A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
The Obama administration and its allies are so eager to portray tax hikes on the rich as the solution to all our problems that they desperately desire to persuade the public that tax cuts for the rich caused all those problems in the first place.
Perhaps the most outrageous expression of this argument comes in a controversial new video from the California Federation of Teachers called “TAX THE RICH: AN ANIMATED FAIRY TALE.”
This eight-minute piece of puerile propaganda features the warm and winning voice of the 83-year-old Hollywood legend Ed Asner, who previously provided his vocal talents to a far more worthy example of the animator’s art: the fanciful, Oscar-winning Disney-Pixar masterpiece, UP.
This time, Asner concentrates on a distinctly downward trajectory, tracing America’s steep decline from the golden age before tax cuts for the rich to the suffering and despair of the present day. “Once upon a time,” he intones, “there was a land that was happy and prosperous. They had a great education system, safe streets, and jobs for everyone.”
Never mind that during the idyllic Jimmy Carter era of 70 percent top marginal tax rates, the “safe streets” mentioned in the video featured rates of violent crime nearly double the levels of today, or that the Carter unemployment rate of 7.6 percent (at the end of his term) nearly equaled our current level of joblessness and hardly provided “jobs for everyone.” Asner’s narration insists that high levels of taxation created a virtual utopia: “The people of this land paid for their good life by investing in their future together. They called this ‘paying taxes.’”
Then, the serpent of greed slithered into this American Eden: “But over time rich people decided they weren’t rich enough. So they came up with ways to get richer. The first way was through tax cuts.” The animation cleverly illustrates this reduction in rates by depicting giant scissors, slicing away (with heavily amplified sound effects) at benign images of parks and schools, like menacing instruments of national castration.
Asner’s suddenly mournful tones then describe the predictable results: “Schools, public safety, the roads, parks, libraries, public transportation all went into decline. The rich people didn’t care.” Worst of all, the sultans of selfishness accumulated such obscene levels of wealth that their piles of huge gold coins became “money towers” reaching into the clouds, which inevitably collapsed and crushed ordinary people under their overwhelming weight. At this point, the victims recognized that “it was the 1 percent who built the money towers that crashed on their houses and jobs” – affirming a dubious connection between the generation of wealth by some and the accompanying ruination of others.
Naturally, the preening plutocrats in the video – plump, top-hatted, cigar-chomping folk who resemble the Monopoly Man of the classic game – began to quake at the prospect of the aroused proletariat. “Now the rich people got worried. They thought that if the people get mad enough at us, they might take some of our money. This really upset the rich people, because they loved their money more than anything else in the whole world.”
At last, the long-suffering wretched of the earth reached blessed enlightenment as the timbre of Asner’s well-trained voice became brighter and sweeter: “People began to say, ‘Maybe the rich people have too much money now. And maybe our problems have something to do with the 1 percent not paying their fair share of taxes.”
The final image in the brief morality play featured the newly determined little guys rallying in front of signs demanding “Tax the Rich,” “Tax Corporations” and “Jobs Now!” while Asner posed a concluding question: “Can the people of this land do something to live happily ever after?” Accompanying material from the California Federation of Teachers urges concerned citizens to “do something” by getting involved in support of President Obama’s ongoing effort to raise tax rates on the rich.
The idea that national happiness depends on piling higher tax burdens on the wealthy counts as no more irrational than the notion that lower tax rate on top-earners somehow led to devastating declines in funding for schools, public safety, parks, transportation and other public needs.
In fact, total education spending per student has nearly doubled since Ronald Reagan became president and began wielding those menacing scissors and cutting tax rates. On the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education spent $14.2 billion (in constant dollars) when Reagan came to Washington but the budget rose to $56 billion in 2006 under President George W. Bush. From that point forward, with the reduced Bush tax rates firmly in place, spending soared again to $71 billion in 2011.
The perceived decline in transportation infrastructure, depicted with cracked and pot-holed streets in the Asner video, also bears less connection to overall funding cuts (which never occurred) than to the futile folly of diverting highway money to wildly impractical mass transit boondoggles. Since the era of Reagan and Bush tax cuts, government at every level has invested lavishly in ill-considered and outrageously expensive train systems (in Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles and countless other cities) that have done nothing to relieve traffic or reduce commute times. Now the state of California and the federal government mean to collaborate on a laughably impractical high speed rail system that could cost $100 billion dollars, with a first-stage route connecting an under-populated corridor between Merced and Bakersfield, with a serious environmental impact on desert toads but no impact whatever on LA’s clogged freeways.
The bottom line in federal outlays also shows that tax cuts of the Reagan and Bush era did nothing to force a reduction in overall levels of spending. In 2000, the last full year of Bill Clinton’s purportedly perfect reign of peace and prosperity, the federal government spent 18.2 percent of the gross domestic product. Eight years later, after two rounds of major tax cuts and in the last full year of the George W. Bush presidency, Washington spent 20.8 percent of GDP – a substantial explosion of additional spending, not the imposition of some brutal austerity budget. After four years of Barack Obama’s leadership, with the Bush tax rates still firmly in place (for a few weeks more, at least), we now spend 24.3 percent, another perilous rise. While Grover Norquist, purveyor of the now notorious “no new taxes” pledge, popularized the phrase “starve the beast” as a demand for leaner, more effective government, it ought to be obvious that the beast in question now suffers from an acute obesity problem.
The most obnoxious element in the new animated fairy tale from the Golden State’s education establishment involves its irresponsible demonization of malevolent and immoral “rich people,” depicting them as a separate, subhuman species and not merely a privileged class. In one outrageous image, the rich perch on top of the scales of justice, raised high by huge bags of money, and urinate in a golden waterfall on the unsuspected poor who are huddled beneath them on the lower plate of the balance.
Of course Ed Asner himself, and the other millionaire Hollywood activists who clamor for higher tax rates, could unleash lavish donations to rain down their own showers of gold on supposedly starved parks and schools and firehouses. But they prefer to fund propaganda, demanding the seizure of even more money from their fellow plutocrats, to generous investment in direct public benefits. In the last election cycle, Democrats received and spent more than 3 billion in donations; imagine the acreage of wilderness and open space that might have been purchased with even a small portion of those contributions.
Identifying the rich with wanton cruelty and urinating-on-their-heads contempt might help foment the irrational urge to punish them as a way to lead America back to the land of “happily ever after.” This animated animus could also justify the fear on the part of the wealthy that an enraged populace “might take some of our money”—as if sanctity of private property counted for nothing in the face of emotional indignation. Later, Asner’s narration noted that “people began to say maybe the rich have too much money now,” suggesting that the public had the right to determine the maximum levels of success that productive members of society ought to be allowed to achieve.
Of course, liberal reasoning never attempts to explain how limiting such success could serve the interests of the less fortunate. Nor will the left make any attempt to sketch a rational cause-and-effect relationship between hiking tax rates and improving public services, or to establish a connection between tax rate cuts and public suffering for anyone. Despite the lurid animation from the California teachers union and skillful narration by one of Hollywood’s liberal lions, those associations remain an irresponsible example of fairy tale logic.