15 August 2011

Class warfare: knowing the combatants

The New York Times has printed an op-ed column by Warren Buffett in which the billionaire investor asks to be taxed at a higher rate along with others in his income bracket. This isn't the first time that Buffett has made such a request, but the Times runs it as if Buffett's words should have some sort of sobering or shaming effect on the nation's taxophobes. While Buffett's sentiments are admirable -- and many Americans would tell him to simply write a check if he feels that way -- we should be careful before assuming how representative they are, or whom Buffett's supposed to represent.

I can see a Times editor arguing that if Buffett not only asks to be taxed more but debunks the prevailing assumption that higher taxes discourage investment, his op-ed should carry special weight with the taxophobes, who for this purpose are presumed to be "the rich." If Buffett, among the richest of all, doesn't object to higher taxes, why should anyone less rich do so? But one can imagine a rejoinder almost instantly: "He can afford it!" It is, after all, one thing for Warren Buffett to say that taxes don't deter him from anything -- but many people of apparent wealth may feel differently, even though Buffett tries to show that that wasn't the case in the past.

How representative is Buffett, one of the "super-rich," of the taxophobe vanguard that appears to control Congress at this time? Not very, I suspect, but our debates about deficit spending, debt and taxes, etc., are presumed to pit the "rich" against the rest, or the "haves" against the "have-nots." It's not that simple. Wealth alone doesn't determine the mentality of taxophobes -- many of whom probably aren't "rich" by any definition. Many of them may aspire to Buffett's level of wealth; a few of them may even do so realistically. They may feel that it's fine for Buffett to feel as he does -- he's got his already. Taxophobia may prevail among those who see -- or want to see -- their fortunes rising and thus grow anxious and resentful of anything that might hold back their growth. They are neither satisfied nor secure, however subjective either feeling is. They are probably the people most likely to see taxation as "punishing success," because they see themselves as trying harder and accomplishing more than the losers below them who are looking for a free ride and the idling elite above who probably want to hold them down. For now I'm only speculating, but it would be interesting to see a survey that probed for linkage between taxophobia and people's aspirations, their feeling of satisfaction with their wealth or work, and so on. Until then, it's still a good idea to do away with "the rich" as an antagonistic category. However, an old but now rarely-used word might more accurately describe the demographic and the mentality of the people who most vehemently oppose the regulatory welfare state and the taxes that sustain it. Instead of "the rich," and instead of lumping such conscientious or repentant philanthropists as Buffett in with the forces of political reaction, why don't we aim for more precision, a stronger sense of history, and the likelihood of really pissing them off by describing the taxophobes as the American bourgeoisie?

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