Asking too little of the super rich

ASKING TOO LITTLE OF THE SUPER RICH…. In honor of Tax Day, the AP takes a closer look at what Americans are paying to Uncle Sam, and finds that “the super rich pay a lot less taxes than they did a couple of decades ago.”

The IRS “tracks the tax returns with the 400 highest adjusted gross incomes,” and has found that their average federal income tax rate has dropped from 26% to 17%. (Remember, these are the folks congressional Republicans are desperate to give more tax breaks to.)

It’s reached the point at which some of the wealthy are getting together to urge the government to tax them more.

Eric Schoenberg says to sign him up for paying higher taxes. Schoenberg, who inherited money and has a healthy portfolio from his days as an investment banker, has joined a group of other wealthy Americans called United for a Fair Economy. Their goal: Raise taxes on rich people like themselves.

Schoenberg, who now teaches a business class at Columbia University, said his income is usually “north of half a million a year.” But 2009 was a bad year for investments, so his income dropped to a little over $200,000. His federal income tax bill was a little more than $2,000.

“I simply point out to people, ‘Do you think this is reasonable, that somebody in my circumstances should only be paying 1 percent of their income in tax?'” Schoenberg said.

When Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah suggested these folks simply write checks, voluntarily, to the treasury, Schoenberg explained why Hatch is missing the point.

“This voluntary idea clearly represents a mindset that basically pretends there’s no such things as collective goods that we produce,” Schoenberg told the AP. “Are you going to let people volunteer to build the road system? Are you going to let them volunteer to pay for education?”

Regrettably, Schoenberg appears to be outside the norm for his income group. E.J. Dionne Jr. noted the larger problem in his new column.

At other moments in our history, the informal networks of the wealthy and powerful who often wield at least as much influence as our elected politicians accepted that their good fortune imposed an obligation: to reform and thus preserve the system that allowed them to do so well. They advocated social decency out of self-interest (reasonably fair societies are more stable) but also from an old-fashioned sense of civic duty. “Noblesse oblige” sounds bad until it doesn’t exist anymore.

An enlightened ruling class understands that it can get richer and its riches will be more secure if prosperity is broadly shared, if government is investing in productive projects that lift the whole society and if social mobility allows some circulation of the elites. A ruling class closed to new talent doesn’t remain a ruling class for long.

But a funny thing happened to the American ruling class: It stopped being concerned with the health of society as a whole and became almost entirely obsessed with money.

The eagerness with which Republican officials want to help make this worse should be a far bigger scandal than it is.