As you’ve no doubt heard by now, at Obama’s LinkedIn town hall meeting today, a man who said he’d done very well in computers asked Obama today: “Would you please raise my taxes?” The fellow, apparently a former Google marketing executive, added: “I would like very much to have the country to continue to invest in things like Pell Grants, infrastructure, and job training programs that made it possible for me to get to where I am.”
The question echoed Warren Buffett’s recent demand that Congress raise taxes on wealthy people like himself, which has prompted a massive outpouring of outrage on the right.
But Obama’s answer today was of particular interest:
Obama denounced the GOP claim that calling for tax hikes on the rich constitutes “class warfare” — a now familiar refrain from the President — but then he went on to deliver an extended argument. He pointed out that the wealthy had done well not only because of their own ingenuity and hard work, but also because others had invested in the education, research, and infrastructure necessary to make wealth creation possible.
“I appreciate the fact that you recognize we’re in this thing together,” Obama said. “We’re not on our own. And those of us who’ve been successful, we’ve always gotta remember that.”
In all seriousness, this, of course, is exactly the argument that Elizabeth Warren made on that video that went viral the other day. Paul Krugman aptly summarized this case as follows: “the rich can only get rich thanks to the `social contract’ that provides a decent, functioning society in which they can prosper.”
Conservatives have offered a number of responses to this argument. Some have insisted that if wealthy people like Buffett and the former Google exec want to pay higher taxes, by God, they should go ahead and pay higher taxes. But this badly misses the point: These men are making an argument about the imperative that their whole income group do more to help solve our fiscal mess, not just about their own desire to chip in more themselves. Others have argued that the Obama/Warren case is — gasp! — “redistributionist” and prove that Democrats want to “level” our society. This is plainly absurd: The high end tax hikes Dems are pushing would only go a small way towards turning around trends that have been exacerbating inequality for decades. They wouldn’t come anywhere near to “leveling” anything.
All this aside, the arguments from Warren and Obama — and the conservative responses to them — suggest that it’s a good thing that we’re having this argument. It’s one that’s all about priorities and basic fairness. It may be, as Kevin Drum has argued, that taxes aren’t necessarily the political winner for Dems that polls suggest. But even so, this isn’t a bad place for Democrats to be. In contrast to months of fighting it out on austerity/spending cut turf favorable to the GOP, Dems are now arguing for fairer taxation, in order to reduce the deficit, on the grounds that we’re all in this together. Meanwhile, Republicans are fighting to defend low taxes on the rich even as they decry “class warfare,” which gives Dems an opening to ask who, exactly, Republicans are fighting for.
Whatever the political benefits of this argument for Dems, it’s a good one for the country to hear.