Commentary: Depending on government

Sep 19, 2012

I’m not running for anything, now, or presumably ever. But I have a confession to make. I am not rich, but my household income is more than a hundred thousand dollars a year.

Nevertheless, I get a form of welfare from the government. And my guess is that you do too. If not, other members of your family do. My welfare is called the home mortgage tax deduction.

The government exempts me from paying thousands of dollars in taxes that I would have to pay if I lived in a rented apartment.

Most of us homeowners don’t think of this as welfare, and I confess I didn’t either until the conservative columnist George Will pointed this out a few years ago.

As I recall, he was trying to force people who were campaigning against the entitlement mentality to realize that they, too, at some level, are getting government benefits.

What made me remember this, of course, is the now-famous surreptitious video showing Republican nominee Mitt Romney claiming that forty-seven percent of Americans are dependent on government, and think they are, “victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.“

Politically, that was probably a shrewd remark to make in that particular social setting, a gathering of Florida millionaire supporters.

Unfortunately for Romney, his remarks looked pretty boneheaded and insensitive when played for the entire nation. I’m not sure how any candidate for president can think anything is truly off the record these days, in the era of the camera phone. 

But then I don’t know how members of the British royal family think they can sunbathe naked and not be caught either.

However, the fact that Romney’s remarks weren’t popular doesn’t mean they are wrong. Reporters should be somewhat sympathetic to this; we are in the business of bringing people bad news they don’t want to hear but need to hear, all the time.

So was Mitt Romney accurate? Well, in one way, yes. Actually, forty-six percent of Americans don’t pay any federal income taxes. But more than half of those pay payroll taxes. Probably all pay sales taxes at some point, plus all sorts of other taxes and fees. So they aren’t complete moochers.

There are always going to be chislers. I know one seemingly able-bodied man who finagled disability payments from Social Security. But the percentage of us dependent on government isn’t really forty-seven percent, but more like one hundred percent.

Government is what makes civilization possible. I depend on government roads and streets, every day. I want government standards for the food I eat, and I want a policeman if I need one.

If a tornado were to destroy my house, I’d want all the government assistance I can get. And we haven’t even begun to talk about education or defense.  Government is deeply embedded in every facet of our lives, and that’s really the way we like it.

That doesn’t mean there’s not inefficiencies or abuses. There may be national entitlement programs that need to be curbed. Governor Rick Snyder has done some of that in Michigan. But if we are going to tackle government dependency, we need to be honest about what it is -- and what we ourselves may be willing to give up.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.