University of Chicago Professor Todd Henderson has found himself in the curious position of being the focus of a national debate over tax rates — and his family’s finances. The corporate law professor wanted to show that people making more than $250,000 a year are not super rich and indeed can be struggling in this economy like other families. The response to this argument on his blog was fast and furious — leading Henderson to shutdown his blog and decline further commentary.
Henderson is a neighbor of President Obama in Chicago and decided to open up his own finances to show that people in the top tax bracket are not super-rich citizens with large surpluses of money. He wrote “[a] quick look at our family budget, which I will gladly share with the White House, will show him that, like many Americans, we are just getting by despite seeming to be rich.”
He detailed how he and his wife, a doctor, paid $100,000 in federal and state taxes last year and $15,000 in property taxes. He explained that they carry $250,000 in student loans and that they do not have a large amount of excess cash.
You can certainly disagree with his view but the response was vicious and unfortunately all too common for blogs. People deluged the blog and his email with hateful comments. This increased when a business site reportedly estimated the combined income of the Henderson’s at over $400,000.
Henderson complained about an “online lynch mob” that sent messages like “die yuppie scum” and other threats. He said “[t]he consequences are devastating for me personally” and shutdown his blog.
I have long complained about the uncivil nature of discourse on blogs. Anonymity seems to unleash mean and petty impulses among some people. One can certainly disagree with Henderson’s view that $250,000 is not the real line of demarcation for the super rich. Many have made this argument and he was not denying that he is well off, but rather that he is not so wealthy as to be set apart with people who are making huge sums of money each year. That brought other academics to the forefront in sharp but civil disagreement. Prof. Bradford DeLong of the University of California at Berkeley insisted that “[b]y any standard they are rich. But they don’t feel rich.”
The problem are those people who want to immediately take the debate into name-calling and threats. I happen to think that the disclosure of his own financial details was offering a new context for this debate whether families making $250,000 or more are worthy of consideration in the tax cut debate. This debate has been maintained on generalities and it is a good idea to look at actual families above this tax line. Perhaps the Hendersons were not the best example, but it was the only example that Henderson could give on his blog.
I hope that Henderson will reconsider and restart his blog — and that people will show a level of civil restraint in participating in this and other debates.