House Speaker Paul Ryan leaves the podium after a press conference on March 14, 2018.
In a well-known experiment involving capuchin monkeys, researchers set up a scenario in which some of the moneys were treated unfairly—getting mundane cucumber slices as a reward while another monkey received a delicious grape—and found that the unfairness caused a rebellion. "Monkeys refused to participate if they witnessed [another monkey] obtain a more attractive reward for equal effort," they wrote, "an effect amplified if the partner received such a reward without any effort at all."
Which is why Republicans are going to lose the 2018 midterm elections.
Well, that's not the only reason. But the thing that Republicans hoped would save them from a shattering defeat this November—their tax cut bill—is not going to have anything like the effect they hoped it would have in mitigating the losses they are likely to suffer. That's because fairness is such a powerful idea, for people as well as capuchin monkeys. Our primate cousins aren't the only ones driven to distraction by unfairness; an enormous number of studies have documented how people will turn down free money if they feel it isn't being distributed fairly.
Republicans seem to understand the power of fairness perfectly well, since they use arguments about it to target safety net programs, claiming that lazy moochers are suckling at the federal teat while hardworking folks like you have to fend for yourselves. But when they set out to design their tax cut, they seemed to forget how much ideas about fairness would determine how voters judged it.
Or perhaps they just cared much more about slashing the corporate rate and assembling a package of individual cuts that would primarily benefit the wealthy. But mindful that such a bill could run up against significant public opposition, they followed a model that had been used in the past: make sure just about everyone got some kind of tax cut, at least in the short term. It might not be much for many people, but how could they object if their paychecks got bigger, even if the fat cats got fatter? House Speaker Paul Ryan even celebrated a school secretary noting that she was getting an extra $1.50 a week.
But as time has passed, the universal affection for the tax bill they were counting on has failed to arrive. A recent CNBC poll found that only 32 percent of people said they have noticed a change in their take-home pay. There could be multiple reasons—health insurance premium increases eating up whatever tax cut they got, or the amounts just being too small to begin with when spread across 26 biweekly pay periods, for instance—but whatever the cause, Republicans hoped the number would have been far higher.
At this point, it's unlikely to change. People are already getting whatever tax cut they're going to get, and it's hard to imagine that six months from now many workers will say, "Wait a minute—I am getting more take-home pay! Thanks, Republicans!" Not only that, recent polling shows the tax bill to be a wash at best, with about the same number of people saying they approve of it as disapprove of it, with more usually in the latter camp.
Even if you do approve of it, are you going to rush to the polls to express your gratitude to President Trump and the Republican Congress? If you're getting another 20 bucks a week, it seems unlikely, especially if you know how much corporations and the wealthy got.
That isn't to say that the alternative to this bill wouldn't have been worse for the GOP. When it passed, they breathed a gigantic sigh of relief, knowing that despite the chaos of the Trump presidency and their lack of meaningful accomplishments in this period of one-party rule, at least they could go home to the voters and tell them that they got something done.
But it's hard to convince people that you just changed their lives for the better with a tax cut if they aren't seeing the rewards—and they know who is. According to a new report from the Tax Policy Center, people in the lowest income quintile will average a $40 tax cut from the law, or $1.54 per two-week pay period, just like Paul Ryan's lucky secretary. Those in the middle quintile will average $800, or about $30 per paycheck. And those in the top 1 percent? Their average cut is almost $33,000.
Which is about what everyone expects from a Republican tax plan. And when you play right into people's expectations, it doesn't take much to convince them that you have in fact done exactly what they expected you to.
That's not to mention the fact that if they were looking to win people's approval for a change to the tax system, they would have done exactly the opposite of what they did. For years, polls have consistently found that what bothered people the most isn't the amount they have to pay in taxes, even if everyone might like to pay less. The chief complaint voters have long had is that the corporations and the wealthy don't pay their fair share. So Republicans lowered taxes on corporations and the wealthy, making the system even less fair than it was before.
They were always going to face a fundamental problem in this year's elections: Especially in midterms, anger at politicians is a much stronger motivation than approval of what they've done with their time in power. But if they were going to pick one thing to run on, this tax bill shouldn't have been it. Of course, they did it because cutting taxes is the one thing they believe most fervently in, and no matter what else they failed to achieve, they were going to get that bill through. It may mean they lose their congressional majorities, though—and there's nothing unfair about that.