The rich don't control Washington

Contrary to popular wisdom, the rich don't control Washington. The poor and the middle-class do.

This will surprise most Americans. We've been conditioned to believe that Washington is a den of corruption, overrun by well-paid lobbyists, and lawyers who manipulate government policies to favor the rich and corporate interests. Ordinary Americans don't stand a chance against this juggernaut.

But look at what the government actually does, and a completely different picture emerges.

Ron Haskins, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, recently presented some fascinating figures on government spending. From 1980 to 2011, yearly outlays for the 10 largest programs for the poor went from $126 billion to $626 billion in inflation adjusted dollars.

Then there are the programs aimed primarily at the middle-class. The biggest, of course, are Social Security and Medicare. Put together, all these programs accounted for almost 60 percent of total federal spending in 2011.

Meanwhile, what about the rich and well-to-do? Well, they're paying for almost all of that spending. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the richest fifth of Americans pay nearly 70 percent of all federal taxes.

The point is not that the rich are victims. Their lawyers and lobbyists often do secure beneficial tax breaks, subsidies and regulatory preferences. But focusing mainly on these victories distorts our picture of government.

Our problem is not that the rich have taken over government. Our problem is that politicians, on the left and right, are doling out money to everyone -- particularly the poor and middle-class. That's why our budget deficits are so huge and so intractable.

About the author

Robert Samuelson is a columnist for the Washington Post and the author of "The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence."
Log in to post69 Comments


Does Samuelson not know about the war budget for Iraq and Afghanistan? Was it's omission inadvertant or purposeful?
In 2011, 31% of our taxes underwrote the military budget. I suppose those with oil interests for whom these wars are waged, those companies that are "PEOPLE," are not rich?! What was it we spent for education? 6%.. and health and humanl service programs ? 7% If you include the Department of Defense,War, Department of Veteran's Affairs and Nuclear Weapons we spent 60% of our tax dollars last year. Samuelson quotes Haskins from the Brookings Institute without acknowledging its strong bias toward the rich and the Republicans. If you want to be credible, BE HONEST and don't quote things meant to be propaganda from the Brookings Institute.
If the poor have so much influence, how is it the policies do not encourage fairer policies for them like lower vs higher interest rates for student loans? Why are Federally subsidized banks making people homeless with foreclosure actions? Why are banks denying applications for mortgages left and right for those who are not wealthy? Get REAL -This commentary was badly skewed.

Agree with K, but she (he?) is nicer than I am. I think that this commentary, allowed to go unchallenged on the air, betrays sloppy journalism. Isn't that something you're trying to change with, let's say "responsible and balanced" opinions? It doesn't work to wait a day for a related but not expressly stated opposite OPINION. It's time to fact check everything, guys, or all J schools will turn into Media departments ala CU Boulder.

Dr. Leigh Kennicott, Ph.D.
CU, Boulder 2002.

Check the XL tax tables on www.irs.gov You'll find that Mr. Samuelson's facts are indeed correct.

I was pleased to see that others noted the same problem with this piece. The confounding of "taxes" and "social security and medicare" was deceitful. I was terribly disappointed that Marketplace did not vet this piece a little more carefully. Yes, it's "opinion" but I that's no excuse to give air time to such ridiculous distortions of the numbers. This kind of "lying with statistics" is why so many people don't understand what's really going. You've had so many excellent pieces on the economy...things that help increase our understanding. Please look for someone more honest (or maybe simply someone intelligent enough to make an honest argument) for your future opinion pieces.

There were no lies here. Check Obama's web site www.irs.gov. The top one percent pay MORE tax revenue than the bottom 95% combined. Their average tax rate is 27%. Nearly 47% of US households pay no (that's zero) federal income tax. The US has a highly progressive tax structure which is another word for wealth redistribution

I can only assume Marketplace is trying to make the point that the wealthy do in fact control all media outlets.

-the top fifth can generate 70% of tax revenue? Game over they win.

Interesting responses. If paying the most taxes gives control to the wealthy, then the successful people who support this country do control Washington. If however, the people who take most of the money out of the system and put the least in, gives control, then the middle class and poor control do control the government. And since the majority of the people in the country take out more than they put in, and they control, the vote Mr. Samuelson is right!
Also, since when is Marketplace supposed to speak only for the left wing liberals who will surely cause the USA to beome an extension of western Europe! It is alright to have people of different persuasions express their beliefs on NPR.

Robert Samuelson tried to convince us its the poor and the middle class that controls Washington. He does so by claiming that programs like Social Security and Medicare account for almost 60 percent of total federal spending while the besieged rich pays for almost all of the spending. This is the anti-tax rhetoric that always includes Social Security and Medicare when talking about federal expenditures but ignores who actually pays for these programs.

This middle class person paid 18% last year in federal income taxes last year on an income of $100,000. An average middle-class employee also had 15.3% deducted from his or her pay for Social Security and Medicare if you combine the employee and employer share or if the person is self employed. That's a total of over 33% in federal taxes.

Now let looks at what Mitt Romney paid. He earned $21.7 million in 2010 — virtually all of it profits, dividends or interest from investments. Romney paid about $3 million to the IRS, for an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent. Since none of Romney income came from wages, he probably paid nothing in Social Security or Medicaid taxes.

Don't forget that the investments in which Mr. Romney paid a personal tax rate of 13.9% were already taxed 35% at the corporate level. You see, as a shareholder of a company, you are a fractional owner of that entity. Since corporations are owned by people, when you tax corporations, you tax people. If you add back in Mr. Romney's corporate taxes, you'd see that his tax rates would top out at nearly 45%. The taxes we contribute to the government are not as simple as the checks we write to the IRS on April 15th.


With Generous Support From...