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Who’s Middle Class And Who’s Not: A Retort to Romney and Obama

“Middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less,” Mitt Romney tells George Stephanopoulos of ABC News in a new interview. Jonathan Chait points out that the context is important; Romney was trying desperately to wriggle out of agreeing with Harvard economist Martin Feldstein's (friendly!) analysis of Romney's “fairer, flatter, and simpler” tax proposal, which suggested Romney's 20 percent across-the-board tax cut would require him to eliminate tax preferences for incomes above roughly $100,000.

I agree with Chait that context is important, and in a moment we’ll review what that context was. But before proceeding, let’s have a reality check here. It is truly insane to think, or say, or suggest in any way that a six-figure income can plausibly be described as “middle income.” And among those who stand guilty of doing so are not only Romney but also Stephanopoulos (who two years ago shelled out $6.5 million for a New York apartment), President Obama, and even the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Shame on the lot of ’em.

Okay, back to the context. Romney didn’t want to concede that his tax plan requires jacking up taxes on incomes above $100,000. Why not? Because Obama has pledged not to raise taxes on incomes below $250,000. If Romney said “Feldstein’s calculations are dead right” then he’d potentially be ceding to Obama a bloc of voters with household incomes between $100,000 and $250,000.

In the interview, Stephanopoulos asked Romney to reconcile his previous claim that he would never, ever raise taxes on the middle class with Feldstein’s calculations. The abbreviated way that Stephanopoulos asked the question was: “Is $100,000 middle income?” To which Romney replied, “Middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less.” 

If Romney had answered, “Yes, George, $100,000 is middle income,” then that would have meant he was conceding that he would raise taxes on incomes above that threshold. He didn’t want to do that, so he said that he would consider as middle income (and therefore would not raise taxes on) anything up to $200,000 to $250,000. In effect, Romney was deciding that he’d rather lose the last few shreds of credibility he has for his tax arithmetic than admit he wants to raise taxes on incomes below $200,000 to $250,000. Romney was also deciding that he was willing to sound like an out-of-touch elitist for saying that people who make up to $200,000 or $250,00 are “middle income.” Or maybe he’s such an out-of-touch elitist that this particular angle never occurred to him.

But here’s the trouble. This entire gotcha trap is premised on the false conceit that $100,000 really is middle income, and that in concluding Romney would have to raise taxes on incomes above that amount, Feldstein had revealed that Romney’s plan really would raise taxes on middle-income people--the very thing Romney had said he wouldn’t do. How preposterous that someone earning $130,000 or $170,000 should not be considered middle class! President Obama considers incomes in that range to be middle class, and he’s a Democrat, so he should know

But as I have observed more than once: Even an income of $100,000 puts you in the top 10 percent. And though my spacial reasoning is imperfect, I can’t see how the 90th percentile and up can be interpreted as the middle of anything. If your child comes home and says, “Mommy! Mommy! I got 90 percent on my math quiz,” do you reply sternly, “That’s a C, kiddo”? Or do you reply, “Wonderful! Sounds like an A-minus! Congratulations, clever child!” If you chose the second, then you cannot logically consider a $100,000 income “middle class.”

It is, granted, somewhat more ridiculous to consider incomes up to $200,000 or $250,000 as middle class. That range puts you in the top five percent. Now we’re giving a C grade to a 95 percent on Junior’s math quiz. But it my book, scoring anywhere in the 90s is pretty swell, and being anywhere above the 90th percentile does not allow you to call yourself “middle class.” Say “upper middle class” if you must, but as far as the rest of the country is concerned, you’re rich--and should definitely be paying more in taxes.