The Plank

Taxes As Patriotism: Not A Goofy Idea!

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So, as Joe Klein and then I were saying, the McCain campaign has been lashing out at Joe Biden for suggesting it's the patriotic duty of wealthy Americans to pay higher taxes at this time of domestic and foreign crisis. Here's what Sarah Palin had to say about it today, while appearing in Iowa:

To them, raising taxes--and Joe Biden said it again today--raising taxes is about patriotism. To the rest of America,
that's not patriotism; raising taxes is about killing jobs and hurting
small businesses and making things worse. 

Actually, the idea that paying more taxes during war is an act of patriotism has quite a long and distinguished history in this country. During the Civil War, Representative Thaddeus Stevens--then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee--said that "the annihilation of this government is the alternative" to increased taxation. To finance World War II, FDR actually proposed a tax that would have effectively capped incomes at $25,000 (or about $300,000 in today's dollars). And during the Vietnam War, Senator Russell Long made this appeal to citizens' sense of duty:

A "tax increase of ten times the size recommended by the president
would still not begin to equate the sacrifice of our courageous young
men fighting and dying in the swamps and jungles of Vietnam with
Americans who are enjoying income and prosperity greater than they have
ever known.”

I got this quote from an Urban Institute book called War and Taxes, written by Joseph J. Thorndike, Steven A. Bank, and Kirk J. Stark. Surveying the history of taxes during wartime, they conclude that while taxes have never been popular--even in wartime--leaders have frequently appealed to a sense of patriotism as a way to justify them. And when mere speeches didn't do the trick, politicians sought out allies--like, for example, Donald Duck:

"Taxes to beat the Axis! ... Taxes will keep democracy on the march!"

OK, so the film is over the top. But the point stands. If McCain, Palin, and their allies think equating higher taxes with patriotism is wrong, they disagree with a long line of distinguished American politicians, not to mention one famously tongue-tied duck.

Update: Joe Biden isn't backing down. Good for him.  

--Jonathan Cohn

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