Fox talk show host Bill O’Reilly made waves when, in the aftermath of the President’s reelection, he opined that the incumbent had secured victory because of the new majority of voters who wanted stuff from the government thought that they would get it from Obama. His remarks included a distinction between “traditional” Americans who wanted to be left alone by government and the spreading culture of entitlement embraced by these newer participants in the political process. He also stressed that “traditional” Americans were becoming a minority in their own country.
Now we may want to cut O’Reilly some slack since he, like the rest of the Fox News (sic) team were obviously thrown off balance after the returns came in. They had been confident about a Romney win – even fighting on air about what the numbers meant as one state after another was called for Obama. Perhaps it was this disappointment and confusion that explains why O’Reilly would make statements that were likely to be interpreted as anti-black, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Asian.
It certainly was clear enough that O’Reilly meant to draw a sharp distinction between these people who wanted “stuff” and the past majority who mostly wanted government to stay out of their way. In his romantic version of this older America, frontier self-reliance dominated the culture of communities both large and small.
There are many problems with O’Reilly’s argument but none is more fundamental than his assertion that past majorities of Americans (as a group, as white as the folks at a Republican convention) were not interested in “stuff from the government.” There is quite a bit of evidence, in fact, that despite their northern European roots — a region, by the way, composed of countries with much larger public sectors than we have – America’s white citizens wanted and still want just as much stuff from government as do their less well-off fellow citizens. In fact there is reason to believe that they often actually get more “stuff” than their less financially and politically advantaged neighbors.
Let’s look at a few obvious examples.
The mortgage interest deduction — the biggest tax break of all – goes largely to middle and upper income homeowners. The cost of the exemption in lost tax revenues is about $105 billion annually and increasing. Because of the deduction home owners owe less federal income tax than do renters with the same incomes. And, in general, the deduction is larger the more expensive your home is. All tax credits and loopholes are more valuable to well-off taxpayers. One man’s justifiable tax expenditure, after all, is another’s unconscionable loophole.
But all such preferences are often wasteful and a biased way of giving “stuff” to powerful constituencies. In this sense, even the billions in tax breaks given to the oil industry are just “stuff” that their management and shareholders get from the government. So what if Exxon Mobil is reporting larger earnings than has any corporation in history; they still want their “stuff.” So, I guess they have more than you would expect in common with the poor kid who looks forward to the government subsidized school lunch program as his one hot meal of the day. The evidence is all around us that white Americans like that stuff called Social Security and Medicare. These are very popular programs with all almost all Americans and they are much larger than some of the stuff we bicker about today.
So, in a larger sense, O’Reilly should have talking about the fact that the new majority may not have the same preferences when it comes to stuff that the old majority had. We will find out as future elections unfold. But bear in mind just about anybody has their own list of stuff they want from the government…
And here’s a final example: I remember a guy trying to “save” the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The stuff he wanted and got was a $400 million infusion of cash from the federal government. You know, the good “stuff.”