American Exceptionalism: The Common Good vs the Tea Party
by Fred Rotondaro
Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
My father came from Italy to America in the early years of the last century. Like many immigrant families, everyone needed to work. And so my father became a "Breaker Boy" in the mines around Pittston, Pennsylvania. He was 11 years old.
Pop stayed in the mines for another 45 years, leaving only when the Susquehanna River broke through its banks, drowning 12 of his co-workers. My father had black lung which was to kill him at 74. But our family survived because a state representative named Jimmy Musto had pushed through the state assembly a pension program for miners with the disease. Jimmy thought the state owed the miners who had given so much to the community.
My father and his friends were fierce patriots. America was the exceptional nation which gave them a chance for decent lives. The immigrants of that time would be appalled at what is happening in America today. They would be ready to go to battle at the ballot box and use every legal means to fight the Tea Party and what they would regard as an abhorrent political philosophy that was destined to destroy, not defend, true American exceptionalism.
There is no question America has deep financial problems that must be resolved. Our national debt now totals over 14 trillion dollars. That is a huge amount that must be curtailed and reduced.
But the approach of Tea Party leaders and their supporters in Congress is not a rational process that gets to the heart of the deficit. Rather, it is a procedure that says, let's cut 100 billion and pays no heed to the human consequences of those cuts. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has correctly pointed out that the budget should not be balanced on the backs of the poor and vulnerable. Of course, that is exactly what is happening with the Tea Party and their Republican allies.
Let us take just one example. The House Republican budget proposes a cut of more than $700 million for food programs that assist infants and mothers. It is a small bite in the budget but symbolically important to show the seriousness of the Tea Party and their allies. Yet in the same week, every House Tea Party representative and every House Republican voted a $40 billion tax subsidy over the next ten years for the oil industry. That's right reader, the oil industry.
And there's the question still of tax cuts for the wealthiest. In the period from 2002 to 2007, the top 1 percent of Americans received 65 percent of all increased income. The next 9 percent of wealthiest Americans received an additional 35 percent of the increase. The bottom 90 percent received nothing; in fact, Middle America lost 8 percent of their earnings in the time from 2000 to 2010.
Yet where is the outcry from Tea Partiers about the tax laws needing reform. One way of balancing the budget is by cutting programs for the vulnerable among us. Another is by bringing in more revenues through taxation from the wealthiest, and also corporations many of whom pay an effective tax rate of 5 percent or less. Exxon, for instance, paid nothing in federal taxes last year. Is this really a tough choice?
America does have serious problems. We rank last among 33 industrial nations in infant mortality rates; one in five of our children live in poverty; our students rank only 15th in math aptitudes; in a generation we have gone from 1st in the world in percentage of college graduates to 12th. We are among the worst among the industrial nations in inequality and mobility.
Difficult problems? Of course. Impossible to solve? Hardly.
My father's generation would have fought the Tea Party philosophy at the ballot box and would have done everything legally possible to stop what they would have regarded as a repugnant political philosophy that would, if unchecked, lead to the destruction of American exceptionalism.
A budget is not just an economic document. It is a statement about the morality of a nation. It is a path to the future, a future that will be dominated by Tea Party selfishness or by the Common Good.