A lot of ink has already been spilled about Louise Linton’s tone-deaf Instagram posts, but her posts and the public response to them provides a rare moment of collective wonder at the sense of entitlement and self-importance enjoyed by the rich. The New York Times published not one but two op-eds on the posts by the wife of the Treasury Secretary, and Slate published an ever-so-subtle article titled, “Louise Linton’s Latest Instagram Post Makes a Powerful Case for Just How Much She Sucks.” The original post, which showed Linton exiting a taxpayer-funded jet protected beneath layers of designer products that she helpfully tagged, was an ode to conspicuous consumption unavailable to all but the titans of Wall Street and their families. But what stood out to me was not the image, which finds plenty of company in rap and reggaeton videos, but Linton’s self-righteousness in her comments on the post.
Rather than let a gibe from the public—“Glad we could pay for your little getaway”—slide, Linton responded with self-satisfied condensation: “. . . Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country? I’m pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day ‘trip’ than you did. Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours. You’re adorably out of touch. . . .” Linton’s claim that the rich “sacrifice” more than others could almost be dismissed as the views of a socialite and relegated to the celebrity pages were such a position not shared by many of those in the upper class. When Mitt Romney complained that 47 percent of the population “are dependent upon government . . . [and] pay no income tax” during the 2012 campaign, he was speaking to that audience.
"The notion that the government is wrongly taking people’s money only makes sense if you imagine government as an outside entity."
Part of the problem is the way that we think about and track salaries and taxes. When people think about their salary, they think about the amount of money their employer pays them. For law students who land a job at a big law firm, their starting salary is around $160,000. Taxes are then thought of as reducing their income, taking away money that they have “earned.” But another way, an arguably more accurate way, of thinking about taxes is to think in terms of “post-tax” income or salary. The government helps establish the conditions and rules of the market in which people operate, what you earn is a factor of the government’s role, which means that earnings are best understood after taking into account that role. In the case of hedge fund managers such as Steven Mnuchin, this is transparently the case. The American economy is structured—rightly or wrongly—in such a way that it allows some of those who play the market to become fabulously wealthy. The government, with the aid of semi-private, semi-public entities such as the New York Stock Exchange, provides the rules and enforcement mechanisms required to ensure the market functions properly. It even occasionally goes so far as to enter the market as needed to bail out the financial industry. For those like Mnuchin who receive tremendous rewards for their participation in such a market, the fact that they pay high taxes is not a sacrifice, it is instead part of the bargain that allowed them to make such wealth in the first place. In fact, as others have argued, because of deductions that disproportionately favor the wealthy they may not even be paying high enough taxes.
For ordinary professionals, automatic deposits and automatic tax payments through the payroll system is arguably already moving the country a little towards a “post-tax” understanding of income. When a year goes by without unexpected changes in salary, April 15th does not have to be a moment of crisis because taxes can be already paid fairly accurately in advance. Understanding that the government has a legitimate claim on a portion of the income of those who benefit from our economic and social system and that those who benefit most have a corresponding obligation to pay more helps move the discussion away from idea of “sacrifice.” The notion that the government is wrongly taking people’s money only makes sense if you imagine government as an outside entity. When I pay for groceries at the store with my income, it is not accurate to say that I have “sacrificed” for the grocery store. And the same is true of the government: when I pay for roads or for stability or for the rule of law through progressive taxation, I have not sacrificed, I have just met my obligations as a member of society. To claim, as Linton did, that the rich sacrifice more than most people is to exaggerate the contributions of the rich and, simultaneously, reveal a callous disregard for the struggles and real sacrifices of the poor.