American privilege comes with a cost — but is it too high?

The Takeaway

Earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner made what some have called an outrageous claim about the roles of American citizens and their government.

Yet it was exactly what some Americans have been waiting to hear.

Sitting down with CNBC, Geithner explained how the Obama Administration saw a way to correct the nation’s fiscal problems.

“If you don’t try to generate more revenues through tax reform, if you don’t ask, you know, the most fortunate Americans to bear a slightly larger burden of the privilege of being an American, then you have to — the only way to achieve fiscal sustainability is through unacceptably deep cuts in benefits for middle class seniors, or unacceptably deep cuts in national security,” he said.

Is there a high cost to being an American?

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, agreed that being an American is an incredible privilege, but disagreed about the cost of this privilege.

“Being able to take advantage of simple things that my fellow citizens don’t even appreciate (is a privilege),” she said. “For example, getting in a big car, having a hot, high-pressure shower, being able to drive to the grocery store, buy a week’s worth of groceries, and put them in a large American refrigerator. These sound normal, but are really, for the most part, mostly Americans who can enjoy these simple pleasures.”

But many would believe Americans have privilege simply by virtue of their nationality, and that there is a responsibility to give back to others in exchange.

Geithner said that means paying taxes.

According to Roth, the top one percent of income earners already pay 38 percent of the federal individual income tax, and the top 50 percent of income earners pay about 97 percent of the individual income tax. She said raising taxes on the wealthy would not be beneficial.

“Already, upper earners pay in a higher proportion, and Tim Geithner is calling for increasing income taxes still further. That would reduce growth, especially for small businesses. The upper income earners are already paying more for the privilege of being an American,” she said.

University of Pennsylvania Political Science Professor Rogers Smith said he also feels fortunate to be American, and believes progressive income taxes are necessary.

“All Americans are fortunate that they have a privilege of being part of a society that provides greater resources and opportunities than can be found in most other parts of the world. But they are not equally distributed,” he said. “Some of us are vastly more fortunate than others, and it is a long-standing American tradition that those of us who are more fortunate have a greater obligation to bear the burdens of maintaining and improving the society. That’s why we’ve always had progressive income taxes.”

The feeling of American privilege is not inclusive of all Americans. The impoverished, homeless, jobless, and those who don’t have great educational and economic resources or opportunities, often do not feel the same way more wealthy Americans do.

A large amount of wealth in the U.S. is focused on a very small percentage. Tax reform could potentially spread that wealth a little more equally.

Roth does not believe tax reform is the issue, though the proportion that high-income earners are taxed in relation to their income is not equal to the proportion paid by those with lesser incomes.

“In general, the proportion of tax paid does go up as you earn more,” she said. “The difference is taxes on capital, where they’re 15 percent rather than the top rate of 35 percent. That’s because this income from capital gains and dividends has already been taxed once at the corporate level before it goes to the individual level. So, yes, the wealthy are paying their fair share.”

Roth pointed to the increased interest in immigration by foreigners as an indicator of the privileged status of Americans.

“Many, many immigrants wait years to come to the United States, so they obviously see that when they come here, it will be a step up from where they have been before,” Roth said.

She suggested education is the real problem in terms of creating economic equality.

“One thing we really need to do is correct and improve our educational system, so that people in the poorest neighborhoods are not stuck in the poor schools, but have opportunities to get a good education and a good job, and rise in income,” she said. “We really need to improve our educational system for the lowest income people stuck in these poor inner-city schools.”

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