The 47 Percent Is Just as Dumb as the 1 Percent • The Right Response in Libya

Attention candidates: Leave division to the mathematicians

On the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, a video surfaced of Mitt Romney telling donors that the nation is divided based on the amount of federal income tax we pay. Speaking at a Florida dinner, the Republican nominee for president imposed a metaphorical quarantine on the “47 percent” of Americans who pay no federal income tax and who, he said, “are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

In the past year, many members of the “1 percent” were no doubt surprised to learn from Occupy Wall Street that they are at war with the vast majority of their fellow citizens. Quite a few of the 76 million American “tax units” without federal income tax liability were perhaps equally perplexed to discover that they are too lazy to take responsibility for themselves.

Henry Adams famously described politics as the “systematic organization of hatreds.” What we have here are two examples of the systematic organization of stupidities. Both the “1 percent vs. 99 percent” and the “makers vs. takers” slogans are ideological constructs born of ignorance, mythology, and the tribal arrogance that results from spending way too much time with people like yourself.

This is a larger problem for a political party than for a protest group. Whether Romney believes what he said or was pandering to his audience is beside the point. Surely he understands that more than half of those who pay no federal income tax — 28 percent of all U.S. households — pay taxes for Medicare and Social Security, and many pay taxes at a higher rate than Romney himself. (Because these are payroll taxes, by definition the people who pay them all have jobs.) An additional 10 percent of households pay no federal income tax because they are receiving nontaxable retirement benefits — the benefits both presidential candidates have promised to protect. Roughly 7 percent pay no federal income tax or payroll taxes because society has determined that they need every last cent.

Race, class, sex, religion, and ideology are all dividing lines in American experience. Those divisions will be exacerbated from time to time, with elections in particular providing ample invitations to friction. But Americans are more than the sum of our prejudices and demographics.

The task before both Romney and President Obama is to assert common bonds and aspirations with greater frequency and conviction in the weeks before November. A progressive tax code, in which all contribute relative to their means, is a hallmark of a decent society. Few Americans wish to dismantle it. Likewise, the nation’s social compact might be frayed, but this is no civil war; we don’t need another Lincoln. A little respect should suffice.

After Stevens, four ways forward in the Middle East

Since U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens’s murder in Libya on Sept. 11, the debate about how the U.S. should respond to the Middle East’s turmoil has barely progressed beyond name-calling. Senator John McCain and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, for example, cast the riots and Stevens’s death as a product of U.S. weakness and failed leadership in the region. They say a tougher, more assertive U.S. is the answer.

Yet if we’ve learned anything since Islamist radicals started trying to oust the U.S. from the Middle East with attacks, it’s the folly of using “toughness” as a metric for U.S. policy in the region.

In that light, here are four ways to respond to the latest spasm of anti-American riots, which certainly won’t be the last.

First, don’t let talk of a clash of values become self-fulfilling. It’s a fact that many Muslims don’t believe that free speech trumps religious dictates against blasphemy. The U.S. can’t do much about this. It certainly shouldn’t bend its own values in response or get involved in censoring YouTube posts. But the U.S. also shouldn’t count on persuading conservative Muslims to change their sensitivities anytime soon. In the meantime, they have a right to express their disgust at a meritless and hateful video, including by peaceful protest — just as the U.S. government has the right to distance itself from trash produced by a convicted fraudster.

Second, the U.S. needs to be realistic in dealing with the Arab Spring’s newly elected Islamist governments. The decision by Egypt and Tunisia to call for protests on the video is not evidence that they want to sever relations with the U.S., or that the U.S. has been naive in engaging with them. These governments compete for power with ultraconservatives and feel that not to take the lead in protesting well-publicized insults to the Prophet would be political suicide.

Third, the U.S. needs to produce more Chris Stevenses and do a better job of protecting them. Ambassador Stevens was unusual not just in his Arabic proficiency but also in his willingness to move outside the bubble of security that insulates most U.S. diplomatic personnel in the region.

Fourth, in its use of power, the U.S. needs to make a distinction among its responses to terrorists, Islamist governments, and ordinary conservative Muslims, all of whom have played a role in turmoil over the videos and demand separate responses.

The right response in Libya is more low-key U.S. engagement, not less, working with the Libyan government to track down terrorists, disarm and retrain militias, build up an effective police force, and encourage Libya’s integration into the international economy. That makes for a terrible campaign sound bite. But it’s what the U.S. needs to do.

To read Stephen L. Carter on Hustler and free speech and William Pesek on Japan’s slow earthquake recovery, go to Bloomberg.com/view

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