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From the happy reports, you'd think that liberals had only to celebrate the tea party's recent Mississippi defeat. True, Sen. Thad Cochran's winning strategy - reaching out to Democrats, in particular African-Americans - made for an especially gratifying runoff victory. But there was something strange about blue-state progressives praising Cochran for his pork-collecting skills - noting that thanks to guys like him, Mississippi gets $3 back from Washington for every $1 it sends there in taxes.
I mean, where do they think that $2 differential comes from? It comes from them.
The states that voted for Obama in 2008 accounted for 72 percent of the country's economy. The blue states have the highest incomes and therefore pay the most taxes. In fiscal 2012, for example, Connecticut taxpayers sent more than $13,000 per capita to Washington (for a total of $47 billion). Mississippi taxpayers sent $3,500 per resident (totaling under $11 billion).
Liberals might like some of the federal spending Cochran campaigned on, such as aid for black colleges and food stamps. But they shouldn't care for other kinds, such as the corporate welfare for Mississippi's richest farmers. From 1995 to 2012, Washington subsidized Mississippi farms to the tune of $8.16 billion, according to the Environmental Working Group. Farm subsidies for Connecticut, with a larger population, totaled $141 million over the same period.
For all his railing against government spending, Cochran's opponent, Chris McDaniel, made no mention of this corporate welfare. Under the issue "agriculture," his website complained only of "job-killing regulations."
Though the tea party movement offends liberal sensibilities in many ways, not every item on its wish list would be bad for progressive America. Suppose, as McDaniel demanded, federal taxes were lowered, letting Americans "keep more of their hard-earned money."
States paying most of the federal taxes would be able to retain more of their wealth. They could redirect some of those savings toward things Washington underfunds, say, commuter rail. They could leave more money in the pockets of their own taxpayers to be spent in their communities. Importantly, wealthy progressive regions would have control. They could choose to continue helping poor Mississippi schools as a kind of foreign aid. But they could also decide not to send millions to multimillionaire cotton farmers.
To repeat, the federal income tax is a blue-state tax. It taxes income with no consideration of the fact that $80,000 goes a lot further in Tupelo than in Boston. The earners of that sum are treated as economic equals.
Why do conservative folks in the "taker" regions advocate lower taxes and less spending? There are two possible answers.
One is a fixation with the New York City welfare mother, sopping up tax dollars at their expense. Multigenerational reliance on government is a valid concern, but poverty programs are not where the big money is going. It is going to Medicare for retirees. It goes to a bloated defense budget, often serving more as a local jobs program than as a protector for the country.
Tea partyers who simplistically condemn government as the source of evil have the easier job. It certainly helps to ignore the money flowing their way. Blue-state liberals, meanwhile, should move the conversation away from general theories favoring active government and toward specifics of what they want government to be doing - or not.
Conservatives are right that the current federal tax regime is unfair. What most avoid saying is that the greatest unfairness is to the prosperous regions where most liberals live. Blue America should jump out of the old thought box and envision a country in which its states send less money to Washington. Then it could do more of what it wants.