Jonathan Chait

Fiscal Responsibility Is Risky

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John F. Harris and Alexander Burns channel Mark Penn and argue that Democrats shouldn't tax the rich:

In a CBS poll conducted last week, 53 percent of adults said they wanted the tax cuts extended for middle-class households, versus 26 percent who said they wanted all the cuts extended. In late November, an Associated Press/CNBC poll pegged those numbers at 50 percent and 34 percent.

At second blush, however, polling suggests some more nuanced answers about why an old-fashioned Democratic economic class conflict over sticking it to the rich never materialized during Obama’s first two years – no matter how much the liberals in Obama’s base might have wanted it.

Polls show the most appealing option is protecting middle-class tax cuts. But the second most appealing option is protecting tax cuts for all – what Obama and Republicans just agreed to do for two years – and that makes it a pretty close call, politically.

Well, George McGovern was the second-most appealing option in 1972. I'm not sure what that tells us.

It's certainly true that people favor tax cuts for themselves far more strongly than they oppose tax cuts for the rich. What does that tell us? It tells us a couple things. First, fighting against tax cuts for the rich is only really a popular issue if you can argue that the other side is blocking your tax cuts so they can give a tax cut to the rich instead. Sadly, Democrats didn't try to make that argument. They ought to do it in 2012.

Second, most people are pretty bad at thinking in terms of trade-offs and limited resources. That's why tax cuts for the rich as an abstract proposition don't provoke much outrage -- people don't get why they're bad unless you point out that they imply higher taxes for other people or less spending on popular programs. But almost any deficit-reducing proposal is unpopular. Most are intensely unpopular. Raising taxes on the rich is unusual in that it's an actually popular way to reduce the deficit, even though the intensity of support is weak and the intensity of opposition is white hot.

So if you want to apply Harris and Burns' logic to every proposal to bring revenue in line with outlays, you'll conclude that they're all risky because they're all either unpopular with the public as a whole or they arouse intense opposition from a well-organized interest group. So then you can follow the George W. Bush governing model of following the fiscal path of least resistance, or at least draw the line on issues where the public supports you.

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