [by the New York Times among others] that just three of the too-big-to-fail gambling houses racked up profits of $11 billion in the first quarter of this year. They made much of this profit by borrowing money from the Federal Reserve at interest rates of about one-half of one per cent, then buying billions of dollars in Treasury bonds yielding three per cent or more. Do you get it? They borrow the money from the government, and lend it back to the government, and make millions and millions of dollars. With which they pay for, among other things, hordes of lobbyists and gazillions in campaign contributions to make sure that the regulations that once prevented this kind of pillage are not revived.

And there is precious little outrage about this. Instead, rowdy demonstrations of gun-toting, “real” Americans claim our country is threatened by an effort to extend access to health care insurance — ¬†provided by private, for-profit companies — to the poor and the sick. This offends people who describe themselves as Christian. And is described as too expensive by people who remained cheerfully silent as we spent, so far, over three trillion borrowed dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Long-term cost of the recently passed health-care reform legislation, according to the Congressional Budget Office: less that one-third the outlay required thus far by our two most recent wars of choice, and a long-term reduction in the federal deficit.)

There are reasons good and plenty to be angry about the course of a country whose behavior — its treatment of natural resources, its imperial wars, its fiscal irresponsibility and unlimited greed, among other things — invites the advent of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But instead of righteous anger, we get the hissy fits of the rich and famous.

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