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Character Test: Who Should Pay to Reduce the Deficit?

Americans rightly scoffed at Congressman John Flemming (R-FL) when he complained about only bringing home a net profit of $400,000 from his business. Never mind that Flemming is also paid $174,000 as a member of Congress. The more important point is that the Florida representative belongs to a growing sympathy brigade for Americans making over $250,000 annually -- swearing that these high earners can't spare a dime to address the nation's fiscal crisis. Besides their flawed arguments about economic growth and fairness, fair weather patriots like Flemming want to convince us that quarter-millionaires are struggling just like everyone else.

Time for a primer on the American income inequality.

An individual earning $250,000 annually would be making more than five times the median household income, which was $49,445 in 2010. He would be earning almost seven times more than 50 percent of women who work full time. And he would belong to a tiny sliver of the population -- just 1.5 percent of households -- whose income exceeds $250,000 a year. In other words, his standard of living would be better than decent.

And it would be better than decent even in America's most expensive cities and states. The median household incomes in Manhattan and San Francisco are roughly the same, around $65,000. The wealthiest states, Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut, all boast median household incomes nearing $70,000. That's still less than one-third of the income earned by the quarter-millionaires.

Affluent Americans with low six figure incomes love to complain about their struggle to make ends meet in expensive areas. Strangely, though, they seldom stop to consider how the rest of the country, the other 94 percent, lives on far less -- or why these folks are even less able to pick up the tab for reducing the deficit.

A June 2011 Gallup poll revealed that many Americans are worried about not having enough money for retirement, being unable to pay medical costs, normal household costs, or their children's education. Even if the rich are feeling similarly, the reality is that they have many more resources to weather this storm.

It will take a wise combination of spending cuts and revenue generation in order to deal with the country's long term debt. We have to make a decision about who is going feel the pinch.

A tax hike for the richest Americans may mean putting off that kitchen renovation or taking less fancy vacations. But the alternative -- deeper cuts in public benefits -- will mean a serious hardship for millions of Americans.

This debate over President Obama's deficit reduction plan is indeed a moral issue. But it's not just a question about whether the rich pay their fair share. It's about whether the rich and their allies in the Republican Party will abandon their fellow Americans at the worst possible time. The moral question is not just one of fairness; it is one of character.