Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders waves to the crowd of supporters after speaking at a campaign kickoff rally in Burlington, Vt., May 26, 2015.
Photo by Brain Snyder/Reuters

The tax rates that don’t cause Bernie Sanders to ‘flinch’

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them. Take a look at these comments the Democratic presidential candidate made to CNBC about higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
“These people are so greedy, they’re so out of touch with reality,” he said. “They think they own the world…. I’m sorry to have to tell them, they live in the United States, they benefit from the United States, we have kids who are hungry in this country. We have people who are working two, three, four jobs, who can’t send their kids to college.
 
“Sorry, you’re all going to have to pay your fair share of taxes,” he asserted. “If my memory is correct, when radical socialist Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the highest marginal tax rate was something like 90 percent.”
That last part is true, by the way. In the 1950s, when Republicans were far more interested in deficit reduction than tax breaks, Eisenhower was committed to helping pay off World War II-era debts. He kept Roosevelt’s 90% top marginal rate in place, and the post-war economy boomed anyway. (It wasn’t until JFK in 1961 that Washington approved a “peace dividend,” and even then, some Republicans of the era balked, still preferring to focus on the debt, not tax breaks.)
 
But Sanders’ support for similar rates is so far from mainstream norms that his comments strike much of the political world as somehow bizarre. The New York Times noted with incredulity that the Vermont senator “doesn’t flinch over returning to the 90 percent personal income tax rates of the 1950s for top earners.”
 
Over at Salon, it led Simon Maloy to raise a good point: “We’ve become so accustomed to historically low rates of taxation for the wealthy that when someone like Sanders comes along and says the rich can and should pay a far higher rate, people assume he’s out to lunch.”
The flip side to the dynamic is that while reporters and pundits raise their eyebrows at the notion of dramatically increasing the tax burden on the wealthy, absurd and irresponsible tax cuts for top earners are now just assumed to be a given when it comes to Republican policymaking. Several current Republican candidates for the presidency have laid out plans that would eliminate capital gains taxes and the estate tax while cutting the top income tax rate. […]
 
The thrust of GOP policymaking is to redirect an even greater share of the nation’s wealth to the already engorged few sitting at the top of the income ladder. Sanders is proposing instead that we funnel some of that wealth away from the rich and toward the middle class. And while we’re supposed to “flinch” at a high rate of taxation for income, a zero percent rate on investments is taken in stride.
I think that’s right. Sanders’ position is clearly far from the traditional menu of tax-policy options, so far that he practically sounds like a visitor from another country (if not another planet). We’re accustomed to hearing national figures talk about raising taxes on the rich a little; we’re not accustomed to hearing them talk about raising taxes on the rich a lot.
 
But what Sanders is proposing is about as radical as Republican plans to slash taxes on the wealthy by hundreds of billions of dollars. It just seems more extreme because our expectations have begun to adapt to a ridiculous GOP wish list that we’re confronted with all the time.
 

Bernie Sanders and Tax Policy

The tax rates that don't cause Bernie Sanders to 'flinch'