Progressives ought to take alarm at the way Senate Democrats earlier this week decided that a “tax the rich” agenda needs to be even further refined so as to not include households earning “only” $250,000 (i.e., five times the national median household income) in the context of the jobs bill.
Progressive taxation is great. The idea that maybe the tax code should distinguish between $250,000 in taxable income and $2.5 million in taxable income is reasonable. But still, this is a problematic move. In particular, I think it highlights the rhetorical and thematic problem that the laser-like focus on “taxing the rich” had all the way back to President Obama’s original formulation. The implicit message here is identical to the conservative message on taxes — public services aren’t worth paying for.
My view is that that’s mistaken. Or at least it ought to be mistaken. That having a police force is a good idea. That transportation infrastructure is broadly useful and beneficial. That a military that meets the country’s national security needs is essential to everyone’s wellbeing, and that one that goes beyond real security needs is a waste that should be curtailed. There’s nothing wrong with a little redistribution to enhance social welfare, and there’s nothing wrong with observing that you have to go for revenue to where the money is. But you can’t be making the case for an active public sector on the basis of a promise that nobody will ever be asked to pay for anything. You have to make the case that the public sector is going to do things that are important and valuable. Many of us best programs, like Social Security, have a broad tax base and an only very mildly redistributive function. It’s there to perform a social insurance function that, in the aggregate, is beneficial to the people paying the freight. If the issue becomes purely that it’s okay to raise taxes on John because John’s so damn rich, then you invite this endlessly slippery slope of redefining richness so as to exclude an ever-growing circle of objectively privileged people.