Scott Walker’s Very Bad Analogy

By Merrill Ring

Was it ignorance or dishonesty?

Recently defeated and so now former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has been thoroughly discredited for his inability to understand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal that when someone makes more than $10 million, the applicable income tax rate should be 70%.

Walker told a group of 10 year olds that AOC’s proposal was like them working to earn $10 and when they got home their mother said ‘You have to give me $7 of that $10.” They (of course) responded ‘That’s not fair’. Walker (smugly) accepted that as a wise comment on the proposal.

Of course, he got smashed for the analogy. The proposal is that the tax rate for income over $10 million should be 70% - it is not, as Walker’s analogy has it, that the income below $10 million is to be taxed at 70%. (In technical terms it is the marginal tax rate that is at issue.)

Either Walker was lying and making a propaganda pitch to a bunch of 10 year olds or he was ignorant of what a marginal tax rate is. Since he had been governor of the great state of Wisconsin it is hard to believe in his ignorance … but who knows (who could believe that Trump is so ignorant)?

However, even with the response establishing that Walker is either ignorant of something he should know or that his honesty is in doubt, the criticism should not stop there. There are further issues that turn up when the questioning is continued, issues that reveal even more about the conservative outlook.

First, there is a gigantic difference between $10 and $10 million. Of course, it is hugely unfair, as the kids recognized, to take (without any explanation) 70% of $10 – your (say) movie ticket goes out the window, depriving you of something that you enjoy. Kids know how much $10 will get them and know that $3 is not going to go nearly as far as the original $10.

But if someone (even taking it that, as Walker does, that it is not the marginal rate that is at issue) loses 70% of $10 million, that still leaves $3 million. And unlike $3, $3 million will make one able to do a great deal in today’s world. Even a bunch of 10 year olds know that. If Walker had put it those amounts, the kids’ response would probably have been quite different.

Why should anyone shed tears for the (purported) unfairness of a proposal when that $3 million remaining in hand leaves the person way up in the upper 1%? I suspect that we lefties do not think it unfair to tax the makers of $10 million at a 70% rate. The AOC proposal of a marginal rate of 70% at 10 million still leaves the very rich very very rich.

What was the kids’ response of unfairness directed to? To the amount taken or to anything being taken after the fact? What if the kid had known in advance that 70% of her earnings would be taken from her - which is what the tax situation would be on a proper analogy? Would the charge of unfairness have been as quick and strong?

There is an assumption that Walker makes, a standard conservative assumption in discussing tax matters. The mother simply takes the money without any discussion of what it might be used for. The conservative focuses only on the taking, on the tax levied. That there is any purpose for that taking is not mentioned. Suppose the mother had said, preferably in advance, that the $7 was to be used to (say) help pay for a new tire for the car or to help pay a baby sitter so that she could take the working kid out for ice cream or …? Would the kids Walker told the story to be so dismissive if it were mentioned what the money ‘taxed’ was to be used for? I doubt it – Walker’s version makes it just a power grab and so is objectionable. But that is not the situation with liberal tax proposals: tax revenue on such proposals normally is to pay for at least arguably socially beneficial projects.

I must say one more thing. The kids say that what happens in Walker’s analogy is unfair and Walker accepts that as a good criticism of AOC’s proposal. That ready acceptance is contrary to announced American conservative ideology: unfairness, i.e. injustice, is treated by Walker as a significant way of objecting to a political proposal. But in conservative theory the only legitimate way of criticizing political actions is to cite loss of freedom. The appeal to injustice, unfairness, is a liberal, progressive, mode of argument – and the kids employ it.