The forgotten face of class warfare

Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) and his hair. Photo by Gage Skidmore

In troubled times, it’s easy for an angry majority to trample the rights of a disenfranchised minority. Here’s how troubled our times are: we’re even trying to trample heavily franchised minorities, such as Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, who owns a bunch of UPS and Subway stores that made him $6.3 million in 2010. Yesterday morning, Fleming assured MSNBC that $6 million a year isn’t that much, since after he pays his 500 employees, forks over the rent for his locations and otherwise sees to his overhead, “my net income—the amount that I have to reinvest in my business and feed my family—is more like $600,000 of that $6.3 million. And so by the time I feed my family I have maybe $400,000 left over.” Don’t hang up, but we’re going to do some math after the jump.

Most outlets have seized on the obvious, which is how the Fleming family might possibly have spent $200,000 on food last year, especially when they exist in that condition which economists call owning a goddamn Subway. It seems that the congressman is ballparking the figures here, which is fine. If he and his wife and their four adult children need to consume food worth four times the US median household income just to, you know, keep growing lifelike human hair, that’s his cross to bear. I’m more concerned with the survival of his business.

Either Fleming does not have 500 employees or he’s not paying them out of that $6.3 million. If he were, employee salaries alone would wipe it out at an average of just under $13,000 per. You can pay that to the assistant manager at your Subway—what’s she gonna do, hire a sitter and look for another job?—but UPS has a union. Here the quality of our journalism impacts the quality of our reasoning, since the phrase the MSNBC interviewer used was “your businesses…brought you over six million dollars.” Brought you is not an accounting term, and it’s hard to say whether it refers to gross receipts before expenses or personal income or what. Common sense suggests, though, that Fleming is not running payroll and paying rent on his locations out of the same kitty he uses to feed his voracious family.

But let us take Representative Fleming at his word and assume that, after he eats 10,000 twenty-dollar steaks a year, he is left with a meager eight median household incomes for fun. If only the federal government and we slavering plebes would get off his back, he might have enough spare money to buy another Subway and create some more jobs. As it is, though, he must submit to the absurd speculations of television interviewers who think $400,000 is a lot of money, and who dare to suggest that “to the average person making forty, fifty, sixty thousand dollars a year, to hear that you only have $400,000 left over—it’s not a sympathetic position.” To which the congressman responds, “Well, again, class warfare has never created a job.”

Actually, it kind of has—just mostly for deficit-hawk lawmakers. Back in 1986, the effective tax rate on the top 1% of incomes was 33.1%. It’s been lower every year since then; in 2008, it was 23.3%. What Fleming and his friends in the GOP describe as “class warfare” is a proposal to return tax rates to what they were under Ronald Reagan. First of all, if it’s class warfare to go back to the mad socialism of Reagan, what process brought us here? Second, massive tax cuts for the wealthy have quantifiable consequences. According to our man Bruce Bartlett—who held senior advisory positions under Reagan and Bush I, so he’s not exactly pink—the revenue lost by not keeping the top rate at 1986 levels amounts to $1.7 trillion in contemporary debt.

That debt is the primary reason Fleming and his fellow lawmakers want to drastically cut spending on social services, federal student loans, roads, entitlements, et cetera. Such programs are enjoyed in overwhelming numbers by people who are not among the richest 1% of Americans. So in order to keep the effective tax rate on the wealthiest citizens at a 25-year low, the Republican Party supports a dramatic reduction in what the federal government does for the poorest and most average citizens. To argue otherwise—to say that we should try to raise more revenue to address the largest debt in our nation’s history, or to say that we should not cut social services during a three-year recession—is class warfare. To defend the rich at the expense of the poor, or to go on television and say that $600,000 isn’t as much money as most people, who make one tenth of that, think it is—that’s the contemporary Republican Party.

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  1. I’ve never understood why the most “American” thing to do is to make sure rich people hold onto as much of their money as possible and hobble poor people as much as possible. Guys like Fleming are such spoiled brats. Honestly.

  2. Great post. Calling President Obama’s proposals “class warfare” is cynical politics that banks on people not paying attention to history or detail.

    But in the spirit of paying attention to history and detail, note that the tax rate for the highest wage earners was higher 1988-1993 than in 1986 according to PolitiFact ( The straight up tax rate and “effective tax rate” are two different things. Frankly, I have trouble keeping track of what it all means.

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