Skin in the game

George Will’s column today concerns Representative David Camp of Michigan, incoming Republican chairman of Ways and Means. Camp says:

Many conservatives, including Camp, believe that although most Americans should be paying lower taxes, more Americans should be paying taxes. The fact that 46.7 million earners pay no income tax creates moral hazard — incentives for perverse behavior: Free-riding people have scant incentive to restrain the growth of government they are not paying for with income taxes.

“I believe,” Camp says, “you’ve got to have some responsibility for the government you have.” People have co-payments under Medicare, and everyone should similarly have some “skin in the game” under the income tax system.

It’s hard to know what to make of such arguments. It includes the standard Republican move of noting progressive federal income taxes without noting that low-income people pay significant payroll taxes to the federal government, not to mention the state and local sales taxes these lucky free-riders pay every time they buy a toothbrush or a stick of gum. This “skin in the game” argument is also applied rather selectively. These days, anyway, few conservatives argue that everyone who might get hit by a car should have skin in the game by remaining insured. Maybe more people should pay estate taxes, for that matter. Very few us have skin in that game, which abets continued persecution of the dynastically wealthy.

Snark aside, though, Camp has a real point. Only he should apply it more broadly. Two hundred million Americans with decent health coverage have no skin in the game when they consider the millions of poor people who need to wait 12 hours in a cruddy public hospital emergency room or some overcrowded safety-net clinic. Most Americans have no skin in the game when Arizona Medicaid recipients find out that their heart, lung, or liver transplants will no longer be covered, when South Carolinians find out that Medicaid will not cover hospice care and will cut its weekly meals on wheels deliveries from fourteen to ten, when California Medicaid no longer cover routine dental care but at least still covers the eventual tooth extractions. Few of us rely on AIDS drug assistance programs, which are turning people away or placing them on waiting lists. To take an example at random, most Americans do not have to sit in a south Chicago welfare office with a disabled brother, waiting for hours under happy-talk posters say: “Work makes sense!”

Most of us lament from a distance the failing schools and unsafe streets of our inner-cities. Few of us are gay, or are college students who lack proper immigrant papers. We have no personal stake when Congress debates whether to extend benefits to the chronically unemployed. Few of us are uninsured people with preexisting conditions. Few of us depend on Food Stamps or TANF. Few of us are frightened young women dealing with unplanned pregnancies. (Few of us, for that matter, are National Guardsmen doing repeat tours in Afghanistan or Iraq.)

Will rightly notes: “Serious arguments about taxes are never just about taxes. They are about government’s proper size and purposes.” That’s for sure. Republicans assume the House majority with the general promise of austerity and retrenchment during a deep economic crisis. When influential constituencies have direct stakes in the resulting fight—as in the case of Medicare—we have a good idea how these arguments will be resolved.

I’m more worried about other matters, which affect the most politically and economically vulnerable people who depend on federal and state government. If more of us who politically matter had real skin in that game, we would see better and different public policies.

Comments

  1. says

    I watched Glenn Beck in economically devastated Wilmington Ohio last night. He was sure prayer and happy thoughts were going to solve all the problems of the fat, smug white people in his audience. America faced a choice, he said, we could become Europe — Europe with deodorant, he joked; that got a big laugh — or . . . Europe, he said, was coming apart, with riots and protests. The message was that Americans should not get mad at anyone, but liberals and socialists. And, pray.

    Resentment and authoritarianism and corruption and complacency has a constitutional majority. Fun times.

    Merry Xmas.

  2. Keith Humphreys says

    Harold wrote:

    Few of us are gay, or are college students who lack proper immigrant papers. We have no personal stake when Congress debates whether to extend benefits to the chronically unemployed. Few of us are uninsured people with preexisting conditions. Few of us depend on Food Stamps or TANF. Few of us are frightened young women dealing with unplanned pregnancies. (Few of us, for that matter, are National Guardsmen doing repeat tours in Afghanistan or Iraq.)

    This is true insofar as our "skin in the game" ends at our own skin. But I suspect I am like many Americans in not falling into any of those categories but having friends or family who do. I suspect political inaction is less driven for many people by having nothing at stake than by a belief that the problems are not amenable to or should not be the subject of government intervention.

  3. Ohio Mom says

    I wonder how many in the Wilmington audience were actually from Wilmington. I suspect many were from Boehner's neighborhood, which is only a few exits south on the expressway, or from Cincinnati or Columbus, which are both less than a hour away. But yeah, this end of Ohio is pretty antediluvian.

  4. says

    last time I looked, everyone with a job paid FICA and Medicare taxes. These are taxes on income, but they're not "income taxes." Why not?

  5. K says

    Humphreys: " … the problems are not amenable to or should not be the subject of government intervention."

    What unites the problems Pollack refers to isn't that House Republicans think they aren't amenable to or shouldn't be the subject of government intervention. Opposition to the DREAM act has little to do with laissez-faire. Likewise with the problems of National Guardsmen serving multiple tours abroad. We should look elsewhere for an explanation of Republican behavior.

  6. Davis X. Machina says

    These are taxes on income, but they’re not “income taxes.” Why not?

    Because it would screw up decades of careful framing…

  7. Betsy says

    @ Bruce — Yes, it seems the main point of a tea rally is to make caricatures of the audience snd please them by drawing crude distinctions between themselves and other people; to indulge in self-referential cartoons. WE eat meat, we drive large vehicles, we shoot at things; THEY smell bad, they love their nanny state, they raise their pinkies, etc.

  8. Benny Lava says

    You'll note that conservatives often use this argument as part of their overall thesis that poor people are lazy and pampered and leach off the rich. Oftentimes this is combined with the phrase "transfer of wealth". It's too funny, really. Just look at our Federal budget. The biggest "transfer of wealth" in this country isn't from the rich to the poor but rather from the young to the old. Workers to retirees. Social Security and Medicare. The old canard about the lazy spoiled poor is just conservative class warfare; mendacious and dishonest. Par for the course really.

  9. says

    Humphreys: "I suspect political inaction is less driven for many people by having nothing at stake than by a belief that the problems are not amenable to or should not be the subject of government intervention."

    As noisy as they are on blogs, libertarians are actually few and far between in American politics. Any three can have six arguments, but can't elect a dogcatcher.

    If your thesis is interpreted, however, not as a representation of the effects of political philosophy, but, rather, as a representation of the effects of political ignorance, what you say is largely true. It's a political ignorance, which is remarkably deep and broad — so deep and broad that there are people, who don't realize that Medicare is a government program.

    There's a reason, why political campaigns need hundreds of millions to spend on thirty-second teevee ads and to spout meaningless slogans. And, it is not a reason that leaves much hope for a rational, reasoned politics.

    A hundred and fifty years ago, maybe 70% of the American population could read, and a big city newspaper had eight pages printed on two sheets of (folded) paper. But, that 70% read all eight pages. The result was a civil war over the moral wrong of slavery, which directly and personally affected no voter, who opposed it — not a single one had his lily white skin in the game.

  10. dave schutz says

    You're trying to make an identity of two things which aren't the same: Camp's claim is that folks for whom it costs nothing to have government increase spending will vote for spending increases past the point of reasonableness. Is that right? I think so, and also that some government spending is wasteful and goes to well connected insiders. My candidates for pigs at the trough will include Archer-Daniels-Midland and the ethanol subsidies, ag subsidies in general, a number of the places Murtha and Mollohan and Cunningham and on and on showered earmarks – and the huge public spending on college athletics over which Mike O'H fulminates. If your taxes don't go up when spending on this sort of thing goes up (and if you are a minimum wage person, it doesn't, your Social Security is the same fraction of your income), you're incentive is going to be to shrug at huge spending.

    Your suggestion is that if the rich, as well as the poor, needed to sleep under bridges, there would be more care for the interests of bridge-under-sleepers. You're absolutely right, but I don't see that this is particularly related to, or refutes in any way, Camp's point.

  11. Brian J says

    What's really ridiculous about those on the right saying this is that they are the ones refusing to have the conversation. (Well, most of them who aren't reflexively against any government spending, anyway.) For all of the talk of "tax and spend" liberals, people forget that it's a fairly sound way of doing this. You tax because you want to spend money on things. To continue to spend while refusing to tax appropriately is stupid and reckless for any number of reasons, but that hasn't stopped the Republicans.

    Take, for example, Medicare Part D. It has either just about the same or slightly greater than the liabilities for Social Security, yet the Republicans passed it. That is right: they tacked on an expensive, however necessary, addition to a program that was already in fiscal trouble without, you know, trying to pay for it, at least far as I can tell. It was that this point I realized they weren't serious about fiscal responsibility: they wanted to hand out the goodies but never worry about the bill.

    Say what you want about the recent health care reform legislation, but while it may not work out exactly as they planned, primarily because the Democrats don't have a goddamn crystal ball, they attempted to pay for it. That's having an honest conversation with the public about how it was going to be paid for. That's fiscal responsibility.

  12. SusanP says

    It constantly boggles me that the right wing uses this talking point over and over and over and no one remarks that the reason so many people don't pay income tax is that they can't earn a living wage doing whatever it is they do. Yes, probably a few are lazy, but most are considerably more industrious and useful than the barrels of ticks and fleas who make up the top 1% of taxpayers whose talking points Will industriously parrots.

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