Sen. Coburn Tries To Undermine The Social Safety Net Under The Guise Of Fairness

November 16, 2011 10:26 am ET — Jamison Foser

Sen. Tom Coburn

At least one United States senator has taken a cue from populist discontent with a system rigged in favor of those who least need the help, blasting a "reverse Robin Hood style of wealth redistribution":

Americans are facing tough times. Millions are still out of work. Wages remain stagnant, while health care costs, tuition, and other household cost continue to rise. Many homeowners owe more for their houses than they are worth. [...] [T]he government is subsidizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous. ... This welfare for the well-off — costing billions of dollars a year — is being paid for with the taxes of the less fortunate, many who are working two jobs just to make ends meet, and IOUs to be paid off by future generations. [...] The income of the wealthiest one percent of Americans has risen dramatically over the last decade. Yet, the federal government lavishes these millionaires with billions of dollars in giveaways and tax breaks.

You might think such rhetoric comes attached to a scathing indictment of policies, like oil company tax breaks and preferential treatment of capital gains income, that disproportionately benefit the rich. 

Wrong.

It's from Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) dishonest "report" on "the full range of government benefits enjoyed by millionaires" — a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing attempt to undermine the social safety net under the guise of fairness.

Coburn claims his report details the "full range of government benefits enjoyed by millionaires." It doesn't. Not even close. There's no mention, for example, of the lower rate of taxation on capital gains than on earned income. Coburn's claim to have comprehensively detailed the ways in which millionaires benefit from government policy is simply false. In fact, he has detailed ways in which millionaires benefit from a subset of government policies he dislikes.

That difference is key to understanding the purpose of Coburn's "report." It isn't meant to restore some fairness to a system in which "the income of the wealthiest one percent of Americans has risen dramatically" while "the federal government lavishes these millionaires with billions of dollars in giveaways and tax breaks." If that were the goal, Coburn would've addressed preferential treatment of investment income. His report would have focused on programs and tax benefits that primarily or exclusively benefit the rich, not programs that primarily benefit everyone else and occasionally help a rich person. But Coburn doesn't really care about rising inequality, or preferential treatment for millionaires — people who actually care about rising inequality don't tend to denounce "Class warfare 'soaking the rich' approaches," as Coburn does. Coburn's real motives should be apparent from the programs he targets, in this report and elsewhere: Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid. Those are the last programs a sincere effort to reverse the government's favorable treatment of the rich would attack.

Just as Coburn isn't really a "deficit hawk," he doesn't really care about inequality or unfairness. He just wants to use public dissatisfaction at those conditions to accomplish his ideological goals — in this case, eroding confidence in and support for successful and popular programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance.

Unfortunately, Coburn's gambit might work: His report has received heavy media coverage, most of it entirely credulous. That should be a wake-up call for progressives: If they don't respond to populist economic concerns with real efforts at fundamental reform, conservatives will cynically co-opt the public's frustration and use it to undermine the social safety net and further rig the system in favor of the wealthy.

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