Class Warfare, American Style

A photo of the young monarch is displayed with dresses and jewelry she wore at Buckingham Palace on July 25, 2006. The largest-ever exhibition of her gowns is on display during the annual summer opening of the queen's London home.
Getty Images/Peter Macdiarmid
In his latest Against the Grain commentary,'s Dick Meyer takes aim at the overblown oratory in the tax cut debate.

Arguments about money are never pretty. Current arguments about the economic and fiscal merits of the Bush tax plan are particularly frustrating. And arguments about its fairness are downright infuriating, however important they may be.

Statistics are one of the enemies here. The new Treasury Department study says the Bush plan is fair because people earning between $30,000 and $40,000 get a 38.3 percent tax cut, while those earning over $200,000 get a reduction of only 8.7 percent. Citizens for Tax Justice, a respected, labor-funded think tank, says the income tax plan is hugely unfair because the wealthiest 1 percent would get 31 percent of the benefits. Sort that one out.

The hyperventilated rhetoric makes it all worse. In other arenas of great public controversy, the Constitution can guide clear thinking or at least provide a common vocabulary for debate. It does not offer such guidance on the issue of tax fairness, and, more generally, on how economic benefits are distributed in society.

The income tax, which gets all the attention, wasn't even a glimmer in the Founding Fathers' eyes. There was no such thing as a national income tax until the 16th Amendment was ratified on February 25, 1913. The 16th Amendment merely gives Congress the power to collect taxes on income. It didn't say that the income tax had to be progressive or regressive, high or low, flat or round.

Maybe that's why so much of the debate about whether the Bush plan is unfair by being too generous to the rich is so confusing and confused.

Regardless, my candidate for the most obnoxious hunk of rhetoric or pseudo-concept in this year's tax debate is the phrase "class warfare."

Sometimes Democrats and their sympathizers use the hyperbole. Columnist Mark Shields, for example, declared, "class warfare is now over – the richest won."

But Republicans and their scribes in newspaper editorial offices are far guiltier of class warfare abuse.

"The Democrats’ class warfare attacks on President Bush's across-the-board income tax cut appear to be ineffective in the 'new economy,'" writes Donald Lambro in The Washington Times.

Spare me.

It is completely disingenuous and virtual red-baiting to spout off that criticizing tax changes for being too generous to the rich is class warfare; as if such talk is un-American. It would be silly, except for the fact that it does seem to actually silence some Democrats from talking about equity and fairness. So they hide behind things like "fiscal responsibility" and "surplus projections in the out years."

It's odd that the Republican bullying works as well as it does. Obviously, there are economic classes in America. There are haves and have-nots in all societies, excepa few Scandinavian anomalies. But Americans uniquely don't identify themselves as part of a class, or think about politics in class terms or have class envy. In fact, they have massive aspirations to move up in class rank.

I learned that in a very direct and frankly embarrassing way that happens to relate directly to taxation. In 1985, I published a polemic condemnation of Reagan-era tax policy that happened to break a little news about how the rich could avoid taxation altogether through new tax shelters.

It was a hot enough topic that I was invited to appear on The Phil Donahue Show (think of Oprah in the olden days), which was a fairly big deal in those pre-cable times. I came armed with anecdote after anecdote about millionaires who paid absolutely nothing in taxes. I was outraged. Phil was outraged. The live studio audience yawned.

That's a lie. The live studio audience thought that my whole spiel was idiotic. Person after person said, in essence, "If I were rich, I wouldn't want to pay taxes either." Wading into the audience with his microphone, Phil did his best to generate some anger. "Doesn't it make you mad that you make $25,000 and have to pay taxes and some fat-cat in the Hamptons didn't pay a penny?"


That doesn't mean that people think the rich should get a tax break now or that they don't think the rich get too much from the Bush plan. It certainly doesn't suggest that the Bush plan is fair – or unfair that matter. It does mean that here, unlike many other cultures, there is not the sort of toxic class antagonism that demagogic politicians can exploit in socially destabilizing ways.

Both sides, but especially the Republicans, shouldn't cry class warfare. They should find a more honest way to debate fairness – without the statistics.

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