Support Marketplace

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."

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...