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Opinion Where AOC’s ‘tax the rich’ dress clashes with progressive politics

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, and fashion designer Aurora James at the 2021 Met Gala in New York City on Sept. 13. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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Progressive icon Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) attended Monday’s Met Gala, an ultraexclusive fashion industry event typically described as “over-the-top” and/or “star-studded.” But Ocasio-Cortez didn’t forget her ideological commitments at the “In America”-themed extravaganza. Her white mermaid dress was designed by a “sustainably focused, Black woman immigrant designer” (from Toronto, but all right, we’ll allow it). And scrawled in bright red across the back were the words “tax the rich.”

It’s possibly a coincidence that these images blew up social media just after Democrats released their preliminary plan for $2.9 trillion worth of tax hikes, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. Usually such gorgeously apt metaphors materialize only in fiction. Yet in a single red-carpet stroll, Ocasio-Cortez captured some of the nominal commitments and actual complications of progressive tax politics — as well as the most powerful critique of that politics.

Though not the critique that first sprang to mind. When the pictures surfaced, some conservatives argued that it was the height of hypocrisy for a socialist to attend one of the year’s most expensive and exclusive events, even if she did so wearing the couture equivalent of a sandwich board. But hypocrisy seems too harsh by half; Ocasio-Cortez clearly believes what she says. Nonetheless, her dress was hardly the act of bravery her defenders suggested, since the Met Gala is about exclusivity as much as money: It’s where wealthy donors and luxury brands come together with the stars.

Ironically, that meeting is subsidized by taxpayers. If a rich person wanted to pay about $35,000 for an ultra-exclusive opportunity to hobnob with stars and be photographed doing so . . . well, she’d be out $35,000. But if she does all that at the Met Gala, she can write most of the cost of the ticket off her taxes. Whatever its charitable benefits, the Met Gala is also a tax-subsidized “status good.”

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Wearing a “tax the rich” dress to such an event is a bit like wearing a “tax the rich” T-shirt to your job as a bespoke tax attorney. As any such attorney would tell you, raising tax rates means more demand for tax attorneys and more, rather than fewer, deductible events such as exclusive charity balls. So the walking billboard is less a case of “speaking truth to power” than an endorsement of the whole enterprise.

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A more direct attack on the gala, and the wealth swirling around it, would be a renunciation of the deduction for charitable donations, since that’s one of the major ways the rich shield themselves from the impact of higher taxes — even when the charity is a museum that primarily benefits affluent households. Yet for all the talk about closing loopholes, the charitable deduction has no serious opposition among Democratic politicians, where even the left flank is apparently willing to join the party.

Indeed, of the roughly $1 trillion that House Democrats propose to raise from high-income individuals, comparatively little is raised by closing loopholes of any sort; most of the new revenue would come from jacking up income and capital gains tax rates on individuals who make more than $400,000 a year, and from a special surtax on people making more than $5 million annually. That would, of course, be painful for the very rich, and Ocasio-Cortez’s never-never proposal for a 70 percent rate would pain them even more — but some more than others.

Status goods are positional: As long as all the other multimillionaires have to pay the same tax, people who spend a lot of money on charity won’t see their position in the pecking order change much. It might actually improve relative to the sort of rich person who likes to buy giant yachts and whatnot. That might be desirable — most of us want to encourage charity. But it suggests that the kind of rich people who go to the Met Gala were not the ones most likely to be offended by her dress.

Where the dress might fail as an embodied critique of the wealth on display at the gala, it arguably succeeds as a physical symbol of one problem with progressive politics. As critics on the left and the right have noticed, that politics often seems noticeably less effective at uprooting existing power structures than it is at securing a few of the rebels access to the corridors of power and privilege. And from the outside, they often appear to be enjoying themselves in much the same fashion as the other insiders, while covering their backs with ritual denunciations that no one takes very seriously.