The Lessons of Oregon's Vote to Tax the Rich

Oregon voters approved by a wide margin new taxes on wealthy families and corporations. For two decades, Oregon voters had mimicked California, freezing property taxes, rejecting sales taxes and demanding that any surpluses go back to the people in the form of rebates. No more! The two measures will raise income taxes for households making more than $250,000 a year and raise the state's corporate income tax.

Naturally, Washington will be looking for national implications of this vote -- especially since conservative pundits greeted the Massachusetts upset like a deus ex machina.  I have two observations.

The first observation is that direct democracy is an incredibly poor way to run a state. Oregon and California's experiments in initiatives and referenda have done nothing more than reveal that their voters love services and hate taxes.

Imagine you're an Oregonian on the day of a sales tax referendum vote. You wake up, go downstairs and flip through your credit card bills while you brew the coffee. You wake up your kids, remember that you forgot to pay the tutors last month, and drive them to their fine, but admittedly mediocre public school. Then you pull onto the highway to head to work. The engine light turns on, dammit. You reach the office, toil through Excel for three hours (you really ought to be paid more for this, you remind yourself) and at noon you pass the Subway where you usually buy a cheap sandwich to save money to vote on the sales tax. You remember that there's a deep budget deficit and that something will to be done in a distant place called tomorrow. But tomorrow is tomorrow, and you need money for the credit cards, and the tutors, and the public school donations, and the engine, and the money you're not making on the job -- you need that money today. So you vote NO to all the tax increases and service cuts -- as you always have and almost always will.

I'm not saying this guy is wrong or stupid. I'm saying this guy is why we need representatives to make tough budget decisions for us.

The second observation is that I think this vote has nothing to do with Left or Right. It has to do with money and anger. With double-digit unemployment, eight-digit Wall Street bonuses and thirteen-digit federal deficits, Americans are feeling inundated with a lot of numbers that tell a simple story: America's workers have no money, America's coffers have no money, but America's rich people have a lot of money. Neither liberals nor conservatives have a monopoly on populism, and it seems to me that Obama needs to show America tonight that he feels the anger. If we're lucky, we might even see it. It's not entirely clear to me how the White House loses by taking on the banks more aggressively in the next few months to build back political mojo. Separate from whether or not it is good financial policy, a plan that says "I'm taxing the banks who created this mess and I'm funneling that money into jobs programs to help average Americans pay their mortgage" is pretty safe politics.