"The question is, should we be giving an extra $120 billion to people in the top 1 percent?"
So asked Gene Sperling, Hillary Clinton's chief economic advisor, at a recent National Press Club panel discussion. Translation: It's the government's money, and anything left over after Uncle Sam picks your pockets is a "gift."
Indeed, to hear leading Democrats talk about the "richest 1 percent" - a diverse cohort of investors, managers, entrepreneurs and, to be sure, some fat-cat heirs - one gets the impression that wealthy Americans are a natural resource, to be pumped for as much cash as we need.
Further, the Democrats don't think that well will ever run dry. "I no more believe that the hedge-fund managers are going to quit working at billion-dollar hedge funds because tax rates go up 5 percent than Alex Rodriguez will quit playing baseball because they put in a salary cap," Austan Goolsbee, Barack Obama's economics guru, said Friday.
This sort of thing used to be a staple of the hard left. "Look at the wealth of America, weigh its resources, feel its power," wrote the editors of The Nation back in 1988, endorsing presidential candidate Jesse Jackson's extravagant public spending plan. "There's enough money in this country to do everything Jackson asks, and more."
But now this vision simply defines liberal economics. John Edwards' unending campaign for president is based on the idea that there are two Americas and everyone will be better off when un-rich America mugs rich America. According to Democrats, it's greedy to want to keep your own money, but it's "justice" to demand someone else's.
Michael Boskin, Rudy Giuliani's economic advisor, said, "There is no - let me repeat - no example in the last quarter-century of a large, complex economy that has been successful with high taxes." He added: "The Western Europeans have seen their standards of living decline by 30 percent in a little more than a generation because of their high taxes." The U.S., meanwhile, has outperformed the competition over the last quarter-century.
I'm with Boskin. But I think there's a more pressing issue. What does it do to a democracy when people see government as something only other people should pay for?
Let's take seriously for a moment the notion that rich people are an inexhaustible army of Energizer bunnies that just keep going and going, no matter what taxes you throw in their path. You can see where Democrats get this idea, after all. The top 1 percent of wage earners already provide nearly 40 percent of federal income tax revenues. The bottom 50 percent of taxpayers contribute only about 3 percent.