the national interest

For Republicans, the Time Is Never Quite Right to Tax the Rich

Job Creators need all their hard-earned money. Photo: Appian Way/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

Earlier this week, Axios sagely explained that Joe Biden’s plans to raise taxes on corporations would have to rely solely on Democratic votes, because “Republicans are unlikely to raise taxes in the middle of a pandemic.”

If you had read that passage and taken it at face value, it might have seemed like a hopeful omen. After all, we’re not “in the middle of a pandemic.” We’re at the end of a pandemic. Any Republicans who might be confused or pessimistic about this will surely see within a month or two that their grounds for objection have disappeared.

But then the next day Punchbowl, another inside-Washington reporting start-up, delivered more discouraging news. “Republicans,” it reported, “want nothing more than to run on Democrats hiking taxes after a pandemic.”

Okay, so they don’t want to raise corporate taxes in the middle of a pandemic or after a pandemic. But maybe once the pandemic has disappeared completely, and the economy is growing again, they’ll be ready to negotiate over a corporate tax hike!

Alas, this, too, seems doubtful. Joshua Bolten, the president and chief executive of the Business Roundtable, a powerful group representing top business executives in Washington, tells the New York Times his organization “strongly opposes corporate tax increases” because “policymakers should avoid creating new barriers to job creation and economic growth, particularly during the recovery.”

So no raising corporate taxes in the middle of a pandemic, or at the end of one, nor in the recovery that follows. Recent history shows that Republicans also oppose raising corporate taxes, or taxes of any kind, when the economy is in recession. In fact, over the last three decades, we have seen all kinds of conditions — fast growth, slow growth, pandemics, health, war, peace — and Republicans have fervently opposed tax increases every single time.

And yet the press corps continues to indulge the rhetorical conceit, playing the Green Eggs and Ham game of listing whatever temporal objections to any tax hike on the rich they may supply at any given moment. They do not want them in a box, they do not want them with a fox.

Punchbowl’s reporting suggests Republicans refuse to consider tax hikes on the rich because they’re eager to attack it in campaign ads. But that motive doesn’t really track, either. Politico has a poll showing Biden’s proposal to finance infrastructure by taxing either corporations or income over $400,000 commands overwhelming public support.

Democrats have vulnerabilities, but taxing the rich isn’t one of them. Indeed, the Congressional Republican strategy memo urges members to focus on issues like China, wokeness, and Big Tech, and omits any mention of taxes at all. Republicans are going to uniformly oppose tax hikes on the rich — not because it’s part of their election strategy, but because they care about the policy.

Having closely followed conservative thinking on taxes since the 1990s, it’s clear the American right rejects higher taxes under any conditions, especially when those taxes fall disproportionately on the rich. They have three basic reasons for this position:

1) Higher taxes on the rich discourages economic activity; indeed, lower taxes on the rich is the most important single determinant of economic growth.

2) Taxing the rich at higher rates is morally wrong, akin to discrimination on the basis of income. (This is why conservatives frequently get so worked up about proposals to increase the progressivity of the tax code that they compare such plans to Nazi Germany — in their mind, subjecting rich people to higher tax rates is a form of oppression similar in kind, if admittedly not in degree, to Hitler’s persecution of the Jewish people.)

3) Simple self-interest motivates at least some right-wing anti-tax activity, which includes a dollop of relatively straightforward investment in political lobbying that can yield enormous returns for a tiny number of people who have huge sums riding on certain tax-policy debates.

Some conservatives are motivated by one or another of these, some by all three. But crucially, none of them has any public purchase. The public consistently rejects arguments against progressive taxation and supports higher taxes on the rich in and of itself — regardless of to what use the funds are devoted (sometimes, the money is spent on popular programs).

This creates a strange result in which Republicans are committed to reducing taxes on the rich regardless of the political cost, because this is the primary reason they’re in politics. But they usually shy away from articulating their principled and even fanatical reasons to oppose taxing the rich, instead couching their stance in contingent arguments about how we can’t raise taxes on job creators now because the economy is growing too slowly or too fast. Reporters tend not to understand the depth (and, in most cases, sincerity) of their position and frequently describe their professed motivations at face value, even though they often plainly fail to describe the actual position they’re taking, which is: No new taxes on the rich, ever.

For Republicans, Never Quite the Right Time to Tax the Rich