Older, wealthier Americans get plenty of 'free stuff'

Conservatives benefit from government programs — they just don't like to admit it

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In the days following Barack Obama's re-election, we learned that Mr. Obama didn't win because voters trusted him more than Mitt Romney on the economy, or because he ended the Iraq war and killed Osama bin Laden. He didn't win because he started to turn around an economy that shrank by 4 percent in his predecessor's final 15 months. He didn't win because his advisers built a state-of-the-art field organization that overpowered the Romney campaign's beached "Orca" targeting program.

No: President Obama won re-election because Americans want "free stuff," and millions of lazy takers-not-makers gave him another four years to dish out the goodies.

So says Bill O'Reilly, who specifically cited blacks, Hispanics and women as free-stuffers who have overrun the disappearing "traditional America." Rush Limbaugh warned that "we've lost the country" to said moochers. Conservative columnist Mark Judge of the Daily Caller wrote, "You know that divorced fortysomething female neighbor of yours? The one who's not half as bright as she thinks she is, and doesn't know much about Libya or the national debt? ... America is now her country. It's Dingbatville." Rocker Ted Nugent tweeted that, in Mr. Obama, "pimps, whores and welfare brats" have a president of "their own."

As for specifics, conservatives point to the "free Obama phone." Turns out that Ronald Reagan started this federal program and George W. Bush accelerated it. Oops. Welcome to the conservative meltdown, folks.

Meanwhile, according to political scientists Suzanne Mettler and John Sides, 96 percent of Americans have benefited from at least one (and typically more) of just 21 federal programs, ranging from student loans to the mortgage interest deduction, from the employer health care exemption to Medicare. Most of the remaining 4 percent are too young yet to have benefited but will. We're all beneficiaries.

Yet, when asked, many Americans deny any reliance upon government. As Mr. Sides and Ms. Mettler explain, the reason is that some of the most effective and popular programs are "submerged" — that is, embedded into the tax code and literally taken for granted. Republicans report lower dependence upon such programs, but they rely on them as much as Democrats do.

And contrary to what talk-show conservatives imply, many government programs skew toward middle-class and upper-income Americans. The mortgage and employer health care deductions alone cost the treasury a third of a trillion dollars annually, and they are highly regressive: Most of the deductions go to Americans who live well above the poverty line and often above the median income threshold. After all, these benefits go only to those who have jobs and own homes.

In short, the middle and upper classes get plenty of free stuff. Just like tea party champion Michele Bachmann — the anti-government warrior who took government subsidies for her family farm and husband's business — Americans tend to complain about everyone else's "welfare" but their own.

Meanwhile, the age cohort that receives nearly half of all federal spending via Social Security (largest welfare program in history of planet), Medicare (so vast it has four parts, A through D), and Medicaid (a majority of whose recipients are retirees), cast the smallest share of its votes, just 44 percent, for Barack "free stuff" Obama. For some seniors, hating free stuff is only possible by ignoring the trillions of dollars in federal spending they receive annually, while simultaneously convincing themselves that younger, poorer, less-white generations are sucking dry the very public teat they, in fact, monopolize.

And what about the freebies powerful interests enjoy? Defense contractors reap billions from noncompetitive, cost-plus-15-percent wartime procurement policies; energy companies make billions by extracting fossil fuels from public lands; corporations enjoy international marketing subsidies to sell their products abroad. These free-stuffers wield far more power in Washington than poor people who rarely vote and contribute almost nothing to electoral campaigns.

Finally, let's not forget the coveted, government-issued radio and television monopoly licenses for use of public airwaves that for-profit media companies convert into billions of advertising revenue dollars, which they in turn use to pay the multimillion-dollar salaries of the O'Reillys and Limbaughs. Few Americans benefit more from government-provided free stuff than the same race-baiting, class warfare hatemongers complaining on talk radio and television about it.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.

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