When Bernie Sanders said his tax returns would turn out to be pretty boring, he wasn’t kidding. After a bit of a delay, the senator’s campaign released his 2014 returns last Friday night, and as expected, there wasn’t much in there of interest.
At least, that’s what I thought. National Review published a piece this week making hay of the senator’s deductions.
Sanders released his 2014 tax return this weekend, revealing that he and his wife took $60,208 in deductions from their taxable income. These deductions are all perfectly legal and permitted under the U.S. tax code, but they present a morally inconvenient, if delicious, irony: The Democratic socialist from Vermont, a man who rages against high earners paying a lower effective tax rate than blue-collar workers, saved himself thousands using many of the tricks that would be banned under his own tax plan. […]What Sanders did, using every option and advantage available under a Byzantine tax code to minimize his tax payment, is a normal practice for many Americans. But it’s also exactly what the targets of his anger do. You can argue about whether or not that’s greed, but it’s impossible to argue that it isn’t hypocrisy. The paragon of liberal purity is not as pure as he’d like the world to believe.
Actually, it’s quite possible to argue that this isn’t hypocrisy, because, well, that’s not what hypocrisy means.
Current tax laws allow Americans to take a variety of deductions, and Sanders followed the laws as they’re written. Does Sanders hope to change the laws related to deductions? He absolutely does, even if that means he and his family have to pay more. But those changes haven’t yet happened, so the senator continues to do what he’s permitted to do.
As Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum put it, “If you don’t like the designated hitter rule in baseball, does that mean you should send your pitcher to the plate just to prove how sincere you are? Of course not. You play by the rules, whatever those rules are.”
All of which leads me to an ongoing point of concern. When I argue that many conservatives don’t seem to understand what hypocrisy means, I’m not being coy or snarky. I mean it quite literally: some on the right throw around accusations about various figures on the left being hypocrites in a way that suggests they’re genuinely confused about how hypocrisy works on a conceptual level.
A few years ago, for example, President Obama attended a fundraiser with some wealthy donors. The Republican National Committee insisted it was “the definition of hypocrisy” for the president to “run against” the wealthy while seeking campaign contributions from wealthy contributors.
The trouble, of course, is that this wasn’t even close to the “the definition of hypocrisy.” Having a policy agenda that asks more from the very wealthy does not preclude seeking contributions from those who also support that agenda, including accepting donations from the very wealthy.
Last year, Hillary Clinton was accused of being “hypocritical” for criticizing the existing campaign-finance system, even while raising money within that system. But again, that’s not what “hypocrisy” means – there is no contradiction when a candidate plays by the rules while hoping to someday change those rules.
Circling back to an old post, hypocrisy in politics is not uncommon, and it’s worth calling out once it’s uncovered. But can we try to separate legitimate instances of hypocrisy and stuff that looks kind of funny if you don’t give it a lot of thought? They are two very different things.