Maybe if ABC had made the 26th Democratic presidential debate this election season drag on for another couple of hours (on top of the two endless hours), someone would have gotten around to answering this question: When did households earning $200,000 and change become middle class?
Moderator George Stephanopoulos asked both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama if they would make "an absolute, read-my-lips pledge" that, if elected, there will be "no tax increases of any kind for anyone earning under $200,000 a year." Clinton pledged not to raise "a single tax on middle-class Americans, people making less than $250,000 a year." Obama answered he would make a similar pledge: "It depends on how you calculate it (the income level), but it would be between ($200,000) and $250,000."
Last weekend, the big campaign flap concerned whether Obama's remarks about "bitter" small-town Pennsylvanians were "elitist." Wednesday, when the candidates described $200,000-a-year earners as middle class, no one batted an eye.
Hello. I'm a Republican, and I think a family that earns more than $200,000 is rich. In the world of Democrats Clinton, Obama and Stephanopoulos, however, you have to be among the top 3 percent of wage earners to qualify for that club.
Some stats: In 2006, the median annual household income in America was $48,201. The median income for two-earner families was $78,994.
When I asked Gerald Prante of the nonpartisan Tax Foundation if he thought $200,000 were middle-class income, he noted, "It isn't even middle income in Manhattan," where Prante said some 14.2 percent of households make more than $200,000. The median income in a household headed by someone with a master's degree is about $88,000. Ergo, it would take the income of 2 1/2 master's-degree-headed households or more than four median households for one family to transcend middle-class status chez Obama and at casa Clinton.
To the apparent glee of Clinton, ABC anchorman Charlie Gibson assailed Obama for his proposal to raise the cap on Social Security payroll taxes beyond $97,500 a year. (Actually, the cap is now $102,000.)
"But that's a tax on people under $250,000," said Gibson. Like that's a bad thing in the formerly soak-the-rich Democratic Party.
Obama replied that he would "look at potentially exempting those who are in between." Huh?
Robert Bixby of the fiscal watchdog group The Concord Coalition figured that Obama is proposing a "donut hole" -- wherein only earnings below $100,000 or above $250,000 would be taxed. And: "Campaign rhetoric and sensible budgeting are incompatible creatures."
Also nonsensical is Clinton's call for a special commission to deal with the pending Social Security and Medicare crises -- to wit, $53 trillion in unfunded retirement and medical promises, which amount to $175,000 for every American. A commission would be a grand idea, if Clinton had not already kneecapped it with a no-new-taxes-except-on-the-very-very-rich pledge.
Republican John McCain's campaign rhetoric also has strayed from his fiscally conservative record, but today, I focus on the Democrats. Their soak-the-rich approach has always been a problem, because overtaxing productive people can hurt the job market. So what do Democrats do? Pander more.
Both Clinton and Obama are promising big new programs, middle-class tax cuts and an end to deficit spending -- paid for by raising a tax of "the highest volatility," as Prante put it. Which means that the minute the economy is in trouble, revenue will dry up. This is a formula for fiscal pain.
With a realistic view of affluence, there are not enough rich people to close the federal deficit or the pending entitlement crisis -- even if a Democrat actually ends the war in Iraq. When Democrats redefine rich to cover only the really, really rich, they make their unrealistic promises all that much more unattainable.
Clinton and Obama keep telling Americans that they have these wonderful plans to create vital programs that will make this country a greater, better place to live. Too bad their programs are never so important that Americans should have to pay for them. They are not even so important that well-heeled hi-def flat-screen TV Democrats should have to pick up part of the tab.
Call it the new American idealism. Ask not what you can do for your country. Make someone else pay for it.
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