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Commentary: Self interest doesn't dictate voting patterns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 13, 2011 - In writing about human decision making, New York Times columnist David Brooks notes studies that demonstrate that people at times can be rational decision makers but are also influenced by emotion, memory and history. On a recent Hardball, Chris Matthews remarked that his father didn't vote his interests. A working man, he was a Republican. Some economists would purport that people choose who to vote for based on rational calculations of self-interest. Clearly, Matthews believed his father was an example to the contrary.

Although slightly more than 50 percent of Americans favor a tax on the most wealthy, Republicans in Congress refuse to consider it. Even though studies show that the wealthy control a larger share of the wealth than they did several decades ago and a larger share than in other democratic nations, the Republicans view the rich as untouchable as they repeat their mantra of no new taxes.

While members of Congress are usually among the clearly better off, what of those who cast ballots for Republicans in their 2010 triumph? Most, by definition are not part of the top 1 or top 10 percent. Perhaps emotionally they identify with affluence or hope, against the odds, to achieve it some day. Americans have had a peculiar love affair with wealth. Nineteenth century moguls such as Carnegie or Vanderbilt were often admired. In recent times, people have looked up to Jobs or Gates.

A central American belief is that anyone who works hard and has a little luck can make it here. And making it is defined as accumulating money. Those at the lower end would like to be at the higher end and perhaps feel they have a shot. Hence, there should be no new taxes for anyone.

Our much vaunted mobility, however, has become much more rare. Studies in the 1980s found that short steps were much more common than big leaps and that the circumstances in which you were brought up play a significant role in determining where you end up.

No new taxes? No one loves new taxes but this idee fixe has helped to stifle economic recovery and initiatives to deal with a huge national debt. Taxes are not to be raised on supposed job creators, but they are sitting on considerable cash, not spending on jobs.

No new taxes plays to emotion. It also plays to the clear majority who distrust government and who are coming to blame the public sector for our economic cataclysm. "Get rid of regulation and we will rebound."

"No regulation, no new taxes." Those slogans are easier to comprehend than understanding that financiers made shaky investments when regulation had been removed.

Oddly, some Republican leaders are now voicing opposition to a tax cut. The reduced rate is in the payroll tax for Social Security, affecting up to the first $110,100 of income. Since Jan. 1 of this year, the cut has put an average of $1,000 in earners' paychecks. But some Republican critics say this cut should not be renewed because it is part of Social Security and has done nothing for job creation. Some studies refute this.

You may note that this tax cut affects the wealthiest the least. Those who earn $1 million a year in salary do not pay this tax on almost $900,000 of salary or wages. Those in the great middle, earning let's say $80,000 in salary or wages, pay the tax on the whole amount.

As we look toward November 2012, we should remember that economic self-interest clearly does not call the shots, particularly among the 99 percent.

Lana Stein is a professor emerita of public policy at the University of Missouri St. Louis. Among her writings is a textbook chapter on sexual harassment.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.

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