The Mindless Hysteria Over 'Obama's Class Warfare'


On Friday, I wrote an item ("The 3-Word Phrase That Signals Obama's Intentions on Taxes") about how a number of Democrats on the Hill were relieved to hear President Obama say, in his recent budget speech, that it was necessary to raise taxes on "millionaires and billionaires"--relieved because many of them worried he had drifted too far to the right, and might no longer be committed to tax increases on the wealthy as a way to trim the national debt. Hearing Obama invoke "millionaires and billionaires" was understood by these Democrats to be a signal (or a dog-whistle, if you prefer) that he wasn't backing down: polls show that the public is most receptive to raising taxes when the issue is framed this way, so Obama was signaling that he means business. That doesn't guarantee he'll follow through; he used the phrase plenty last year, and still signed a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans (which he'd opposed) and everyone else (which he'd supported). But it's a clear sign of where he stands today. And the phrase, along with all the apprehension surrounding it, provides an interesting glimpse at the tensions between Democrats over raising taxes.

Judging from the comments and emails that piled up over the weekend, most people didn't read the item that way. In fact, I can draw two conclusions: First, a lot of people spent Easter weekend in a spirit other than that of Christian fellowship and goodwill toward men. Second, a lot of them seem to think that they're the ones being persecuted, that by seeking to increase taxes on the wealthy Obama is engaging in--gasp!--"class warfare." I've always loved that phrase because it's such potent hyperbole, the product of expensive focus grouping and crafty political wordsmithery as surely as is the phrase "millionaires and billionaires," except "class warfare" has that extra dimension of apocalyptic consequence and the undertone of victimization that work so well together even though they shouldn't, like sweet-and-sour soup.

But I gather few others share my connoisseur's appreciation. Most of my correspondents appear to take the phrase literally and believe they are being unfairly and maliciously attacked. I'd guess that by and large they're not millionaires or billionaires themselves. Instead, most display the same anguished indignation that got University of Chicago professor Todd Henderson into such trouble after he worked himself into a lather about how unfair it was that he--a mere university professor scraping by on an income of several hundred thousand dollars a year--might be expected to chip in a bit more. Here's a representative example from my in box:
As a journalist, why don't you ask the obvious question about what makes a married couple earning $250,000 per year a millionaire or a billionaire?
Is it that political demagoguery from a Democrat is more palatable than from a Republican?
Obama is being cynical and dishonest and the mainstream political press is his willing accomplice.

This sort of thinking always makes me want to haul out my fainting couch. Because crying "demagoguery" and "class warfare," and really meaning it, is just silly. 

Politics is and always has been a competition between different classes and interest groups for finite government resources. Everybody harnesses their best argument for growing or defending their slice of the pie, whether it's "millionaires and billionaires" or "welfare queens." And it's worth noting that millionaires and billionaires have fared particularly well relative to other groups. According to the IRS, the average federal income tax rate for the richest Americans dropped from 26 percent in 1992 to 17 percent in 2007, the most recent data available. So if you're inclined to think in terms of "warfare," which I'm not, it's clear who's been winning the war.

To address the question above, married couples who make $250,000 a year or more--the line at which Obama would raise taxes--are not millionaires or billionaires. (I'm no math whiz, but I'd have thought this obvious.) By any reasonable definition, though, they're still rich: income-wise, they rank in the top 2.5 percent of American households. Maybe it's residual Easter spirit, but I suppose that, if pressed, I could muster a smidgen more sympathy for the Todd Hendersons of the world than for the yacht owners and mansion-dwellers. But they're still far better off than most people, so it's hard to feel bad for them.

Here's the other thing: While the type of people writing in reflexively view any prospective increase in their tax rates as "class warfare," they don't apply that label to other attempts to reapportion resources--even radical ones, like Paul Ryan's budget, which is now the official position of House Republicans. If Obama's desire to nudge up tax rates on the wealthy is class warfare against the rich, then surely Paul Ryan's plan to shift the burden of growing healthcare costs from government to citizens by privatizing Medicare and block-granting Medicaid is class warfare against the poor and middle class. Strange that none of my correspondents pointed this out!

But as I said, I think the whole thing is silly. Let's stop hyperventilating about "class warfare" and call it by its proper name: politics.

Drop-down image credit: White House