Not enough people pay income tax? What about Boeing?

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SEATTLE — So Mitt Romney thinks if you don’t pay income taxes, then you’re a handout-addicted moocher who can’t take responsibility for bettering yourself.

Harsh. That’s mean to say such a thing about Boeing.

Wait ... Boeing? That wasn’t who Romney was talking about in his closed-door riff about how the freeloading 47 percent are dragging down this otherwise hardworking, Republican nation.

Yet it remains peskily true that in any accounting of who pays zilch to the federal enterprise, our aerospace superstar is at the top of a long list. In 2011, Boeing had no net income-tax liability for the fourth year in a row, despite $5.1 billion in profits.

I bring this up because Romney, in his foolish slighting of nearly half a nation he’s trying to woo, blundered into one of my own hobbyhorses. Namely, that not enough people in this country pay income taxes.

And by “people,” I graciously include our newest citizens, the corporations.

Last year, I did a series of columns about who doesn’t pay income taxes, and why this hurts both democracy and the federal balance sheet. The zero club included Boeing all the way down to a Seattle ship worker making five figures who revealed his income taxes somehow went below zero — meaning the government was paying him to live here.

“How on earth can a country operate this way?” the ship worker wondered, sensibly.

What’s so off-putting about Romney’s take on this is whom he blames: You. Well, about half of you. The 47 percent who pay no income taxes “believe they are victims,” he said, and so have become wards of the state.

“I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he said.

Now clearly he’s talking about a lot more than taxes here. His comments were a grab bag of right-wing gripes about how the other half is soft and on the dole.

But the sharp dividing line between who is a maker and who is a taker appears to be if you paid income taxes (that’s where the 47 percent figure comes from — it’s the count of how many Americans have no net income-tax liability.)

One conservative movement last year took up this cry by saying, “We are the 53 percent.” Meaning, we are the producers in this land of slackers.

But these formulations are bogus. Obviously, Boeing is no deadbeat — the company is a jobs factory right now and pumps $1 billion a week into the economy. That ship worker was no layabout either. The reason he had less than zero tax liability is because he supported two kids, as well his wife who was in college — both of which made him eligible for big tax credits.

The point being: It’s not really our fault we no longer pay, Mitt. It’s your party’s fault. And a reckless Congress. They are the ones that keep slashing taxes, and larding up the tax code with so many special-interest loopholes, that tens of millions of people, and thousands of corporations, have fallen off the income-tax rolls in the past decade.

Most people pay plenty of other taxes, including payroll taxes. But this debate is about the general income tax, which is crucial to whether the nation can pay its bills.

It makes no sense that a candidate who wants to cut income taxes even further would be aggrieved by people not paying. Wasn’t that the goal?

On the flip side, if the point is that most everyone should have some skin in the game, then there’s only one thing to be done about that: Raise taxes! On Boeing and the ship worker and many in between.

No, there’s so little internal logic to the attack on the 47 percent that I can’t help but think it’s shorthand for something else: demonizing government. Those people (whose taxes we cut) no longer even pay into this crazy system. The ingrates. Nothing left to do but slash the system.

Someone once called this starving the government so you can drown it in the bathtub.

Amazing that such a fringe view now has become the platform, unofficially and behind closed doors anyway, of one of our two major political parties.

Danny Westneat’s email is dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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