The tactic of 'class warfare'

"Class warfare has been around before Moses and "¦ has been demagogued by the likes of FDR and accelerated ever since."

— "Class Warfare in Oregon," Dec. 6

This line comes from a regular opinion column in the Mail Tribune called "Conservative Corner." Its author wants you to vote against two ballot measures next month: Measure 66, which would raise Oregon's tax on income in excess of $125,000 ($250,000 for a couple) by 1.8 percent and on income over $250,000 ($500,000 for a couple) by 2 percent; and Measure 67, which would establish a new schedule for corporate income taxes that raises the minimum payment from $10 to $150. He says these are forms of class warfare. He uses the term three times.

You could almost let that slide if he hadn't added the poke about demagoguery. My dictionary calls demagoguery a kind of "appeal to people's emotions and prejudices rather than their rationality." Like "¦ say "¦ the catch phrase class warfare, which has one purpose and one purpose only. Not to offer any data or evidence about whether a tax proposal is good or bad. Not to add the slightest ray of light to the conversation. Not to help anyone figure out a single thing.

The purpose is to shame people who think that wealthy people could fairly pay more, in hopes they'll shut up. "Warfare? Oh, I'm not much for warfare. Maybe I'm getting too pushy about this."

I'm all for hearing whatever opponents of these two measures (and progressive taxation generally) have to say. Judging from the name of their Web site ( and their ads featuring President Obama's comment that you don't want to raise taxes in a recession, they think these increases will damage Oregon's economy. Our job as voters is to weigh that against the "yes" side's argument that ongoing decay of schools and other state-funded services will trash the economy a lot more than a tax that takes an extra $4,500 from a couple making $500,000.

The other key issue is tax fairness, which comes down to the eye of the beholder. If you think ability to pay should be one factor shaping the tax code, or that the wealthy have cruised nicely through a storm that has battered most working families, you're probably comfortable voting for both measures. If you see progressive taxes as a perverse penalty for success and enterprise, or if you're irked that people get to approve higher taxes that they themselves won't pay, you're likely to be filling in "no" ovals next month.

These are good arguments to have, conversations that people who think they can govern themselves should be able to handle. Those pointing fingers about "class warfare" aren't interested in conversations. They're interested in distracting us. And that makes you think they're not very confident about the persuasiveness of their arguments.

(And yes, the phrase does get tossed back in the other direction, by people who think that wealthy interests and their political servants are grabbing much more than their fair share. But in every case I can remember, that's been a nyah-nyah response to attacks on progressive tax reformers, who then say, "You want to know who's waging class warfare? I'll tell you who's waging class warfare"¦" which doesn't get us very far either.)

This gets worse at the national level, especially when you scan the last 50 years. For much of that time, the top marginal tax rate — the rate the highest earners paid on their top level of income — was over 90 percent. It dropped through the Reagan years until at the end of Clinton's presidency it stood at 39 percent. Under George Bush, Congress dropped it again to today's rate of 35 percent, ratcheting budget deficits up in the process. For years now we've had to listen to how those who want it restored to 39 percent are practicing class warfare. I'd like to be able to say I'm making this up.

If you think restoring that 4 percent on the top layers of income of the wealthiest Americans is unfair, let us know why. Argue, if you want, that Measures 66 and 67 will hurt Oregon's economy (though don't expect historical data to help you, because the economy mostly flourished when national taxes were higher). If you'd like our full attention, add to that an idea you like better to pay for dwindling state services in this "recession." But please. Please don't call this class warfare, because when you do you're calling us stupid, or at least easily distracted. That's not polite.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at

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