the american (pipe?) dream


(Image from, AP/Scott Applewhite)


I’ve been a little slow on posting lately, partially because I’ve been making some decisions about what the next year holds for me, visiting grad schools and trying to choose between them (if you care, I have decided that I will be attending the Annenberg School of Communication at Penn next year). I’ve spent the last few days wading through my RSS feed, trying to catch up with everything I’ve missed.

The big news of the last few days is Rep. Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposal, which I have not yet had a chance to read in full. In the chatter it generated before it dropped, however, I came across this post by Matt Yglesias at ThinkProgress, which included the following graphic:

This graphic is sourced to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a think tank that describes itself* as “a non-profit, non-partisan research organization”. The column on the far right grabbed my attention . . . this is regressive policy at its worst. The negative effects fall primarily on the poor, while the benefits accrue to the wealthy. And yet, he was elected (with 68% of the vote) by the citizens of the 1st Congressional District of Wisconsin, 80% of whom made less than $100K in 2009, and therefore would see a net increase in their tax burden according to ITEP’s analysis.

Every time I see something like this, I think of a story that my dad told me about a conversation he had with cousins of mine who live in a rural town in Wisconsin a little north of Paul Ryan’s district, also represented by a Republican. Discussing the upcoming election (as I recall, this was in 2010), my father, who is a doctor at the University of Wisconsin Children’s Hospital asked my cousins why they were voting against their own economic interests and in favor of his, that is to say why they were voting Republican.  One of the responses that he got was that while voting for Democrats may be in their self-interest now, my cousins didn’t think the government had any right to their money when they eventually got into the higher tax brackets.

That sentiment arises directly from the idea of the “American Dream”: work hard enough, and you can rise to the top where you will be benefitting from policies like Ryan’s roadmap. But this study by a sociologist at Columbia University found that “Americans overestimate their chances of being rich.” Another study, done by Tom Hertz at American University (for the Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank), found that “[i]ntergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark.”

This is one of those (many) areas where Republicans are just winning on messaging. Building off of this belief, they’ve been able to convince large portions of the electorate to vote against their own economic interests and use the political power that they gain to cut taxes for the wealthy, helping the rich stay rich and keeping the poor poor.


*I say “describes itself” because it is described elsewhere around the tubes as “liberal-leaning”. I don’t have enough experience with this institution to speak to its true affiliations, but it seems to be reasonably respected despite a possible liberal bent.

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