Why the tax bill really is a loser for Republicans

Great piece in Politico from Chris Federico that really works in some nice political science and psychology to make a strong case that this tax bill will be an electoral albatross for Republicans.  Basically, even if you get something, you will be resentful if somebody else got something more.  Pretty much anybody who has ever been a sibling or raised multiple children is very aware of the pervasive truth of this.

I especially love the experiments that show how deep in our evolutionary history goes.  Give one chimpanzee a cucumber (which they like) and all is good.  Give that chimp a cucumber while you give its neighbor m&m’s and you’ll get it thrown back at you.

As the vast majority of the American public seems to realize, we are getting cucumber slices while the richest are getting m&m’s.  Anyway, Federico:

But there may be another factor behind the lack of public support for the tax overhaul: the public’s perception that some people are more likely to cash in than others. Though the bill will offer most taxpayers some relief in the near term, analysts believe that the benefits to corporations and relatively wealthy taxpayers will be much greater—especially over the long haul. Importantly, the public seems to see this: Recent polling suggests that most people see the bill as a boon to the wealthy above all.

Still, even if the rich are likely to benefit the most from the new tax cuts, shouldn’t the promise of some tax relief generate at least some enthusiasm for the bill in the broader public? As it turns out, many years of research in both psychology and political science suggest not. For the most part, studies indicate that self-interest in the pocketbook sense matters a lot less than we assume: Citizens are not moved to political action by perceived shifts in how they are doing as isolated individuals. They can, however, be roused to political anger when they think others will end up doing better in comparison to people like them—that is, when they experience what social scientists refer to as “relative deprivation.” Thus, even the promise of a few more dollars in one’s wallet might be dissatisfying if other folks end up with thousands more.

Relative deprivation can produce an especially strong reaction when a policy seems to make one’s own group worse off compared with some other group of people. This group element seems to be present in people’s thinking about the GOP tax bill. Since most people tell pollsters that the wealthy and large corporations will benefit disproportionately from the tax rewrite, it’s quite likely that many citizens have concluded that this round of tax relief will benefit “them” (the wealthy and large corporations) more than “us” (average Americans).

Psychologists also find that relative deprivation can be especially powerful when it appears to violate some standard of fairness. So, if a citizen thinks that tax reform will benefit the wealthy more than the average person andthat the wealthy already fail to pay their fair share, her anger might be stronger.

Although citizens’ perceptions about what makes taxes “fair” are complex, polls suggest that most Americans do not believe that upper-income people and corporations pay enough in federal taxes.

So, it’s not just a matter of people seeing less withholding in their paychecks (as Paul Ryan unconvincingly argues will solve everything) it’s a matter of convincing average Americans that they are actually getting a fair shake from Republicans– and that’s a much heavier lift.  Of course, the biggest reason that’s so hard is because objective reality makes this pretty clear to everybody who is not hopelessly in a Fox News cocoon.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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