Fair and Unfair Demagoguery Explained

09.14.12

Romney and "Middle Income"

George Stephanopoulos and Mitt Romney had the following exchange, which will air Sunday:

MR: Let me tell you, George, the fundamentals of my tax policy are these.  Number one, reduce tax burdens on middle-income people.  So no one can say my plan is going to raise taxes on middle-income people, because principle number one is keep the burden down on middle-income taxpayers.

GS: Is $100,000 middle income?

MR: No, middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less.  So number one, don’t reduce– or excuse me, don’t raise taxes on middle-income people, lower them.

Now, my fellow libs are jumping on this, and obviously I see why. But I don't think this is just an out-of-touch error. I think this statement was probably a calculation. A wrong one, but a calculation.

I think he's trying to exploit the difference in opinion among Democrats on the amount of dollars earned at which higher tax rates should take effect. (Political reporters reading me, please note how I phrased that! Taxes are on dollars earned above a certain level, not on people.) Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi said $1 million. Obama says $250,000.

The Schumer/Pelosi argument goes--remember, they represent states/cities where salaries and the cost of living are far higher than average--that in New York City or San Francisco, two professionals in their 50s can easily make $250K together but still be basically middle class. I agree with that and have said so. So Romney is aiming his remark that those Schumer-Pelosi couples.

I can see it. But the Democrats can fairly demagogue that into "Romney thinks $250,000 is middle income!" In a country where the median household income is $51,000, I think that can sound pretty bad.

Notice I said "fairly demagogue." Here's the difference between fair and unfair demagoguery. Unfair demagoguing would be "Mitt Romney thinks middle-income means $200,000 to $250,000." That would obviously be a lie based on what Romney said. This is the kind of stuff Romney-Ryan have been doing, incidentally, which is why I just call it plain old lying. They're lying.

But it's fair to say that Romney says $250,000 is middle class, because he did in fact say that. It's mildly demagogic and misleading, but in the realm of politics, it's fair. He said it.

Meanwhile, here is something you won't hear him say. Another economist has stepped forward with a study affirming that there is no way Romney can do all he says he'll do on taxes and budgets without eliminating deductions (notably the aforementioned home mortage one) for earners making $100,000 a year or more. Bloomberg reports on the finding:

Mitt Romney says he can lower income-tax rates by 20 percent without costing the U.S. government revenue and without making the middle class carry a bigger share of the tax load.

He’s right -- assuming that Congress eliminates the most widely used deductions by taxpayers earning more than $100,000 a year, says Harvey Rosen, an economics professor at Princeton University whose study Romney cites as evidence that his plan is viable.

So Romney has relied on Rosen's work, but even Rosen says the math isn't possible without hitting the middle class.

In any case, Romney is going to pay for that comment above. He could get away with it if his biography were different. But then again, if his biography were different, would he think $250,000 was middle class?