Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the growing calls from Democratic presidential candidates for “wealth taxes” targeting the increasingly demonized “super rich.” Putting aside serious questions over the constitutionality of such wealth taxes (despite being the core cause of candidates like Elizabeth Warren), Democrats appear to be moving from Rousseauian to a Robespierrean rhetoric in this new class warfare.
Here is the column with a few of the underlying facts beyond the rhetoric:
“When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” Philosopher Rousseau said those words about the French Revolution more than 200 years ago, but they could well have been a talking point in the Democratic debates this week. The candidates brushed aside repeated questions about raising taxes to pay the trillions promised for free college, universal health care, reparations and new homes for African Americans, free health care for the undocumented, massive investment in traditionally black colleges, and other “big ideas” that various candidates pledged.
What they all agreed on was that the “rich” would pay for much of it. The loudest in this declaration of class warfare was New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, who promised that “we will tax the hell out of the wealthy.” The growing Rousseauian chant to “tax the rich” is, of course, hardly new in politics. However, the current age of rage makes this call more menacing. Suddenly, the wealthiest citizens are being portrayed as virtual predators of the poor.
Senator Elizabeth Warren even seemed to be poking the chest of an imaginary tycoon in declaring that she was coming after “your Rembrandts, your stock portfolio, your diamonds and your yachts.” I previously wrote that Warren’s concept of a wealth tax appears unconstitutional. Nevertheless, Warren continues to pledge to impose taxes on the most wealthy (2 percent for more than $50 million in assets, and 3 percent for more than $1 billion). Not to be outdone, De Blasio promised to top her tax plan, with a wealth tax on everyone worth $10 million or more.
The demonization of the wealthy continued as candidate after candidate spoke of how the top 1 percent was a virtual class of robber barons who are avoiding taxes or paying little back to society. Other Democrats like Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez have called to increase the tax rate to 70 percent from the current 37 percent for income over $10 million. Just for the record, the top 1 percent of federal taxpayers paid 37.3 percent of taxes, more than the bottom 90 percent combined that paid 30.5 percent. The top 50 percent of taxpayers paid 97 percent of total individual income taxes. That means that the bottom 50 percent of taxpayers are paying virtually no income taxes.
To qualify as the top 5 percent of earners, your household needs to make $300,000 or more. To qualify as one of the top 10 percent, the cut-off is around $118,000. That does not mean that the wealthy should not pay more in taxes. However, Democrats are undermining their push for higher taxes by pledging trillion-dollar programs as if those would involve chump change. Want a house? Senator Kamala Harris will help pay for it if you are African American. Want free college tuition? Virtually all of the candidates are guaranteeing it. Hate your college loans? Gone, by order of Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders.
Warren created a lasting gift during the debate when she gleefully rubbed her hands together after saying that she would take some of the wealth of fellow presidential candidate and former congressman John Delaney, a self made millionaire worth $65 million. For Republicans, it is the gift that will keep on giving well into the 2020 election. Warren relished the idea of grabbing the wealth of Delaney and others as she promised freebees to every swing group of voters. Like many politicians referring to “my” programs, the glee is in the spending, not the making of the money.
With polls showing him at a practical zero in terms of support and currently less popular than Trump in his own city De Blasio left Rousseau behind and went full Robespierre in promising a virtual reign of tax terror for the wealthy. De Blasio declared that he “would go farther than any other 2020 candidate to reshape society.” He dismissed the need to explain where the necessary trillions in tax dollars will come from with a casual, “There’s plenty of money in this country. It is just in the wrong hands.” He promised to lead the proletariat and, “When I am president, we will even up the score.” He even promised to hit Americans who are renouncing their citizenship with a 40 percent “Turncoat Tax.”
He did not explain how he would deduce which people are changing citizenship for tax reasons, or how he intends to tax citizens of another country. That does not matter when you are “reshaping society.” De Blasio’s portrayal of tax increases as a type of caged hunt for fat cats is, of course, ridiculous. The problem is that the wealthy can leave. Now that New Yorkers cannot write off their higher taxes on their federal forms, many indeed are fleeing and, faced with a $2.3 billion budget shortfall, even New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has admitted, “This is the flip side. Tax the rich, tax the rich, tax the rich. The rich leave, and now what do you do?”
The loss of those top earners can be devastating. The top 1 percent, who are being constantly attacked by Democrats, pay for nearly half of the income tax revenue in New York City. A family of four in New York earning $175,000 will pay 25 percent of their income in New York in taxes, in contrast to the 14 percent paid by the same family in Florida. The problem is that the wealthy can leave not just New York but the country. Moreover, many wealthy foreign investors are unlikely to come to the United States just to end up in a De Blasio tumbrel on their way to the Internal Revenue Service.
Our tax system remains a mess and there is a real wealth disparity that must be addressed. However, we have to do so in a constitutional, logical way, including possible tax increases. Moreover, President Trump and the Republicans in Congress have proven just as irresponsible on spending as the Democrats. Both parties have continued to lift the debt ceiling and, with the new appropriations bill, Trump will have added $4.1 trillion to the national debt, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Our total national debt surpassed $22 trillion in February.
Rather than deal with the economic meltdown caused by such a debt load, Democrats are pledging to hunt down the wealthy, while Trump is bizarrely insisting he can wipe out our debt in eight years. They all are kicking the can down the road for the next generation to pay. In the meantime, class warfare is now a virtual political-platform item for Democrats. Aerosmith already has a theme song ready to go for the Democratic Convention. It’s called “Eat the Rich.” While not complaining about the “diamonds, yachts and Rembrandts,” it does denounce the wealthy for their “poodles and pills.” The rest is a good sound byte that you can literally dance to: “There is only one thing that they are good for. Eat the rich. Take one bite now. Come back for more. Eat the rich.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.