What's the matter with San Francisco?

Are rich liberals who vote for higher taxes as kooky as workers who vote against their own economic self-interest?

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 17, 2009 10:19PM (EDT)

Are "rich liberals" who vote for Democrats and higher taxes for themselves displaying the same irrational behavior as working-class men and women who vote for Republicans and lower taxes... for the rich?

Yes, says Derek Thompson, blogging at the Atlantic Business Channel (which he also produces).

Rich liberals ... who are willing to vote against their own short-term economic interest -- i.e., take a tax hike -- do so in the hopes that the government will do some good with the extra dough. The belief that higher government spending will benefit, say, education might be based on some statistical survey out there (it certainly doesn't come from any study of D.C. schools!) but it is still just that: a belief. The rich liberals pooh-poohing Kansas are really not all that different from the objects of their disdain: both groups technically vote against their short [term] economic self-interest in the hope that their party will apply the policies they value.

Thompson is annoyed with Thomas Franks' argument in "What's the Matter with Kansas" suggesting that Republicans "tricked" working class voters to go against their economic self-interest by mobilizing them on social "value" issues like abortion and gay rights. Thompson's position is that liberals who believe that government will actually improve the lives of Americans with their taxpayer dollars are demonstrating their own economically irrational "values" voting behavior.

I personally would be inclined to argue that pro-fiscal stimulus rich liberals are following John Maynard Keynes when they willingly accept higher taxes to pay for government spending because they understand that this makes economic sense of the whole country. If all the workers are laid off, who is going to buy the products or services that allow rich people to get rich? Supporting an active government effort to shorten a recession seems like pure self interest to me, whether you are rich or poor.

But I guess on at least one level Thompson's equation makes sense. The values of the rich liberal in San Francisco might include the beliefs that grossly unequal concentrations of wealth are patently unjust, and that taking care of the poor, unhealthy, mentally ill, and uneducated is a moral responsibility of government. So maybe that does put the liberal in the same box as the working class Kansan who decides that opposing same sex marriage is more important than addressing income inequality.

But to take that position seems to me to be ignoring the reality of what we've just witnessed in this country. In a time of great economic turmoil, working class voters appear to have suddenly decided that Republican "family values" aren't such a sexy turn-on after all. The latest polling indicates that only 25 percent of the country views the GOP favorably. As far as I can guess, rich liberals did not change their views of what the government economic policy should be because of the downturn, but working class voters experienced a sudden dose of "rationality."

So yeah, working class voters who voted Republican did get tricked. Either that, or they just rationally changed their mind when they saw that trickle-down economics and irresponsible deregulation was a big failure.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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