It’s no secret that we here at Meme Killer take great delight in debunking the farrago of Internet nonsense that is continuously regurgitated by dim-witted consumers of right-wing media outlets. But fighting back against inaccurate online information means being fair, and it means debunking crap whether the crap seeks to serve a progressive agenda or a reactionary one.
In fact, if you identify as a progressive/liberal/lefty/whatever, you should be even more invested in stamping out bad information from your side of the aisle—because arguments based on bad information are more easily defeated. Killing liberal memes strengthens the liberal cause—let’s call this Meme Killer: The personal trainer edition.
This one comes via “BitchyPundit,” and puts some numbers on a claim often associated with left-wing populism (although you find the occasional honest libertarian railing about this, too):
“The U.S. government channels money from average Americans to large, profitable corporations.”
The claim supports itself by approximating the tax bill of said average American ($50,000 is close to the median income in this country), then figuring out what percentage of it goes to various bits of the Federal budget. All straightforward and easily checkable stuff. And to the meme-generator’s credit, they cite their sources. Unless you’re concerned that whitehouse.gov is an unreliable source because jihadist taqiya government lies, www.whitehouse.gov/2012-taxreceipt is a great way to check out how your government spends your tax dollars. It’s not totally clear what numbers BitchyPundit used to get the results they did—as we’ve discussed on Meme Killer before, how much someone making $50,000 actually pays in taxes depends on a bunch of factors. But putting $1,000 dollars in the “Income” box—totally reasonable—will get you pretty close results.
Except for that last item–$4,000 in corporate subsidies.
And therein hangs the tale.
Since that extremely large sum of money—which, it should be noted, is four times more than the total amount that an average American pays in taxes–is the whole point of the meme, we need to take a closer look.
Before we go on, let’s have a quick terminology lesson: “accounting cost” is what you actually pay—real money going back and forth. You pay $50,000 for that bronze statue of the Fourth Doctor you always wanted; $50,000 is the accounting cost. “Opportunity cost” represents all the stuff you couldn’t buy because you spent the $50,000 on giant metal Tom Baker. For example, you could have invested it in a money-market account that gains 3% APR compounded monthly; over the course of a decade your opportunity cost is about $67,000 (http://www.calculator.net/interest-calculator.html) . Or, you could have spent it all on buying up loads of Powerball tickets, one of which was a winner, and your opportunity cost would be in the millions. As you can see, opportunity cost is a highly speculative construct that you can’t really calculate precisely.
So it turns out, in between the second-to-last line-item in the meme and the last, invisible and unannounced (and therefore dishonestly), there is a major shift in what figures are calculated, and how they are calculated. Everything but the last is calculated using that Whitehouse.gov calculator and are accounting costs—x dollars come in via tax receipts, and y percentage of it goes to fund various parts of the Federal government.
The $4,000 figure comes from the second source cited: an article on CommonDreams.org (which uses $6,000; BitchyPundit adjusted the numbers a bit for unclear reasons; so everything that follows has to be multiplied by 2/3rds).
This article isn’t wrong, exactly—but it is not about how tax dollars are spent.
Claim #1: $870 for Direct Subsidies and Grants to Companies
Let’s start with the $580 (remember, we’re multiplying everything by two-thirds) in “direct corporate subsidies.” That’s the closest this article comes to talking about account costs: the Federal government actually transferring money to large corporations. This includes farm subsidies—many of which do go to large corporations, but some go to what can reasonably be described as “small family farms”–as well as “research funds to high-tech companies.” But many of those companies are doing research and development for the U.S. military—so it’s already accounted for in the $247.75 the average American is spending on national defense. Fossil fuel subsidies—usually, and maybe rightly, cited as the most egregious example of corporate welfare—are about 10% of total subsidies—so 58 bucks.
Claim #2 ($696 for Business Incentives at the State, County, and City Levels) counts state and local subsidies to private enterprise. Not part of your federal tax dollars. Dismissed.
This brings to claims #3 and 4, assuming “$722 for Interest Rate Subsidies for Banks and $350 for Retirement Fund Bank Fees.
Here, we get into the unpleasant and complicated world of high finance, but the basic idea is this: Banks make loans using money from their depositors (this is, like, the definition of a bank). Because banks think they can be bailed out if they’re really big (our friend the “Too Big To Fail” concept), they have an incentive to borrow more than they would if they didn’t expect a bailout. This is costly to the customers of these banks, among other ways through the bank fees mentioned in Item 4. This is a fine example of the well-known phenomenon of “moral hazard,” and you can make a convincing case that it’s a horrible system. But the U.S. government doesn’t actually bail out banks on an annual basis; the last time it happened was during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. So this has nothing to do with how tax dollars are spent.
Claim #5 is about prescription drugs: “$1,268 for Overpriced Medications.” Prescription drugs, because they’re sold for profit, are patented; only the company that designed the drug can manufacture and sell it. (Just like you can’t sell copies of someone else’s photographs). Since the government grants patents (and has since 1789), and prescription drugs would probably cost less in the short term if they weren’t patented, the claim is that the government is making you pay more than you should for prescription drugs. Maybe so, but this has nothing to do with tax receipts.
As a nice change of pace, claims 6 and 7 have to do with tax receipts, but it’s a classic example of opportunity costs.
“$870 for Corporate Tax Subsidies… [and] $1,231 for Revenue Losses from Corporate Tax Havens[.]”
As is well known, very large corporations and very wealthy individuals, through sundry acts of accounting legerdemain, pay the U.S. Treasury very little. But the government has to spend money on all that good stuff like national defense and space robots with lasers on Mars, so the average American ends up footing the bill. The assumption here is that if corporations and offshore-account holders paid more, the tax burden on Americans could be lowered. The “lost revenue” is calculated, though, based on what one particular tax-fairness advocacy organization thinks corporations should pay; it’s a subjective, made-up number (a more centrist organization might come up with a lower number; a radical left-wing organization might argue that corporations should give up all of their profits to the state and come up with a vastly higher number).
You can argue all day long that the political, economic, and financial systems in the United States are wildly stacked in favor of corporations, and Meme Killer won’t gainsay you—that’s a matter of personal values and opinion. But don’t try to come up in Meme Killer’s house and switch mid-sentence, without telling anybody, from talking about how tax dollars are actually spent to how private industry profits from the patent system and what you think the corporate tax rate should be, because Meme Killer will call out your sneaky bullshit. Quit faking those push-ups, BitchyPundit, we can all see what you’re doing. It’s not going to make you any stronger.