By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Finding a way out of our current political impasse requires some agreement on what problems we need to solve. If anything should unite left, center and right, it is the value of work and the idea, in Bill Clinton’s signature phrase, that those who “work hard and play by the rules” ought to be rewarded for their efforts.
This is why one of last week’s most important and least noted political events was the introduction of the 21st Century Worker Tax Cut Act by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray favors a minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour, but she also has other ideas that would help Americans at the bottom of the income structure to earn more.
Let’s start with principles, and then move to specifics.
There’s a new vogue among conservatives: to talk less about entrepreneurs and to stop talking altogether about “makers” and “takers.” Instead, many of the wisest heads on the right are urging a focus on work. The new emphasis reflects a realization that President Obama won in 2012 in large part because Mitt Romney and his party failed to convey empathy for those who live on wages and salaries.
An early champion of this view was Ramesh Ponnuru, a writer for National Review. “The Republican story about how societies prosper—not just the Romney story—dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations,” he wrote shortly after the election. It is, Ponnuru added, “an important story with which most people do not identify.”
Writing earlier this year in National Affairs magazine, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center was more biting. “Modern conservatives,” he argued, “have tended to discount the moral value of the average person, focusing instead on extolling the moral superiority of the great.”
Two other conservative thinkers, Reihan Salam and Rich Lowry, say the antidote is for Republicans to become “the party of work.” As they see it, work “stands for a constellation of values and, like education, is universally honored.” The GOP, they said, “should extol work and demand it.”
Yes, that last phrase—“demand it”—could lead to a darker kind of politics involving the demonization of those who simply can’t find jobs. Thus did Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., get into trouble for mourning “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working.”
No matter what Ryan was trying to say, he seemed to be emphasizing the flaws of the unemployed themselves rather than the cost of economic injustice. My Washington Post colleague Eugene Robinson captured this well: “Blaming poverty on the mysterious influence of ‘culture’ is a convenient excuse for doing nothing to address the problem.”
Nonetheless, many conservatives really do realize that they need to embrace hardworking Americans. But the question stands: What are they willing to do about it?
This is where Murray comes in. Her bill would rid the tax code of certain disincentives to work. She notes that “the second earner in a household often pays a higher tax rate on his or her earnings than the first.” Her plan would right this by offering a 20 percent deduction on the second earner’s income. For a $25,000-a-year second earner in the 25 percent bracket, she says, this would mean $1,250 “back in their pocket for groceries, child care, or retirement savings.”
She’d also expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers without children and lower the eligibility age from 25 to 21. The changes would increase their maximum benefit from $487 to about $1,400 a year. It’s hardly nirvana. But for someone earning around $15,000 a year, it’s real money. The proposal would cover its roughly $15 billion annual cost by closing loopholes already identified as worthy of being scrapped by the GOP’s leading tax reformer, Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan.
You can, of course, look at what Murray is doing as a way of calling the conservatives’ bluff on the matter of work. But that will be true only if the right allows its bluff to be called.
In making their case, Salam and Lowry quoted Abraham Lincoln on the need “to advance the condition of the honest, struggling laboring man.” If conservatives are serious about this (and about the honest, laboring woman, too) they’ll join Murray in raising the minimum wage and in seeking a tax code more in harmony with the dignity of work.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
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