No, that actually is not what the column asked. The question was instead whether people on TANF or food stamps should be able to buy steak or spend their money in other ways that politicians consider lavish.

It seems that if we think the government has a right to dictate people's spending habits based on giving them $1,600 a year in food stamps (the average benefit per recipient), there should also be a case for dictating their spending habits if we give them thousands of times as much in tax breaks, as would be the case with the fund managers' tax break.

For those not familiar with it, the fund managers' tax break (also known as the carried interest tax deduction) allows managers of hedge funds and private equity funds, as well as other types of investment funds, to pay the lower capital gains tax rate instead of the tax rate on ordinary income. In order to get this lower tax rate they have to be paid on a commission, like a car salesperson or a realtor. While other workers who get paid in part on commission still have to pay the same tax rate on their income, because of their enormous political power fund managers like Mitt Romney were able to get Congress to give them a special lower tax rate.

The gains to these fund managers can be enormous; it is not uncommon for successful managers like Romney to pocket $10 million a year. With a tax rate on normal income of 39.6 percent and a capital gains tax rate of 20 percent, this implies a government handout of $1,960,000 a year (@1230 years of food stamps). Some of the most successful fund managers pocket over $100 million a year, which implies a handout of more than $19,600,000 a year (@12,300 years of food stamps). If the government wants to tell people who get food stamps how they should spend their money, it certainly seems reasonable to tell people who can get thousands of times as much through tax breaks how they should spend their money.

For those who have trouble understanding that a tax break is the same as a welfare-type benefit, imagine that we lived in a condo and every unit was required to pay $500 a month to cover the cost of electricity, heating, maintenance, and other normal expenses. If the condo association decided that the people living in one unit did not have to pay their fees, that would be the same as handing them $500 a month, or at least it would be in the land where the laws of arithmetic apply. Of course we have a serious problem of climate change deniers in American political life, why shouldn't we also have a problem of arithmetic deniers?

Note: typos and calculations corrected, thanks to Robert Salzberg. The calculations in this post ignore the 3.8 percent investor tax from the Affordable Care Act that would be imposed on most capital gains income, as well as the 0.9 percentage point tax that would be applied to most wage earnings of high income individuals. Together these taxes would lower the gap between the tax rate on ordinary income and capital gains income by 2.9 percentage points.