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Ben Nelson Has Some Unusual Friends

The House has proposed to pay for a large chunk of the cost of covering uninsured Americans by raising taxes on the rich. I think this is a good way to pay for health insurance expansion, though not the best way. Ben Nelson, not surprisingly, thinks it's a terrible idea:

"Tax is a four-letter word" with voters, said  Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). Even families not ranking in the top 1 percent of earners "hope they're going to be there someday," he said. "So they don't necessarily think it's fair."

Nelson has managed to pack a lot of wrong-headedness into a small amount of words. First of all, everybody involved in the negotiations agrees that some kind of tax revenues are going to be needed to cover the uninsured. And it's true that voters tend to disapprove of taxes in general, but if a bill is going to be passed -- as Nelson himselfsays he favors -- then some taxes are going to have to rise.

Second, it's flatly false to say that voters oppose paying taxes on the rich. The most recent poll I could dig up found that sixty percent of the public thinks "upper-income people" pay too little in taxes. And when it comes to raising revenue for health care, higher taxes on the rich is one of the few measures that's actually popular:

ABC News/Washington Post Poll. June 18-21, 2009. N=1,001 adults nationwide. MoE 3.5 (for all adults).

"Would you support or oppose raising income taxes on Americans with household incomes over 250 thousand dollars to help pay for health care reform?" Half sample

                      Support        Oppose           Unsure

6/18-21/09          60%              37%              3%

And third, while I don't doubt that some people oppose a higher tax rate on the rich because they think they'll be rich, is that really a reason to think they would prefer a higher tax on the middle clas instead? It's easy to oppose tax hikes in the abstract, when they're presented as simply a punishment to be imposed upon the rich. Butwhen the issue is that there will be a tax hike and the question is who should pay,why would a middle class person favor a middle-class tax hike on the grounds that they might one day be rich? Are there really people who think, "I'd rather take the hit now, and have less money for my kids' college education, so that one day when I'm really rich I can have a lower tax burden and thus afford two BMW's instead of one"?

It's possible such people exist and have shared their thinking with Ben Nelson. On the other hand, perhaps the more likely possibility is that the people who Ben Nelson hears from are already in the top 1% right now.

--Jonathan Chait