This post is about four years late. But I’ve only become able to appreciate it recently, so here we are.
In my circles, I used to often hear complaints that middle-class Republican voters were voting against their own economic interests. Followed by disbelieving statements of “How can they not see that?”
Specifically, the charges were that the programs that Democrats proposed were designed to help the working class, and would only tax those who made over $250,000/year. And yet, the Republican base hated them, referring to these as programs that redistributed their wealth to bums. The poster-boy for this was Joe the Plumber who became famous when he claimed Obama’s tax plan would ruin him, when in fact it would probably help. All the economic analysis in the world said he would be helped by this policy, and yet he and the vast majority of the Republican base adamantly refused to believe this, and stuck to their narrative of “this will ruin us.”
I’m not saying he’s wrong, nor am I saying he’s right. Just that he’s the example.
The common explanation in my in-group was “Obviously this isn’t about economics. They support Republicans for other reasons (cultural, moral, whatever), and this is just an excuse.”
This is wrong. Having recently entered an economic situation I think is similar to that of these Plumber-sympathizers, I finally understand their thinking. Because, on an emotional level, I share it.
I used to own very little. I like it that way. But people kept giving me more demanding work and paying me more for it, and I had a bunch of money I didn’t know what to do with. Most important to this story – I don’t believe I will have a job for very long. As AI improves, accounting will be one of the first desk-jobs to go. Our company already has a significantly smaller accounting department than it did a decade ago. I do not expect my job to exist in 10 years. So what’s a guy to do? Well, Denver is growing, and home construction is not keeping up with swelling population. So I take the money and invest it in housing. If I can keep my living costs down, and continue doing this for 10 years, by the time I’m obsolete I may have enough physical capital to support myself by renting.
Now here’s a crappy conundrum – the government programs I know of don’t kick in until you’re close to broke. If I run into trouble, I’m required to drain all my savings and sell my assets before I get assistance. I suppose it’s nice to know that I will not literally starve to death in the worst case scenario. But losing everything first, so I can end up destitute, is not a scenario I am even remotely OK with.
And the thing is, I feel like I am always on the knife’s-edge of losing everything. I know all it takes is one major legal battle to ruin a typical American. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the right, and my accuser is a patent-troll – the costs of defending myself are ruinous in our legal system. And there is almost nothing I can do to prevent a bad actor from targeting me. That is what the entire Culture War is all about, right? Force the boogie-man you hate on the other side to lose their job, lose their possessions, and be forced into squalor?
Or, worse, what if I get some costly illness, or accident? Those strike at random. Everyone in America knows that they are just one major illness away from ruin. We have a hit TV show that starts out with “A high school teacher gets cancer. Rather than allow his family to suffer in grinding poverty after his death, he begins cooking and selling street drugs.” And every single person in America nodded and said “Yup – story checks out.” People choose to die for this reason.
Despite my current net-worth/income, I feel incredibly fragile. Much more so than when I was making less, and owned nothing. The government sure isn’t gonna help me (before I’m totally broke). I’m doing everything I can to store up wealth and invest it, hoping to reach the point where I can survive a major financial shock. And every bit of taxes I pay feels like the government taking what little I’m managing to save — that I would be using to build those walls higher — and giving it to someone else. When you are fragile, that hurts.
Even when you tell me that a tax plan will only affect those who make over $250K, I’m not sure I believe you. Mainly I hear “More taxes. Less personal safety-buffer. More fragility.” To be honest, it’s hard to imagine ever NOT feeling this way. It becomes a way of life. If I were to make over $250K/yr, would I be safe then? Better to be safe than sorry – defeat those taxes now, so they can’t hurt you later.
Now, I don’t actually believe this, on an intellectual level. I realize that the mortgage tax deduction, and federally-insured 30 year loans, are ridiculous largesse the government is heaping on me and other people lucky enough to own a home. And lucky enough to be of the ethnic group that was supported and encouraged to buy housing, rather than the group that was forced into neglected neighborhoods and preyed upon by predatory lenders. I know the benefit of a police force that are friendly protectors and allies, rather than the terror-squads of an extractive power. I have nice roads and functioning schools, rather than crumbling infrastructure. So I realize that taxes do help me a lot. Disproportionately much, even. So I do not vote based on my fear. I realize fear is the mind-killer, and I ignore it.
But that doesn’t make it go away. My emotional reasoning agrees with Joe the Plumber. I happen to come from a tradition that puts more weight on cognitive reasoning than emotional reasoning. But we all know there are many failure modes of cognitive reasoning as well, so it’s hard to fault someone for trusting their emotional reasoning. Now that I share their emotional headspace, I feel much more sympathy. Note that when you disbelievingly say “I can’t even imagine what they are thinking! They’re voting against their own interests!” – no, they are not. This feeling of fragility is what you are up against. That is your enemy.
Also, please stop using “I can’t even imagine” as a euphemism for “That person is stupid.” All it shows is your own lack of imagination.