Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Don’t Fall for Millionaire Victimhood

A sign welcoming new residents to Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Source: Joe Wolf / Flickr

A sign welcoming new residents to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Source: Joe Wolf / Flickr

As ballots are counted across King County, it looks like Prop 1 has failed. It had a worthy purpose – making art more accessible to low-income residents – but it was paid for with yet another sales tax in a city that feels that it’s been taxed enough.

But it feels that way because some residents are paying more than others.

While poor people in Washington State pay 16.8% of their income in state and local taxes, the very rich pay only 2.4%. So it makes sense that when we want to create services to benefit the poorest among us, we propose taxes that make the poorest pay for them, and voters reject these measures.

It wouldn’t be that way if the rich paid an equivalent rate in taxes, which the income tax passed last month aims for.

But whenever the rich are asked to pay their fair share, they respond with bleating cries of victimhood.

Don’t fall for it. Millionaires are not victims.

They are not a community under attack as venture capitalist Matt McIlwain says. “I believe there are times when you need to serve your community,” he told Geekwire after starting a nonprofit to fight the income tax. “In defeating the city income tax, we can help maintain a system of opportunity and job creation for innovators and workers.”

What is this “community” that McIlwain needs to protect? He explains that it’s “people moving to the region for tech jobs,” meaning his vision of community leaves no room for the Seattleites who have lived here for generations, but increasingly cannot afford to stay. He’s a reverse Robin Hood, protecting the affluent and the well-resourced as they move in and push working class communities out.

McIlwain says Seattle’s economic opportunity and job creation will be destroyed by a 2.25% tax on income over $250,000 for a single filer. That someone looking to make half a million dollars annually will not come to Seattle over $5,625 in taxes. Such lost opportunity!

It’s duplicitous to put the struggle of working class families barely making it in Seattle on the same footing as millionaires trying to avoid a few thousand dollars in taxes.  It’s also logically unsound. But opponents to a progressive income tax can’t argue their position logically. How can they justify paying proportionally less in taxes than the people who serve them coffee or clean their homes? They have to deflect from reality to win.

That’s why John Peeples compared the new tax to rape when the City Council voted to pass the tax last month. “Yes means yes and no means no,” he said. “How many times do the targets of your undue attention and envy need to say no before you respect their wishes? As with any threatened act that does not enjoy mutual consent, I can assure you that the non-consenting party will simply refuse to take it lying down and will not comply.”

Yikes. Peeples managed to perversely portray millionaires as rape victims and conscientious objectors in just a few sentences.

It’s also why Ruth Bayan wrote in the Northwest Asian Weekly that a tax on the rich is like an attack on the historically marginalized. “‘Tax the Asians’ — that would be racist, wouldn’t gain any traction, and certainly would not pass,” she said. “‘Tax the disabled’ — nope.”

Really? Being part of the elite is by definition part of a minority group. But being in the wealthy minority doesn’t mean you’re oppressed.

We do not live in a society that attacks the rich. Instead, we live in one that idolizes them, from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” to ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” We tell rich people that they are more moral, intelligent and hard-working than everyone else, which is why Donald Trump said not paying taxes means he’s “smart.”

But not paying taxes isn’t a sign of intelligence, it’s a vestige of a culture that favors and glorifies the rich. The very rich feel victimized by anything that challenges their exceptionalism. But a progressive income tax is not an attack; it’s an appeal to remember they’re part of the same community as everyone else, and bear the same level of social responsibility.

The Economic Policy Institute just came out with a report that shows CEOs at the nation’s largest firms make 271 times the average worker. With 261 work days in a year, that means those CEOs make more in a day than the average worker does annually.

While it’s justifiable that CEOs make significantly more than their employees, it’s not justifiable that they pay significantly less in taxes. That does not create opportunity for all people.

So when wealthy Seattleites spin the effort to build a fair tax system as class warfare or some kind of reverse oppression, don’t buy it. It’s not too much to ask.


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