Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

It's All About The Money, Honey

Host Michel Martin says that in her opinion, what Americans really don't know how to talk about is money, even though we talk about that all the time.

Host Michel Martin says that in her opinion, what Americans really don't know how to talk about is money, even though we talk about that all the time. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com

You know how so many people say we don't know how to talk about race in this country even though we seem to talk about it a lot? In my opinion, what we really don't know how to talk about is money, even though we talk about that all the time.

By money, I mean wealth and class. If if you need any proof of my point, just listen to the fierce argument in Washington right now over the debt, deficit and budget.

On the one hand, Republicans are saying that new taxes are off the table because anything that keeps companies or individuals from investing will doom whatever hopes for a recovery we have. That's fine as economic theory ... except for the fact that it ignores the role of markets in creating the current economic crisis. Anybody remember irrational exuberance? It also ignores the role of the government over time in picking the winners, upon whom — we are told — we must now depend for a solution to the crisis.

Democrats say they want more fairness. They say they especially want the wealthy to pay their fair share to support investments in things like education and green jobs that they say we need to get the economy moving again. That's fine as economic theory too ... except that it ignores the very large differences within the group they consider wealthy.

I know that the liberal media watchdog groups hate it when anybody suggests that people making a quarter of a million dollars a year aren't truly wealthy. But a column in Sunday's Washington Post makes the point nicely, that there is a very large difference between people who earn $250,000 a year and multimillionaires and billionaires who are, in fact, paying less of a percentage of their salaries in taxes than their secretaries.

That quarter of a million club could easily be two high school principals married to each other, a veteran cop married to a nurse who both work overtime. It could be a government lawyer living with a social worker, and they might be living high off the hog if they earned those salaries living in a small town, but guess what? They don't ... or they wouldn't earn that kind of money. They probably live in a big city or suburb where, if they have any hope of buying a home, saving for retirement and putting their kids through college (because they make too much to qualify for scholarships), then both of them have to work, and work hard, and watch every penny.

Can I just tell you? Members of that quarter-million-dollar club are more likely to be ethnic minorities, who are, whether they are Asian or black or Latino, are just as likely as not to be the first in their families to graduate from college. And they're just as likely as not to be giving financial support to less well-off parents, siblings or other extended family members ... in addition to raising their own nuclear families. In fact, they are people like Michelle and Barack Obama, who are indeed very successful and living the American dream, but who were, in Michelle's case, the first in their families to go to college and heavily in debt to pay for the educations that allowed them to grasp at that dream to begin with. At least they were until a certain someone wrote a best-selling book.

Yet, as the Washington Post article points out, the Obama administration's proposals to this point have done little to address the very real advantage of the really rich over the people who make nice salaries ... which is to say the preferential treatment of dividends and long-term capital gains. That's called money that you earn while you sleep, which is taxed at a rate that is less than half that charged against income that is earned.

Boo-hoo, right? You wish you had that problem?

But the real problem is that when nobody really tells the truth about money — what it really means, what it really buys, what they really want for themselves and their children, and what that really costs — then what you get are people talking in code and platitudes ... and everybody knows it but can't admit it.

Let's admit this: Americans' fear about the future is real. The fear that many people have that their children not only won't be able to do better than they have, but won't even be able to keep what they already have, is real. And refusing to talk about that, it seems to me, is part of how we got in this mess to begin with.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues