When they were asked how much you have to earn to be rich, the presidential candidates differed wildly:
Obama didn’t hesitate. “I would argue that if you are making more than $250,000, then you are in the top 3, 4 percent of this country,” he said. “You are doing well.”
McCain took a far more discursive approach to answering the question but ultimately settled on a dramatically higher figure: “I think if you’re just talking about income, how about $5 million?”
The Arizona Republican quickly added that he was “sure that comment will be distorted,” and his campaign said Sunday that he was joking.
More precisely, he said:
WARREN: Everybody talks about, you know, taxing the rich, but not the poor, the middle class. At what point, give me a number, give me a specific number. Where do you move from middle class to rich? ?
MCCAIN: How about $5 million? No, but seriously, I don?t think you can, I don?t think seriously that the point is I?m trying to make, seriously, and I?m sure that comment will be distorted but the point is?that we want to keep people?s taxes low, and increase revenues. ? So, it doesn?t matter really what my definition of rich is because I don?t want to raise anybody?s taxes. I really don?t.
McCain’s spokesman later tried to walk the whole answer back as a joke. If so, it’s of the ha-ha-but-really variety, not of the absurdist variety. McCain himself simply has no sense of what constitutes wealth in America, so he chose a number that seemed to him large but not beyond the realm of reality. A number which only a tiny fraction of Americans can achieve.
Americans tend to care what becomes of the rich to a degree that’s a bit illogical, because we all hope one day to be rich. So increases on the marginal tax rate for people earning millions of dollars, or estate taxes that only impact people who leave several million dollars to their heirs (outside of various tax shelters) manage to be unpopular even with people who earn nowhere near that much money, and have no realistic chance of inheriting nor bequeathing such an estate.
What McCain is doing here plays against that. If being rich means earning half a million dollars a year, that means breaking into the top 1% of households. I like those odds. Obama’s “rich” would includes somewhere between 5% and 10% of households, which is even better odds. McCain is restricting richness to less than one in 1000 households. I don’t like those odds at all. That’s, well, elitist.
To continue with the LA Times account:
Even so, the remark highlighted the candidates’ disparate outlooks. Analysts who study income distribution said the answers appeared to reflect shifting political calculations more than economic reality.
Economists said in interviews Sunday that neither candidate was wrong because there are no agreed-upon definitions for the terms that describe income segments.
“To be fair to both of them, ‘rich’ is an adjective,” said James P. Smith, a senior economist at the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan think thank in Santa Monica. “Economic science is not going to tell you that ‘this’ is the cutoff point.”
Yet the $5-million level, Smith said, includes “almost nobody.” Experts said that of all the households in the nation, fewer than one-tenth of 1% had an annual income of $5 million or more.
McCain, with his beer heiress wife, his 8 houses, his $520 loafers, his private jet, and his rock star lifestyle, is clearly rich. I’d rather have the person making policy for me be someone who understands what it’s like to live the life of an average American, and McCain simply hasn’t got that.