reimagining the rhetoric of progressive taxation.
Drew Westen’s Op-Ed in Sunday’s New York Times, “What Happened to Obama?,” explored the linkages between President Obama’s rhetoric as a political leader and his actions. But the article misses one point: Obama’s central rhetorical call was always a centrist one; he wanted to create a new tone in Washington that transcended partisan squabbling (it’s fascinating how this goal unleashed even more partisan language on the right, while generating something more like disappointment and frustration on the left).
One dimension of Obama’s rhetoric concerning the current economic crisis in the United States is that he refers to the need to undo the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. Yet he always seems to do so as a kind of afterthought, both rhetorically and in political negotiations. Why does increasing progressive taxation, which we should note was at its height precisely during the period many Americans view as the greatest hour of the United States—World War II and the early Cold War years—seem relegated to the back burner when it could potentially go so far toward improving the economic situation?
There is an obvious answer: Obama is as reliant on wealthy donors and as close to the fat cats of the financial industry as many of his political opponents are; we saw this in the response to the 2008 financial crisis, which did not go far enough toward reforming Wall Street and in fact wound up enriching the very richest participants whose practices had caused the crisis. One could go on here with obvious answers. But Westen’s article made me think about something else too: the contemporary rhetoric around taxing the wealthy. Given that undoing the Bush-era tax cuts on the rich would help immensely in lowering the U.S. debt, and that it still allows the wealthy to be quite rich, it is odd how talk about progressive taxation seems so frozen in place, so constrained, so impossible to discuss.
Maybe this is because we now tend to frame progressive taxation around issues of fairness. Those on the liberal left view higher taxes on the wealthy as fair. After all, the rich benefit more than anyone else from the labor of those below them on the economic ladder and also reap the most from state power, which maintains order for the current system. Therefore, liberals reason, the wealthy should pay more in taxes. The radical left has a different take: taxation is fair because it redistributes wealth in order to transform the economic system rather than maintain it. On the right, meanwhile, there is the view that you get what you deserve, and that the wealthy should not have to pay more in taxes simply because they have excelled in earning and preserving their wealth.
I wonder what it might mean to replace the issue of fairness with the issue of duty. Here I am thinking of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent work on the power of shame and honor in shaping what he calls “moral revolutions” such as the abolition of slavery. Within the framework of duty, who really cares or not whether it’s fair that the wealthy must pay more in taxes? It’s not fairness that is the issue. It is necessity. If we want to continue to function as a society, as a polity—if we maybe even want to improve ourselves and our nation—it’s simply necessary that the wealthy pay more in taxes. It’s their duty to do so both for themselves and for the larger collective good.
To deal with our debts, we must reframe why it is that those who own more, owe more. We need to reshape the rhetoric of revenue raising. Instead of historically linking income taxes to the unfairness of having to paying duties without political representation, à la the Tea Party, we need to shift the focus to the moral duties of fully-represented wealthy citizens to pay more in income taxes. That may not seem fair by certain criteria, but as conservatives might say, life isn’t fair. It can be more honorable though.