By forcing Republicans to admit their support for Wall Street over working families, Van Hollen's proposal opens the economic debate the Democrats need.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-MD) proposal to tax Wall Street speculators and CEO millionaires to put money in the pockets of working families and the middle class, the engines of our economy, is a political and economic home run. It allows Democrats to focus on economic growth and fairness at the same time, sharply defining the debate on the key question voters ask: “Which side are you on?”
Leading politicians from both parties are all expressing sympathy for the stagnant prospects of the middle class. If you need evidence, here is Jeb Bush sounding like Elizabeth Warren: “Millions of our fellow citizens across the broad middle class feel as if the American Dream is now out of their reach … that the playing field is no longer fair or level.”
Where the two parties split – and where the core debate that will define the next two years and the 2016 election lies – is on who is to blame and what to do about it.
Americans believe we need economic growth, but they are more likely to place the blame for stagnant wages on the super-rich and powerful who game the system at their expense. That is why they told pollsters they prefer “an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy” over “growing the economy” by 22 points.
Van Hollen claims both grounds – growth and fairness. As he says, “What our country needs is a growing economy that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.”
The heart of the plan is providing a $1,000 tax credit for workers, phased out as income rises, along with an additional $250 tax credit when workers save. He would pay for that by taxing Wall Street speculation (with a tiny financial transactions tax) and closing loopholes that allow millionaires to pay lower taxes than average people.
It’s clear that this is great politics: taxing Wall Street gambling and the super-rich to put more money in the pockets of working families and the middle class.
Republicans tell another story, placing the blame for middle-class woes on government and focusing on lowering taxes and cutting government regulation to grow the economy. In opposing the Van Hollen proposal, they are forced to defend the wealthy and deny tax breaks to the middle-class, as we saw from Speaker John Boehner’s spokesperson's comment opposing the Van Hollen plan.
This is the economic argument Democrats want to have. Republicans say we grow the economy by taking the side of the Wall Street banks that wrecked the economy and the corporate CEOs who cut our wages and shipped our jobs overseas. Democrats say we move the economy forward by putting more money in the pockets of working families and the middle class.
Van Hollen adds another proposal, which is also brilliant politics and sharp economics. He would not allow corporations to get tax breaks for million-dollar executive pay unless they shared the rewards of soaring corporate profits with their workers. Van Hollen accomplishes this by proposing to end corporate tax deductions for executive compensation of over $1 million, unless the corporation’s wages are raised enough to keep up with worker productivity and the cost of living. Another way that corporations could deduct higher executive pay is by providing employees with ownership and profit-sharing opportunities.
With this proposal, Van Hollen puts the focus squarely on the corporate behavior that has driven down wages and crushed middle-class aspirations. His proposal would boost worker income, which drives the economy forward. When Republicans oppose this, the choice will again be clear to Americans: CEO millionaires or working families.
As Van Hollen recognizes, his proposal is not the complete solution to creating an economy of broadly shared, sustainable prosperity. He recognizes the need to raise wages and job standards, which directly turn today’s low-wage, economy busting jobs into economy boosting jobs. He reinforces the necessity of investment in infrastructure, research and education.
It will be important to do all these things. We need to raise wage standards and strengthen the ability of workers to organize, to make sure that every job pays enough to care and support a family in dignity. It is essential that we make huge investments in transportation, clean energy, communications, and research to build a powerful economic foundation for the future. That investment will take revenues, which can be raised from closing corporate loopholes, raising tax rates on the wealthy, or other progressive tax measures. We can also discuss whether some of the revenues Van Hollen raises would be better spent on infrastructure rather than tax breaks for upper-middle income people.
Simplicity is key to political communication. In its simplest terms, Van Hollen is saying that we drive the economy forward by putting money in the pockets of working families and the middle-class, not Wall Street and the super wealthy. And then his proposal invites Americans to ask their elected officials: “which side are you on?”
If Democrats around the country are willing to stand up to their big campaign contributors and ask that question with such a powerful proposal in 2016, they will triumph. And in triumphing, they will move the country toward an America that works for all of us, not just the wealthy.
Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.