Tax the (upper) middle class, please - Vox:
The "no tax increase over $250,000" dogma has at least four major downsides, all of which have been clear throughout the Obama era:
1) It constrains policy choices and makes them super complicated. Remember the "Buffett Rule"? In 2011, Warren Buffett called attention to the inequity that his secretary paid a higher tax rate than he did. That's because his income is all capital gains and dividends, taxed at a preferable rate, while hers was salary income. The obvious "Buffett Rule" to remedy that idiosyncrasy would be to tax all income, whatever the source, at the same rate. But no! Because some people earning less than $250,000 do have capital gains, the "Buffett Rule" had to be crafted in a complex way that affected only millionaires. As introduced, it is a second level of the alternative minimum tax, an unnecessarily complex kludge in place of the simple rule that was promised. Many other similarly promising policies will be off limits just because they don't fall neatly along the $250,000 line.
2) It reinforces the idea that taxes are a kind of punishment. The point of progressive taxation isn't to harm those who have done very well — it's that everyone should contribute to shared priorities, determined democratically, based on their ability to contribute. Members of the "billionaire class" surely have an untapped ability to contribute to the social order that made their wealth possible. But so do many others who haven't reached quite the same level. As the political sociologist Vanessa Williamson has shown, Americans actually take pride in paying taxes and view being able to contribute as a patriotic act. Politicians should speak the same language of shared obligation, not punishment.
3) It invites a nonsensical debate about who is really "rich" or "very wealthy." This can edge into absurdity — you might remember the University of Chicago law professor who complained in 2010 that despite an income in the $400,000s, his family wasn't really rich, not after they paid for private school, nannies, gardeners, and house cleaners. (As Josh Barro put it recently "$400,000 isn't a lot of money — after you spend it.") Even Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer questioned whether $250,000 was really "rich," which it might not be in San Francisco and brownstone Brooklyn. But if you stop talking about taxing only the "very wealthy," you avoid this silly fight.
4) It's the wrong line. American households in the top 20 percent (which corresponds to income of about $130,000) took more than 50 percent of total income in 2011. While the income gains of the top 1 percent from 1979 to 2011 total 174 percent, adjusted for inflation, the rest of the top 20 percent, excluding the 1 percent, gained 56 percent over that period, while the rest of the population stagnated. (All data from this Congressional Budget Office report.) The top 20 percent also got the greatest benefit from the Bush tax cuts, and while the 2011 budget deal raised the effective tax rate of the very wealthy by 4 percentage points, the "merely affluent" continued to do well — their taxes have gone up by only 1 percentage point. The line for those who should contribute more is somewhere around the top fifth, not $250,000.
It's too bad that even a self-described socialist can't be more daring and honest about taxes and adopts the same caution that has crippled policymaking for the past seven years. Taxes are not a punishment for the very wealthy. They are a means for all of us to contribute, as best we can, to the cost of a just society that creates equal opportunity.
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