So if you’ll allow me one moment of shameless patriotism, I’d like take a moment to declare that I am a proud American.
I’ve been thinking about this because of Joe The Plumber. Forget all the foolishness about his book deal or potential endorsement contracts or whether he’ll run for congress. There’s an argument, or an idea, that always hovers around Joe and his ilk — and his ilk’s intellectual defenders in the intellectual and pundit classes — that’s always puzzled me:
Why are these people so cynical about Americans?
Let me explain what I mean.
First I’m going to say might sound jingoistic, or it might sound naively romantic, but: I actually believe in the American dream, and in the American spirit. That’s not meant to put down other countries; it’s meant to affirm that I believe that, whatever faults the U.S. has, our history is in fact full of amazing achievements, progress, inventions, breakthroughs, and innovation, in many fields. I actually believe there’s something truly special about America, and about Americans. It’s inspiring to think about.
So why doesn’t Joe believe in that spirit? Why don’t the people who defend and agree with his complaints believe in it?
I know they don’t believe there’s anything special about Americans, or the American spirit, because according to them, the most productive and creative citizens of our country will stop producing, stop creating, stop innovation, stop making progress, stop aspiring to live the American dream and change the world if their marginal tax rate rises a few points.
According to Joe and his allies, that’s all it takes to stop the American spirit in its tracks.
This gets expressed in various ways, like talking about how “the most productive members of our society” will be less productive they have to pay higher taxes. Or as this AP story summarized it recently: “In a country that believes in itself as a place where anybody who works hard enough can make it … there’s a certain wariness of taxes that might discourage hard work.” (Emphasis added.) That’s the root of what Joe-ologists claim: tax our country’s most productive people too much, and they simply won’t work as hard.
I don’t believe that at all.
Do you? Do you think that Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Marc Andreeson or Mark Zukerberg, while dreaming up their various enterprises, stopped to figure out whether they thought the potential tax hit made it worthwhile? I don’t. I think they wanted to change the world.
I don’t exactly have posters of those guys on my wall; my point isn’t to say that they are heroes. They’re just easy examples because they’re widely lionized — often by the exact same people who claim that higher taxes make Americans work less hard, that they destroy the American spirit. So pick whatever example you want, from whatever period in American history you like. Sure the profit motive matters — and not just in the business world. But can you think of an example of a heroic American who simply wouldn’t have bothered to try and succeed, to make a mark, to change the world — if the tax code hadn’t been suitably generous?
What about the many immigrants who have come from all over the planet to chase the American dream, and have made innumerable contributions to the worlds of business, science, the arts, etc. — would their pursuit of greatness and success have withered in the face of an income-tax hike?
What about all the American innovators and creators and productive contributors to our society who made their mark when the tax rate was higher than it is today, or will be next year?
What, for that matter, about you? Do you aspire to some lofty achievement in whatever field you are in — to make a difference, to be remembered? And are you counter-balancing that against the tax implications? Are you saying, “Well I’d like to start my own company, or write a best-seller, or revolutionize my industry — but if income taxes are going up I just won’t bother?”
Personally, I’m trying as hard as I can to be as successful as I can, and I don’t envision a scenario where tax rates are going to stop me from that. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way.
I just don’t believe that Americans, or the American dream, are as fragile as the Joe crowd suggests.
I think the American spirit has persevered against obstacles much more daunting than a few percentage points on the marginal tax rate. So I listen to and read Joe’s intellectual and pundit defenders who claim that American innovation can be squelched so easily, and I am optimistic: I am optimistic that they are wrong. Because unlike them, I really believe there’s something special about America, and the American spirit. Ultimately, their cynicism simply puzzles me.
What kind of Americans are they, anyway?