Obama’s tax cuts: Progressive. Redistributive. Spending.

Kevin Drum asks when Obama, who ran on tax cuts, will make a real effort to sell the public on a progressive agenda. But the tax cuts are a progressive agenda–one commonly known as “redistribution.”

Kevin Drum asks when Obama will start engaging in the public persuasion he’ll need to sell the progressive planks in his campaign platform, since he mostly didn’t campaign hard on them. Mostly, Kevin’s analysis (which focuses on cap-and-trade and greenhouse policy generally) is on the money. But this sentence deserves a second look: “The public face of his [Obama’s] economic policy, after all, was almost entirely based on tax cuts, a distinctly conservative notion.”

Obama, as most readers of this blog probably know, ran on repealing the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 a year, and using the revenue raised by doing that to give a tax cut to everyone earning less than $200,000. (Between those two income levels, it gets complicated.) Even those who don’t pay federal income taxes would receive a refundable tax credit, otherwise known as a government check–a fact that drove the Right mad.

This is, quite simply, the core of left-liberalism: straight-up redistribution. Whatever else Obama proposes doing–and of course Kevin is right that we need investments, public goods provision, and other things that the tax plan doesn’t captuure–the core of Obama’s platform is to raise taxes on the rich to send checks to the poor and middle-class. This is the opposite of “distinctly conservative.”

Obama did a great job during the campaign of re-framing the Reaganite meme that spending is simply bad and tax cuts simply good–that spending “costs the taxpayers money” while tax cuts “let you keep more of your money.” Repeatedly, especially in the debates, Obama used, and made stick, the language that tax cuts for the wealthy “cost” money that we as a country need for urgent purposes.

But I think Kevin’s been schnookered on the other side, failing to follow through on the logic. If tax cuts for the wealthy count as spending, and wasting, money on the wealthy, then tax cuts for the poor and middle class (and, alas, a big chunk of the wealthy, since $250k a year is hardly “middle class” except in our odd political rhetoric) count as a spending program, and a big one, benefiting the poor and middle class. And it’s to be paid for by raising taxes on the rich.

This is the most progressive program of redistribution that any U.S. politician has run on in years. Obama re-cast the debate so thoroughly that he ended up fooling even his own side. But now that he’s won, let’s unfool ourselves. Obama’s on the side of the angels. Let’s take yes for an answer.

Update: Kevin replies.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.