The Craig T. Nelson problem

A couple of years ago, actor Craig T. Nelson appeared on Glenn Beck’s Fox News program to rail against taxes, government, and the lack of fiscal responsibility in society. As the actor argued at the time, he was thinking about no longer paying taxes because he disapproved of public funds rescuing those struggling.

“They’re not going to bail me out,” Nelson said. “I’ve been on food stamps and welfare. Anybody help me out? No. No.”

It was an epic rant, in large part because the actor didn’t seem to recognize the flaw in his observation. Taxpayers helped him out by paying for his food stamps and welfare, but in Nelson’s mind, no one helped him out. As far as he’s concerned, food stamps and welfare just don’t count.

I thought about Nelson’s comments this week after reading Suzanne Mettler’s new piece in the print edition of the Washington Monthly, which explained, among other things, that Americans who rely on government assistance generally don’t realize they’re relying on government assistance.

This chart drove the point home nicely:

As Matt Yglesias noted the other day, “Basically when you create government programs to subsidize certain activities via the offer of tax credits or tax deductions, people don’t mentally process that as a “government program.” Thus one can speculate that such people would be hostile to the idea of higher tax rates as a way to fund useful government programs, even both tax subsidies and appropriated subsidies require higher tax rates over the long term.”