That’s rich

THAT’S RICH…. RNC Chairman Michael Steele sparked some guffaws this week when he argued, seriously and in public, that Americans making a million dollars, after taxes, are not bringing home “a lot of money.” But a variety of conservative voices have also spent quite a bit of time lately arguing that those making a quarter of a million dollars aren’t well off, either.

The political salience of this is pretty obvious — Democratic policymakers intend to scrap Bush/Cheney tax cuts for those making $250,000 a year or more. Republicans have an incentive, then, to make it seem as if the president and his allies are placing undue burdens on those who can’t afford it.

Daniel Gross explained this week that this comes up from time to time, but the rhetoric is never persuasive. Those making $250,000 are bringing home five times the median household income in the U.S., which puts them in the top 2% of all earners.

There are, of course, regional differences. It’s obvious that $250,000 in a major metropolitan area is different from a small, rural town. But “even if you look at the wealthiest metropolitan areas — Washington ($85,236), San Francisco ($76,068), Boston ($70,334), and New York ($63,957) — a quarter of a million dollars a year dwarfs the median income.”

In a few ZIP codes and neighborhoods, to be sure, brandishing a $250,000 salary is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. There are significant numbers of rich people — including a healthy contingent of filthy rich people — in places like New York City and San Francisco. If you want to live in a neighborhood where starter homes cost $1 million, and you want to send your kids to private schools, and you want to go on great vacations and have a beach house, then $250,000 likely won’t cut it. When the investment banker down the street just got a $2 million bonus, the knowledge that you’re doing better than 98 percent of your fellow Americans is little solace.

But the places where $250,000 stretches you are few and far between: some of the swankier East Coast and Chicago suburbs, several neighborhoods in Manhattan, chunks of the California coast. Even in the most exclusive communities where the wealthy congregate, $250,000 is still pretty good coin. Consider this: In late 2008 Forbes ranked America’s 25 wealthiest neighborhoods. In all of them, someone making $250,000 a year would probably not be able to afford his dream house. But in all of them, someone making $250,000 would be doing better than most of his neighbors.

What’s more, Atrios noted an important point about the looming tax shift: “[T]he tax increases on the $250,00+ set are marginal tax increases which only apply to … money in excess of $250,000. People making, say, $300,000 aren’t going to see their tax bill increase by very much.”

Something to keep in mind when the complaints begin in earnest.