Stop Worrying about Protecting ‘Taxpayers.’ That Isn’t the Government’s Job.Roundup
tags: conservatism, taxes, austerity, New Deal, Steven Mnuchin, social services, COVID-19, unemployment insurance
Lawrence B. Glickman is Stephen and Evalyn Milman professor of American studies in the department of history at Cornell University. He is author, most recently, of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America and the recently released Free Enterprise: An American History.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doesn’t want to extend the $600-a-week extra federal unemployment benefits that the government set up in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “We are not going to use taxpayer money to pay people more to stay home,” he said last week, as negotiations over the next wave of federal support for the economy continue.
Mnuchin framed his position as respectful of taxpayers, critical of “the idle poor,” and an embrace of frugality. In doing so, he was reverting to an old idea of the besieged taxpayer as funding extravagant and immoral people and projects — a notion that has, since the New Deal, justified redistributing wealth upward and against opposed expanding the American welfare state. Mnuchin’s comment provides evidence that Republicans, after agreeing to two major spending bills at the onset of the pandemic, are returning to their old script as our public health and economic woes are worsening. In this worldview, the “taxpayer” (almost always figured as White, male and affluent — but oppressed) replaces the citizen in the political imagination, and the main task of politics is to ease the burden of this besieged taxpayer rather than support the public good.
Modern “taxpayerism” (a term I introduced in my 2009 book, “Buying Power”) was born in a period of widespread economic suffering, massive unemployment and material deprivation, a time when the grievances voiced by its proponents seemed especially, even perversely, misplaced. Just a few days after Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president in March 1933, an editorialist worried that New Deal programs would come at “a great cost to taxpayers.” The following year, a Republican Congressman, inverting FDR’s celebration in 1932 of the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” called the taxpayer, “the new Forgotten Man.”
For anti-New Dealers, defending the taxpayer went hand-in-hand with delegitimizing public spending. In an August 1936 speech given shortly after he accepted the Republican nomination as vice president, Frank Knox denounced the hubris of an arrogant government that recklessly spent people’s money. Anticipating a popular rhetorical device employed by generations of future Republicans, Knox used hearsay evidence to hint at the existence of grandiose and wasteful New Deal programs, such as a federally funded “dog pound in Memphis, Tenn., with marble shower baths,” and his coup de grace: “I am informed that there are now in Washington three separate and independent commissions working at taxpayer’s expense to find out why there are so many unnecessary commissions.” For Knox, these examples of “government extravagance” crystallized the essence of the New Deal, excessive spending on frivolous endeavors, funded by coercive mechanisms.
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