Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Tani reviews Michelmore, "Tax and Spend"

Last December, guest blogger Felicia Kornbluh spotlighted (here) new research by historian Molly Michelmore (Washington and Lee University). That research has now been published, as Tax and Spend: Taxes and the Limits of American Liberalism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012). I liked the book a lot - so much that I made it the focus of my first JOTWELL review.

Here's the Press's description of the book:
Taxes dominate contemporary American politics. Yet while many rail against big government, few Americans are prepared to give up the benefits they receive from the state. In Tax and Spend, historian Molly C. Michelmore examines an unexpected source of this contradiction and shows why many Americans have come to hate government but continue to demand the security it provides.
Tracing the development of taxing and spending policy over the course of the twentieth century, Michelmore uncovers the origins of today's antitax and antigovernment politics in choices made by liberal state builders in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. By focusing on two key instruments of twentieth-century economic and social policy, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and the federal income tax, Tax and Spend explains the antitax logic that has guided liberal policy makers since the earliest days of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. Grounded in careful archival research, this book reveals that the liberal social compact forged during the New Deal, World War II, and the postwar years included not only generous social benefits for the middle class—including Social Security, Medicare, and a host of expensive but hidden state subsidies—but also a commitment to preserve low taxes for the majority of American taxpayers.
In a surprising twist on conventional political history, Michelmore's analysis links postwar liberalism directly to the rise of the Republican right in the last decades of the twentieth century. Liberals' decision to reconcile public demand for low taxes and generous social benefits by relying on hidden sources of revenues and invisible kinds of public subsidy, combined with their persistent defense of taxpayer rights and suspicion of "tax eaters" on the welfare rolls, not only fueled but helped create the contours of antistate politics at the core of the Reagan Revolution.
And here's the start of my JOTWELL review, titled "Not My Welfare State, or the Taxpayer's Lament":
Molly Michelmore’s new book could not be more timely. This summer the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s controversial individual mandate provision, through a majority opinion that links healthcare directly to the federal government’s tax power. Meanwhile, the lead-up to the presidential election has been riddled with references to tax burdens (and evasions), social welfare spending, and government “dependency.”
Historians and social scientists have much to add to this conversation, but little faith that they will be heard. A recurring theme in post-World War Two U.S. political history is how greatly the government has assisted working- and middle-class Americans (especially white men and their families) and how rarely those Americans have acknowledged that fact. This paradox persists today. Most Americans will rely at some point on a means-tested government support program, such as food stamps or Temporary Aid to Needy Families. Many more will accept Social Security benefits, tax credits, and other government subsidies. Yet these same Americans often resent the “welfare state.” In Michelmore’s words, “Americans hate government, but demand and expect, almost as a matter of right, the privileges, security, and mobility that government offers.” (p. 2-3) [Footnotes omitted]
Read on here.

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