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The rise of the Tea Party and the weakness of the Obama economy have fueled a Republican narrative about Big Government as a threat to liberty, redistributing wealth from honorable Americans to undeserving moochers, from taxpaying "makers" to freeloading "takers." In fact, most Americans are makers and takers--proud of our making, blind to our taking. Republicans often point out that only half the country pays income taxes, but just about all Americans pay taxes: payroll taxes, state and local taxes, gas taxes and much more. The problem is that we pay in $2.5 trillion and pay out $3.8 trillion. And those trillions of dollars don't all go to undeserving moochers, except insofar as we're all undeserving moochers.
7 a.m.: Subsidized food, water, electricity and clothing
The right routinely portrays government as a giant mess of Solyndra failures, lavish agency conferences in Vegas and pork for society's leeches. But my taxpayer-supported morning didn't feel like mooching at the time.
For example, my family pays for that water I use to brush my teeth, about $100 a month. But that's a small fraction of the true cost of delivering clean water to our home and treating the sewage that leaves our home. And it certainly doesn't reflect the $15 billion federal project to protect and restore the ravaged Everglades, which sit on top of the aquifers that provide our drinking water. Most Americans think of the water that comes out of our faucets as an entitlement, not a handout, but it's a government service, and it's often subsidized.
Similarly, my family pays more than $200 a month for the electricity that powers our toaster at breakfast. But that number would be much higher if the feds didn't subsidize the construction, liability insurance and just about every other cost associated with my utility's nuclear power plants while also providing generous tax advantages ("depletion allowances," "intangible drilling costs" and so forth) for natural gas and other fossil fuels. The $487 we're paying this year for federal flood insurance is also outrageously low, considering that our low-lying street floods all the time, that a major hurricane could wipe out Miami Beach and that the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America estimates that premiums in high-risk areas would be three times as high without government aid.
Some federal largesse--tax breaks for NASCAR racetracks ($40 million) and subsidies for rum distilleries ($172 million) and rural airports ($200 million)--is just silly. There's no reason my poker buddies should be able to deduct the gambling losses I inflict on them once a month. (Just kidding, guys!)
The silliest handouts that brighten my morning are the boondoggles that funnel billions to America's cotton and grain farmers and maybe knock a few cents off the price of my T-shirts and my kids' breakfast waffles. Uncle Sam sends at least $15 billion every year to farmers and agribusinesses in the form of grants, loans, crop insurance and other goodies. The farm lobby is so omnipotent in Washington that when the World Trade Organization ruled that U.S. handouts give our cotton farmers an unfair advantage over Brazil, the U.S. cut a deal to shovel $147 million a year to Brazilian cotton farmers rather than kick our own farmers off the dole. Our food and clothing may seem cheap, but, oh, we pay for them.