Timothy Noah

Welfare Millionaires

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The Democrats are inching toward compromise on the payroll tax, and apparently we'll see something from the House GOP soon. The most significant shifts for the Democrats are that they've lowered the proposed offsetting millionaire surtax a bit and made it "temporary," i.e., it would last ten years. The most significant shift for the Republicans will likely be that the payroll tax cut will be tied to some anti-environmental measures. Note that the Democrats are moving toward the Republicans while the Republicans are moving away from the Democrats. I once tried to buy a house under similar circumstances. Every time I made a bid the owner raised his asking price. Eventually I gave up and bought a different house that was cheaper, bigger, and prettier.

I can't tell you why the seller negotiated the way he did--probably he had mixed feelings about selling in the first place. But I can tell you why the Republicans are following the same strategy. One, they know they can be as unreasonable as they like and still remain confident that it will be reported in the press that both sides are equally intransigent, because to say anything different would fail to be "objective." (Whenever objectivity and accuracy conflict, objectivity always wins.) Two, last week when Senate Republicans offered a compromise it was opposed not only by a majority of Senate Republicans but also by every member of the Senate GOP leadership besides Mitch McConnell and John Barrasso

The most amusing addition to the Democrats' proposal is that they said yes to the Republicans' suggestion that millionaires no longer be allowed to collect unemployment benefits. I finally tracked down the Oct. 1 Bloomberg news story that apparently prompted a hue and cry about this urgent social problem. In 2008, apparently, 2,840 households reporting incomes in excess of $1 million collected jobless benefits. To put that in perspective, 9.5 million households collected jobless benefits that year, at a cost of $43.7 billion. Letting millionaires (or, to be more precise, households where the combined income of all wage earners was $1 million or more) collect unemployment cost the Treasury $18.6 million, which is less than the production budget for A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. The Democrats also okayed the Republicans' suggestion that millionaires no longer be allowed to collect food stamps. The source of this concern is a guy named Leroy Fick who for some reason didn't feel like going off food stamps after he won $2 million in the Michigan lottery. Eliminating Fick from the food-stamp rolls could save hundreds and perhaps even thousands of dollars! Don't get me wrong--I am not opposed to kicking millionaires out of the food stamp program and denying them jobless benefits. But to do these things and say you're reining in runaway government spending is like swatting a mosquito and saying you just cured malaria.

Correction: This column originally ended with an erroneous reference to swatting a fly. Flies don't cause malaria; mosquitos do.

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