The Crows had a drink with Tea Party types (although they preferred bourbon to Earl Grey) the other day in a Montana bar. They started with the supposedly standard stuff – if Obama isn’t actually a Muslim he is considering converting; the right to bear arms, like the Glock one kept in his car, is a fundamental of freedom; the confederate states had the right to secede in 1861; and productive Americans are taxed enough already, supporting wastrels on welfare.

But as they talked more these rugged individualists started to sound like special pleaders. Especially when one woman, whose husband had a breathing problem complained that the government (oh that such wickedness could be!) expected them to pay for his oxygen tank when they went overseas.

It explains a great deal about the Tea Party movement. It is less a push for small government and individual responsibility than an attempt to ensure older Americans, who are the beneficiaries of a generous welfare system, get to drink up at everybody else’s expense.

Gosh, what red haired Australian populist who briefly attracted a constituency among people whose prejudices were matched by their acute awareness of their own interests does this remind you of?

Lefties who do not understand that support for the free spending state is strong among conservatives who benefit from government largesse insist on arguing the Tea Party movement is a radical threat to welfare.

Thus Anne Summers warned us in April of the tea baggers hatred of government intervention in the economy. “The Tea Party is founded on mistrust of all politicians, resentment of all taxes, a hatred of the bailout of Wall Street and the car industry, total opposition to the healthcare bill and, especially, a loathing of Obama,” she wrote. [1]

And Senator Doug Cameron told the Senate on Wednesday that, “the Tea Party message to the Liberals is that government debt is bad, private debt is good and income tax cuts should simply be the answer to everything.[2]’’

They both read the rhetoric right, but what tea bag types thunder and what they actually want are very different things.

Certainly the Republican social conservatives who speak for the Tea Partiers scream selectively for a smaller government and rightly rail about public debt, but their audience assumes the message does not apply to them. More than opposing whoever is president (they liked Bush about as much as Obama, and Clinton absolutely appalled them), justifying their private armories and whistling Dixie, the Tea Party is about ensuring those who enjoy government support, be it through the welfare or tax system, hang on to it and stick younger people with the bills.

The Economist estimates the movement’s biggest base is among people 65 plus with $100,000 plus incomes.[3] According to a New York Times poll, Tea Party people tend to be over 45 and, most important, convinced that the Obama administration is not spending money on the right sort of people – them

Not that they are doing it tough. Hospital care is free for people over 65 and medical insurance is state subsidised so the maximum old people pay is $100 or so a month. There is also a program that pays for their drugs.[4]

And they also receive social security, which accounts for nearly 5 per cent of GDP and which is projected to go into deficit by the middle of the decade.[5]

Which explains the NYT’s take on the Tea Partiers, “despite their push for smaller government, they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers (but) the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.” [6]

As Wendy Kaminer explains, Tea Partiers approve of the status quo and fear attempts to redirect public sector spending away from them:

A primary Tea Party complaint about the government is that “it favours them over us”. To Tea Party supporters of social security and Medicare, “socialism” apparently means the extension of government benefits to other people, especially poor people who need them most: 73 per cent believe that extending benefits to poor people helps them remain poor. [7]

Not, you understand, that this is unfair, it is all about individual rights, with the right to welfare for the, ahem, right people up there with the right to bear arms and the right to explain that while you are not a bigot a Muslim president (which appears to be a sophist’s synonym for negro) is un-American.

But while the Tea Partiers the Crows talked to in the Raven (fair dinkum) bar and grill argued  like people shooting the breeze in a, well, bar, the movement has a clear sense of its own interest and will likely abandon ideology for self interest by the next presidential poll.

As The Economist warns, whatever happens in the mid-term elections next month, by the 2012 election all but radical Republicans may regret adopting the Tea Party platform, “although Americans say they hate big government, they are also quick to defend their entitlements”.[8]

Michael Kinsley knows what Tea Party types could do if they were really worried about out of control public spending, they could embrace inheritance taxes to compensate for the social security they collect through longer and more affluent old age. The average American household (couple) aged 65 to 74 has more than US$1 million in assets which, split, puts them below the estate tax threshold:

For years, this couple has been collecting benefits from Social Security … But if a couple dies leaving half a million dollars, the risk they were insuring against – poverty in old age – evidently didn’t materialise. The money they received from Social Security, aimed at covering that risk, is instead passed along to their Boomer children. [9]

There is about as much chance of this occurring as the bloke in the bar giving up his Glock. When Michael Graetz made the case for taxing the unearned income the super-rich acquire through inheritances in the Wall Street Journal last month he was howled done.[10]

People worked hard and should be allowed to pass on their money, some said. The socialists in Washington would only waste it, others argued. But, among all the self-righteous ranting, no one mentioned how to pay for the nation’s ever-expanding health and social security spending, or proposed a trade off between lower taxes in return for much more means testing of age based welfare spending.

Understandably so, the Tea Party has much more to do with self-interest than economics, with a big spending state that entrenches the affluence of the old and ensures they are able to pass their cash on to the kids.

The Crows could have suggested some of this to their tea party pals in the bar but decided asking whether they had always supported the idea of the big selective spending state was not wise – given they had Glocks.


[1] Anne Summers, “Tea stands for trouble as unity goes to pot”, Sydney Morning Herald, April 17

[2] Senate Hansard, September 29 2010, 100

[3] “Welcome to the tea party”, The Economist, September 15

[4] Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “What is Medicare?” @ recovered on September 30

[5] Social Security and Medicare Board of Trustees, Status of the Social Security and Medicare Programs: A summary of the 2010 annual reports, (Social Security Online, 2010) @

[6] Kate Zernike and Megan Thee-Brenan, “Poll finds tea party backers wealthier and more educated” New York Times, April 14 2010

[7] Wendy Kaminer, “The Tea Party: phoney freedom fighters”, Spiked OnLine, April 15 @ recovered on September 25

[8] “The risks of ‘Hell No!’ ” The Economist, June 12

[9] Michael Kinsley, “The least we can do,” The Atlantic, October 2010

[10] Michael J Graetz, “It’s fair and we need the revenue,” The Wall Street Journal, September 20