The Atlantic, January 29, 2019
... Today, in a way that hasn’t been true for decades, more Americans are at least aware of something that might otherwise have been ignored as either overly wonky or, well, crazy. The 70 percent figure proposed by Ocasio-Cortez was a subject of debate—and derision—at Davos. But by joking about it, billionaires and aspiring billionaires, in effect, helped legitimate it. After all, if the richest people in the world are worried about it, it might just be a good idea. (And Dell CEO Michael Dell unintentionally helped remind the audience that the United States had a 70 percent marginal rate as recently as the 1970s). The economist William Gale, my Brookings colleague, wrote a piece responding to Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal, taking issue with the 70 percent figure but agreeing with the underlying principle: “Ultimately, if we want more revenue from the rich, we should broaden the base and boost rates. Raising taxes on the rich is an idea whose time has come, receiving consistent support in polls over the last few decades.”
This new style of Democratic politics is a far cry from the technocratic “what works-ism” that has dominated in center-left parties since the 1990s. The incrementalist approach, by its very nature, preemptively accepts policy and ideological concessions in the name of prudence. It prioritizes being sensible and serious. But why is being sensible an end in itself? As Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, the 32-year-old Saikat Chakrabarti, said regarding another seemingly unrealistic idea, the Green New Deal: “If it’s really not possible, then we can revisit. The idea is to set the most ambitious thing we can do and then make a plan for it. Why not try?”
I don’t feel strongly about a 70 percent marginal tax rate, but I don’t need to. I might even conclude that it simply “feels” too high. But that just means that if and when a Democratic candidate for president proposes a 50 percent tax rate on income that’s more than $10 million, I’ll be impressed with how “moderate,” reasonable, and sensible it sounds. ...
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