What do Barack Obama and Pauline Marois have in common ? Not much, probably, but one thing stands out. They are both trying to do one thing that might seem easy in theory, but is much harder in practice : make the rich pay more taxes.
Indeed, from the early days of democracy the rich and powerful have doubted the wisdom of endowing every citizen with an equal say in the distribution or redistribution of financial resources. That’s why early voting rules gave the ballot only to property owners, and that’s why both British parliamentary systems and the American system of representative democracy have devised elaborate schemes to limit the power of the “mob” to seize the wealth of the elite few.
Although the franchise has long been extended down to the poorest of the poor, increasing the tax burden of the upper crust, even if we’re only talking about the top 2 to 5 per cent of the income ladder, remains fraught with political peril.
That is what Marois has found out in the month since she was sworn in as premier of Quebec at the head of a very tenuous minority government. Her party had made no secret that it would abolish the $200 flat health tax Jean Charest’s Liberal government instituted a few years ago and replace it with an increase in the marginal tax rate of Quebec’s most affluent taxpayers.
We’re not just talking about the mega-rich here ; the PQ’s initial tax proposal would have chipped into the marginal income of, say, a modest university professor moonlighting as a columnist. But the outcry in the media and the business community forced the Marois government to backtrack and reschedule the tax, a half-baked measure that will shift the cost of the change further down the income scale. The resulting tax will be less regressive than Charest’s, but the very wealthy will pay a lot less than the PQ originally planned.
In the United States, where recurring trillion-dollar deficits would seem to call for at least a modest infusion of new revenue, Obama is pummelled in opinion polls for his plan to increase taxes for “folks who can afford to pay a bit more,” with the threshold placed at a quarter-million per year.
Taken at face value, this policy should be a winner for a deficit-weary public, as support for the idea of taxing millionaires and billionaires generally scores high in most polls.
But that’s not how it works. Particularly in the first presidential debate, and also in the two other debates since, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have turned the spotlight on Obama’s higher-tax pledge and have successfully managed to make many average voters believe that the Democrats, with their long-standing reputation as the party of “big government,” cannot be trusted to limit the increase to the very rich.
Ryan said it best in the vice-presidential debate : “You see, there aren’t enough rich people and small businesses to tax to pay for all their spending. And so the next time you hear them say, don’t worry about it, we’ll get a few wealthy people to pay their fair share, watch out, middle class. The tax bill is coming to you.”
Whether or not this prediction comes true is beside the point. Indeed, as political scientist Larry Bartels showed in his book Unequal Democracy, the economic conditions and the tax burden of the very rich tend to influence the perception of the less affluent regarding their own situation.
Generally, even before the very rich take the trouble of justifying their favoured treatment by calling themselves “job creators” (yes, we’ve heard that one in Quebec, too), people tend to associate the condition of the economy as a whole with the fortunes of those at the top much more than those at the bottom.
This is a lesson that Marois had to learn the hard way. The electoral costs of her brief attempt to tax the very rich likely will cost her many more votes than the number of people she intended to tax.
The same is true for Obama. His tax plan targets only the top 2 per cent, but that may cost him the votes he needs to close the deal on Nov. 6.
Consultez la source : www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialop...