Tax The Rich, Then Tax Them Some More

Talia Lavin
Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has suggested bringing back a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent for the ultrarich. (DON EMMERT via Getty Images)

If you close your eyes and listen, sometimes you can hear the Overton Window creaking open a little at a time, a gasp of glass against swollen wood.

Thanks to daring freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a few helpful wonks who’ve run the numbers and made the historical parallels, the idea of taxing the rich at much higher rates has burst into the political sphere with renewed vigor this week. Ocasio-Cortez suggested a 70 percent marginal tax rate on the very wealthy to fund America’s desperately needed priorities, emphatically including drastic changes to face the realities of climate change, and the Overton Window eased up an inch to accommodate this hot new draft of change.

The Overton Window is a term that describes the range of ideas acceptable within public discourse; it’s not a literal window, despite the abuse of metaphor by political columnists like myself. But as a resident of New York City, one of the most dramatically wealth-stratified urban areas in the nation, I think about windows a lot.

I think about the high, light-filled windows in the new Hudson Yards development project, for which New York’s taxpayers footed a $5.6 billion subsidy bill, and whose 4,000 apartments will cater to a moneyed international set that views New York real estate as a valuable place to park excess cash.

If you close your eyes and listen, sometimes you can hear the Overton Window creaking open a little at a time, a gasp of glass against swollen wood.

I think about other luxe windows in my city, glowing with gentle yellows for the residential pied-à-terres of the rich, and fluorescent for the offices where unimaginable streams of wealth get traded in countless microtransactions of astonishing complexity.

I think of my own modest windows, a new locus of panic as I start a hand-to-mouth life as a freelance writer, stressing monthly about the rent. I think about the boarded-up windows in my neighborhood, where signs posted on trees advertising quick home-buying for cash attest to the hunger to clear out longtime residents, making way for sterile new condos.

I think about the metaphor of “broken windows,” a discredited social theory that served as a pretext for Rudy Giuliani to torment and criminalize the city’s poor. Advanced in the 1980s, the theory advocated for cracking down militantly on misdemeanors, from turnstile jumping to panhandling, which would supposedly lead to a drop in serious crimes. Just as broken windows on a street indicated the presence of more serious social disorder, minor crimes could predict the occurrence of major ones. The NYPD’s adoption of “broken windows” policing in the 1990s resulted in a ferocious crackdown on minor crimes, and a vast increase in the number of incarcerated people in New York. It was “broken windows” we had to thank for the openly racist police policy known as “stop and frisk,” which saw black and Hispanic city residents harassed by police at ludicrously disproportionate rates.

In this June 17, 2012, file photo, the Rev. Al Sharpton, center, walks with demonstrators during a silent march to end New York's "stop and frisk" program. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

I think of the lack of windows in the city’s social-benefits offices and the hourslong waits those in search of food stamps or modest housing subsidies endure. I think of those who want more than anything to seal the January cold out behind glass, but who sleep rough, under cardboard and cloth or in the city’s bursting homeless shelters ― more in recent years than at any point since the Great Depression.

And I think about how Americans view the poor. As sinners who’ve strayed and must be punished with drug tests and work requirements and random inspections and punitive amounts of paperwork ― as if the sting of constant worry that poverty brings must be supplemented by government goading and state-sanctioned shaming. The current administration is deeply enthusiastic about this sort of humiliation; it is making an end-run around Congress to impose draconian, complex work requirements for food stamps. Government-imposed hunger is a sadist’s punishment, but it fits a deeply American contempt for poverty and those who suffer it; we quarantine and punish them as if lack of funds is a communicable disease borne of vice.

I think about how we view the rich, so often born into the aeries of luxury, as inherently deserving of their station. They’re coddled by their birth and by our tax code. They’re buoyed by our admiration: They’re “makers” and “doers” and winners of philanthropy awards, because they have enough money ― parked in ways such that it swells and effloresces into yet more money ― that they can throw their pocket change at the rest of us and be feted for it. We clap and call them “job creators,” even when the only jobs involved are for lawyers and the kind of accountants who know the differential tax-sheltering benefits between the Cayman Islands and Cyprus.

I think about how we view the rich, so often born into the aeries of luxury, as inherently deserving of their station. They’re coddled by their birth and by our tax code. They’re buoyed by our admiration.

Even the ones who accrued vast wealth in their lifetimes are given every opportunity to squirrel it away and multiply it. In California, when wildfires raged, the rich were able buy their way out, hiring private firefighters to keep their compounds safe. And we passed a $2 trillion tax cut whose benefits accrue straight to their already swollen coffers.

I think of the old, cracked windows on public trains that swelter in summer and freeze in winter and are beset with ever-longer delays. The ruts in our roads, the poison in our water, the fires in our forests, the plastic in our seas. I think of the things all that hoarded cash could heal and build and fix.

That’s when I’m grateful for even the smallest breath of air in our political discourse, a way to sweep away some of the poisonous rhetoric that blames the poor for their poverty and lauds the wealthy for circumstances most of them had no hand in creating.

I am sick of it, I am so sick of it I could scream an unending scream that might shatter even the reinforced imported Italian glass of a hedge-fund manager’s midcentury modern gut-renovated Manhattan penthouse that once belonged to an old woman whose rent control died when she did. With my own stubby hands, I want to break open the myth that those who outearn us are our betters. I want to break open the coffers of the wealthy and let us use it to save ourselves.

I’m so angry I want to smash the Overton Window that some courageous politicians are shoving at with their shoulders. Outside it the air is cool, and heavy with promise.

Talia Lavin is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.