Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaires

Tim Noah asks “how trickle-down economics became respectable,” after seeing Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell attack the “Buffett rule” on Sunday shows. Is it that people suddenly find it compelling to defend low tax rates for millionaires? No, it’s careful branding.

“When you are raising these top tax rates,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) said on Fox News Sunday, “you’re raising taxes on these job creators where more than half of Americans get their jobs from in this country.” He was talking about small businesses, about which (to borrow from my esteemed TRB predecessor Michael Kinsley) there’s a common anthropomorphic fallacy that they are owned by small people, when in fact they’re more likely to be owned by big (i.e., rich) people. You could argue that Buffet himself, the second-richest man in America, is a small businessman; according to his op-ed, Berkshire Hathaway, his investment firm in Obamaha, Neb., employs only 21 people (though of course the companies that Berkshire Hathaway owns employ a good deal more).


Republican politicians don’t actually defend wealth in the pure terms that Randians do. (That’s why it makes news when someone does so.) They frame this carefully: We’re all in this together, and a tax that sounds fair right now is actually a ploy to turn you against your neighbor, who could give you a job some day! That’s why you hear this line. From freshman Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho:

The worst thing we could do at this time is raise taxes on any American.

From McConnell:

I think it’s a bad idea to be raising taxes on anybody in the middle of a recession.

From John Boehner:

We do not want to raise taxes on any American.

And from the Tea Party grassroots at FreedomWorks:

Especially during the current economic recession, this is no time to raise taxes on any American.

The argument about job-creating-heroes is a fractal of this larger argument that any tax increase on anyone is destructive and unfair. The GOP has internalized Steinbeck’s maxim: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”