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“Acting As Political Human Shields”: The Upper Middle Class Needs To Stop Coddling The 1 Percent

The most criticism I’ve ever received as a writer came from articles suggesting that we curtail tax expenditures that mainly benefit the rich, like the mortgage interest deduction or 529 college savings accounts. (Okay, second-most — the top hate mail–getter, by a large margin, was a quite different issue.)

Why? As President Obama himself found last week, the last people you want to piss off are members of the upper middle class, who are set to a hair trigger when it comes to their personal government handouts. As Paul Waldman writes, they may be “the single most dangerous constituency to anger,” because a) unlike the 1 percent, they are relatively numerous; and b) like the 1 percent, they have a lot of disposable income, which politicians love.

On one level, this is an understandable reaction to a threat to personal economic interest. But on another, members of the upper middle class are being played for fools. They are acting as political human shields for the top 1 percent, which claims more of these benefits proportionally speaking and has been raking in essentially all the benefits of economic growth. The upper middle class (let’s define this as the top income quintile, minus the top 1 percent) ought to demand a lot more than it is getting.

To start, let’s get one thing straight. Tax expenditures are indeed government benefits, economically identical to direct government spending. Preferential treatment in the tax code is just another way of jiggering the national economic structure to direct benefits to one group or another.

Not all tax expenditures are equally terrible. According to a CBO analysis, exclusions for health care and pensions are spread relatively equitably across the population, while the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit are major bulwarks against poverty.

However, the big deductions are unfairly skewed. Two-thirds of taxpayers can’t even use the mortgage interest deduction, because you have to itemize your deductions to get it; other countries manage high rates of homeownership without the subsidy. Overall, 1 percenters get 15 percent of the mortgage interest deduction, 30 percent of the state tax deduction, and 38 percent of the charitable contribution deduction.

Preferential tax rates for capital gains and dividends, meanwhile, are even worse. Over two-thirds of the benefits go to 1 percenters. The supposed idea is to incentivize investment and thus economic growth, but there is zero evidence this actually happens. Close analysis of the Bush administration’s cut on dividend taxes finds that it did not change anything except payouts to shareholders. Longer-term studies on capital gains tax rates finds no relationship to investment or broader economic growth. The major effect is a booming industry in legal chicanery allowing people to reclassify regular income as capital gains.

Meanwhile, over the last generation, 1 percenters have been capturing the vast bulk of economic growth, a trend that is only getting worse. Indeed, according to a new analysis at the Economic Policy Institute by Mark Price and Estelle Sommeiller, from 2009 to 2012 1 percenters literally received more than all the income growth. Because the incomes of the 99 percent fell on average, 1 percenters got 105.5 percent of real income growth. Policies that benefit the very top over everyone else are clearly to blame.

Clearly, that’s no good for anyone who isn’t in the 1 percent, including the merely affluent. But with the middle class lacking much punching power, and the poor largely ignored by everyone, the upper middle class really ought to be asking for more than the preservation of their existing government benefits. At the very least, the upper middle class could demand a cut of economic growth.

And if the upper middle class were willing to ally with the bottom and the middle, there’s reason to think it would be able to keep the structure of its current benefits (that is to say, access to college instead of merely some money to pay for it) while cutting everyone in on economic growth. Taxes might go up somewhat, but that would likely be compensated by better wages and universal benefits.

On the other hand, if the upper middle class can manage nothing but a hysterical defense of its own welfare handouts, and the American system keeps brutalizing the bottom half of the income ladder, a genuine mass movement could appear, as it has in the past. Such movements are not likely to be especially concerned with the upper middle class.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, February 2, 2015

February 3, 2015 - Posted by | Tax Code, The 1%, Upper Middle Class | , , , , , ,

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