Our America: Slow-Motion Manslaughter

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Michael Thurston


(photo from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

They don’t seem to care about truth in anything else, but Republican legislators should consider a forthright and honest name for their “tax reform package.” Senators passed their enormous tax cut for corporations and the wealthy in the wee hours of a Friday night, after House Republicans passed a similar bill two weeks before. This morning, the conference committee working to reconcile these monstrosities will release a bill that will almost certainly become law before Christmas, ushering in the Dickensian misery nostalgically recreated in various versions of A Christmas Carol. Bring on the Tiny Tims.

We will hear the law called something Orwellian like the “Prosperity for All and Job Creation Act,” just as we have heard the reasonable levy on inherited wealth over $3 million called a “Death Tax”; nonetheless, those of us still committed to truth, honesty, and fact-based reality should insist on something more accurate.

We could go with the “Making Middle-Class Americans Pay So the Obscenely Rich Can Be Obscenely Richer Act,” but that emphasizes the effect on the infinitesimally small number who will benefit (at almost infinite levels) from the act, rather than the vast majority who will suffer because of it.

How about the “Government Destruction and Slow-Motion Manslaughter Act”?

Let’s take those two phrases one at a time. The tax cuts agreed upon in both House and Senate versions of the bill will reduce revenues going to federal government coffers and will increase the federal budget by between 1 and 1.5 trillion dollars over ten years. Predictably, Republican “deficit hawks” (the very ones who are voting for this tax cut in full and shrugging awareness of its impact on the deficit) will at that point argue that these new deficits (that they created) make it imperative to cut government spending. Which government spending? History suggests that it won’t be defense. No, the spending that needs to be cut will be spending on “entitlements” such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

How do we know this? Because this is the roadmap that Republicans have followed for the last thirty years: cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, produce deficits, decry deficits, cut domestic spending (i.e. social safety net programs). We saw this under Reagan in the 1980s, we saw this under G. W. Bush in the 2000s. How else do we know that this is the roadmap? Because Republicans have been explicit about it. Remember anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist’s crack about wanting to shrink the government to the point where it can be drowned in the bathtub? The tax cuts for billionaires and corporations are part of a long-term strategy Republicans have pursued in their efforts to reduce the New Deal and Great Society programs that have ameliorated the misery of the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and others.

So much for “Government Destruction.” But “Manslaughter”?

Taxes for those who currently make under $75,000 will, in many cases, rise when the current bills become law. So many of those least able to pay more will be required to pay more while billionaires will pass along fortunes to their heirs without paying a dime. (Remember, even those middle-income earners who do see a modest cut in the short-term will see their taxes rise again in 2025, while the cuts for corporations and cuts in inheritance taxes are permanent.)

And the drop in revenue and corresponding blossoming deficit will lead to cuts in safety-net programs, programs that help the very populations who will be paying more in taxes that they can’t afford to pay. What happens when safety net programs are cut? Life expectancy among populations no longer served by those programs drops. Which is to say that more people die sooner than they would otherwise have died.

Program cuts kill people—it’s as simple as that. Tax cuts that lead to program cuts kill people. If we thought that this result was intended, we might be tempted to call the bill the “Murder the Poor” bill, but let’s give the Republicans the benefit of the doubt. In law, acts that lead to the deaths of individuals not by intention but as reasonably predictable outcomes are considered manslaughter. Cutting taxes to cut revenues to cut safety-net programs in a long-term strategy of anti-government zeal has the predictable outcome of impoverishing, sickening, and killing people. If you want to see what the effects look like, augment your Dickens with Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Bring it closer to home with Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives. There is nothing cute or quaint about poverty and its attendant suffering, the certain result of the “reform” about to be delivered just in time for Christmas. Poverty means suffering, sickness, and unnecessarily early and miserable death.

We should call this execrable legislation, supported by the alleged moderates and mavericks among the Republicans, what it is: slow-motion manslaughter.


Michael Thurston is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.