What's the Matter With Rich Liberals?


Nancy Folbre hits on one of my favorite rejoinders to the annoying, if fading, liberal yawner that Democrats lost so many elections because millions of heartland Americans voted Republican against their self-interest. This argument, which received its most public treatment in Thomas Franks' "What's the Matter with Kansas?" posits that Republicans learned to make the class war about values instead of economics and tricked millions of poor, poor Americans into voting against their economic self-interest.

But as Folbre rightly notes, this is a very silly argument because "the most visible support for raising taxes on the rich comes from ... the rich," like the chief executive of Netflix begging the president to raise the highest income tax bracket to 50 percent. Raise my taxes! is another pretty bizarre strain of economic self-interest. Maybe we should ask: What's the matter with America?

Folbre goes on to chronicle other tax follies like this one: "The progressive group Citizens for Tax Justice observes that the percentage of households with income under $30,000 complaining that federal income taxes are too high exceeds the percentage even paying federal income taxes." That's funny, but I don't have a huge problem with it. Taxes aren't just about money, they're also about values, and my main beef is with the idea that there is something quaint and pejorative about being a values voter.

Rich liberals, like the Netflix bossman, who are willing to vote against their own short-term economic interest - ie, take a tax hike - do so in the hopes that the government will do some good with the extra dough. The belief that higher government spending will benefit, say, education might be based on some statistical survey out there (it certainly doesn't come from any study of D.C. schools!) but it is still just that: a belief. The rich liberals pooh-poohing Kansas are really not all that different from the objects of their disdain: both groups technically vote against their short economic self-interest in the hope that their party will apply the policies they value.

That doesn't sound so bad, but we still hear whispers foretelling of the rational voter, truly a fantastical creature. There's really only one way to be sure you're voting "rationally" - I guess that would mean something like assessing hard, universal facts in an exclusive and thorough manner - and by Frank's definition, I suppose it would mean choosing the party that is offering the most money. First, that's impossibly tricky (what nets more, a tax cut or health care reform?). Second, that sounds pretty much like bribery, which has to place below values-voting, right?

So embrace it and love it, people. We are all values voters. Sure, we take in new information and ideally refine our understanding of the world, but like the fermenting of wine, the distillation of the facts will always carry the taste of the barrel.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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