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The Last Taboo

Even purportedly friendly observers are cautioning President Obama not to be too hard on the rich in his policies and rhetoric. Those not offended by the unseemly nature of acknowledging differing obligations based on wealth are, on a practical level, worried that he’s risking the support of potentially big campaign donors.  He shouldn’t back down for either reason.

It’s often said that money is the last taboo in personal relations, and the same seems to be true in public debate.  The ability to silence any discussion of the programmatic and moral implications of America’s huge wealth disparity by declaring it “class warfare” is quite convenient for the well-to-do.  But that shouldn’t cow the President or anyone else from addressing this central issue of economic and political policy.  

Demanding more from those who have more is simple physics, like asking the strongest camper to carry the heaviest canoe.  Taxing wealthier people at higher rates is not “punishing success,” as the scolds peevishly describe it, but based on a recognition of the role of society and luck in the accumulation of riches. Lionizers of the wealthy as exclusively a class of rugged self-made entrepreneurs ignore the fact that a lot of fortunes are simply inherited.

Besides, there has always been a logical disconnect between the portrayal of rich people as, on the one hand, indefatigable world-beaters undeterred by obstacles and setbacks in their accumulation of wealth; and, on the other, fragile hothouse flowers who will get hurt feelings and stop investing (and politically donating) at the mere whisper of a tax hike.  

The correct assumption is that wealthy Americans know they are treated more gently here than in any other industrialized country and will continue to live and invest here even if called upon to do a little more to help the national finances.  And many of them—who care about social causes like choice and marriage equality, the environment, and, yes, even a better balanced economy—will continue to support President Obama, even if he calls on them for minor monetary sacrifices and from time to time calls them that filthy word: rich.

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