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‘Patriotic Millionaires’ challenge Tea Party’s ‘war on the weak’

It’s tax time 2011, which means it’s the second anniversary of the Tea Party. It’s also nearly a week after the first great Washington budget battle of the Tea Party-era in what’s sure to be a series of similar battles pitting the Republican-controlled House against the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Obama. Indeed, as many of its critics have noted, the controversial GOP budget plan written by Wisconsin Tea Party-Rep. Paul Ryan for the next fiscal year would turbo-charge the trend in U.S. politics of attacking the poor, ignoring the middle class and rewarding the rich. Against that backdrop, Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, a group of dozens of extremely wealthy Americans, is backing the Democrats and calling on lawmakers to end the Republican tax-cuts-for-millionaires experiment in federal government “fiscal discipline.”

The group members say that the relatively small amounts of money they would be asked to pay to the government in a system that established more equitable tax rates would be a boon to the country– a much greater and direct benefit than any supposed “trickle down” that comes of their keeping the tax money.

“These patriotic millionaires are willing to put duty to the country first. They hope the president and the leaders in the House and Senate will do the same thing,” said Erica Payne, founder of the Agenda Project, which is behind the millionaires campaign.

The group sent a letter this week to the President, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner.

We are writing to urge you to put our country ahead of politics.

For the fiscal health of our nation and the well-being of our fellow citizens, we ask that you increase taxes on incomes over $1,000,000.

We make this request as loyal citizens who now or in the past earned incomes of $1,000,000 per year or more.

Our country faces a choice – we can pay our debts and build for the future, or we can shirk our financial responsibilities and cripple our nation’s potential.

Our country has been good to us. It provided a foundation on which we could succeed. Now, we want to do our part to keep that foundation strong so that others can succeed as we have.

Please do the right thing for our country. Raise our taxes.

Members of the group include hedge funder Michael Steinhardt, high-profile trial lawyer Guy Saperstein, Ben & Jerry’s Ben Cohen, Bourne Identity Director Doug Liman, actress Edie Falco, the founder of Esprit, the founder of Ask.com, the founder of the Princeton Review, and more.

The group has gained attention in part (as millionaire novelist Stephen King did earlier this year) because it points to what many see as the class war that has been raging for decades in U.S. politics, where Wall Street has dominated Washington policy-making, where Depression-era “New Deal” anti-poverty programs have been devalued and where a post-war economic philosophy that centered on strengthening the middle class has given way to a free-market ideology that mainly benefits major corporations, creating the widest income disparities in modern U.S. history.

In a piece for Newsweek on the Tea Party movement and the Ryan budget plan, Senior Editor of the New Republic Jonathan Chait says Ryan’s plan represents a sort of culmination of the “war on the weak” in U.S. politics. Outside of the context of that war, it’s hard to make sense of the plan. Chait, like many other analysts, points out that the plan would expand not contract the deficit because the spending cuts proposed would come with even larger tax cuts for corporations and millionaires.

[T]he two streams—the furious Tea Party rebels and Ryan the earnest budget geek—both spring from the same source. And it is to that source that you must look if you want to understand what Ryan is really after, and what makes these activists so angry.

The Tea Party began early in 2009 after an improvised rant by Rick Santelli, a CNBC commentator who called for an uprising to protest the Obama administration’s subsidizing the “losers’ mortgages.” Video of his diatribe rocketed around the country, and protesters quickly adopted both his call for a tea party and his general abhorrence of government that took from the virtuous and the successful and gave to the poor, the uninsured, the bankrupt—in short, the losers. It sounded harsh, Santelli quickly conceded, but “at the end of the day I’m an Ayn Rander”…

Ryan’s plan does do two things in immediate and specific ways: hurt the poor and help the rich. After extending the Bush tax cuts, he would cut the top rate for individuals and corporations from 35 percent to 25 percent. Then Ryan slashes Medicaid, Pell Grants, food stamps, and low-income housing. These programs to help the poor, which constitute approximately 21 percent of the federal budget, absorb two thirds of Ryan’s cuts…

The class tinge of Ryan’s Path to Prosperity is striking. The poorest Americans would suffer immediate, explicit budget cuts. Middle-class Americans would face distant, uncertain reductions in benefits. And the richest Americans would enjoy an immediate windfall. Santelli, in his original rant, demanded that we “reward people [who can] carry the water instead of drink the water.” Ryan won’t say so, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Chait says the economic philosophy espoused by Tea Party icon Ayn Rand in her mid-century novels is an inverted Marxism: In her thinking, capitalists produce all of society’s wealth and workers are parasites.

President Obama has been labeled on the right as a socialist since he took office, even though he is no socialist and has never called himself one. Paul Ryan, though, is an unabashed “Randist,” and his “Path to Prosperity” should be viewed as a Randist utopian tract, not as a workable U.S. budget.

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