Home / General / Refusing to Unilaterally Disarm Is Not Hypocrisy

Refusing to Unilaterally Disarm Is Not Hypocrisy



Jim Geraghty rolls out a particularly well-worn chestnut:

Bernie Sanders released his 2014 tax return this weekend, revealing that he and his wife took $60,208 in deductions from their taxable income. These deductions are all perfectly legal and permitted under the U.S. tax code, but they present a morally inconvenient, if delicious, irony: The Democratic socialist from Vermont, a man who rages against high earners paying a lower effective tax rate than blue-collar workers, saved himself thousands using many of the tricks that would be banned under his own tax plan.

This is the equally asinine flipside to Megan McArdle’s “if you think taxes should be higher, why don’t you just send extra money to the government?” argument. If Bernie Sanders opposed ending tax deductions because they benefited him personally, that would be hypocrisy. Arguing that such deductions should be ended but taking advantage of them while the laws remain on the books is not hypocrisy. These silly gotcha arguments fail to understand not just what hypocrisy means but the fact that political action is only meaningful if it’s collective.

As Drum puts it:

If you don’t like the designated hitter rule in baseball, does that mean you should send your pitcher to the plate just to prove how sincere you are? Of course not. You play by the rules, whatever those rules are.

I favor universal, government-funded health care. Does that mean I should virtuously refuse MoJo’s employer health care? Does anyone on the planet think that makes any sense at all?

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  • BiloSagdiyev

    Thank you.

    Also, as a young man, Bernie Sanders failed to travel to Spain and stab Franco in a suicide attack!

    • ChrisTS


  • Ah, I see Jane finished tracing over the pencil on those old 1040EZs from the pile in the den.

    “We’ll be releasing them soon! Jane does them and she’s…uh…they’ll be ready soon.”

  • Rob in CT

    If that’s all that’s in their returns, Bernie’s got nothing to worry about.

    You play by the rules as they are and you advocate to change those rules.

    I take tax deductions too. Christ.

    • kped

      Some are trying to make hay with the fact that his tax rate is about 13% despite most of it being earned employment income. But it’s like Scott says, those are the tax rules, he plays by them and doesn’t say he’d keep them low for high earners like him and his wife. I think there is really nothing to see here, but it’s good he finally released them.

      • DrDick

        Yes, but we have to discredit Sanders or else the plebes might actually start expecting real changes and not just cosmetic coverups.

      • ThrottleJockey

        It seems to me that both Mitt Romney and Donald Trump have made this very same argument, that they’re just playing by the rules that exist today. As a Sanders supporter we might want to come up with a better argument.

        • Rob in CT

          That’s part 1 of the argument: just playing by the current rules.

          That part is correct.

          Part 2 is we should change the rules so people like Romney, Trump, Clinton and yes, Sanders, pay more.

          Sanders and Clinton make that argument. Republicans do not.

          • sonamib

            Indeed, Republicans argue that high-earners should pay even less. It’s not the same thing at all.

          • Dilan Esper

            I support Sanders, but I do think this argument is more complicated than people are letting on.

            I do think there’s an argument that politicians shouldn’t simply take advantage of every unjust aspect of American society. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like Hillary on the speeches issue, for instance. And I liked it when Jimmy Carter sent Amy to public school.

            The thing is, are the deductions that Sanders is taking advantage of particularly unjust? It’s not like he has money in a Caymans trust or is claiming the carried interest loophole or something.

            • Rob in CT

              Well, sure. We all likely have a line we think shouldn’t be crossed.

              Taking a tax deduction, to me, is not over the line or even close to it. At least the sort of tax deductions that normal people living normal lives routinely take.

              Gaming the tax code by, say, running a “farm” that is obvious bullshit set up just to claim a deduction, however, is something I see differently.

        • It seems to me that a married couple making $205,000 isn’t quite Mitt Romney or Donald Trump.

          • kped

            I agree. I don’t agree that they should only be paying 12% taxes though. And while not Trump, they are certainly not the “99%”.

            • kped

              Which isn’t a criticism of Sanders, nor am I calling him a hypocrite.

              (i know you like to argue with the version of me that exists in your head, so I’ll try to pre-empt that)

            • A household income of $200,000 puts you at about the 80th percentile, which is well into the 99%.

              Both in the mathematical sense, but also in the more-important sense of not being at, or even close to, the type of money that could give one elite-level power over the political system, or allow one to opt-out of mainstream society into the richer of John Edwards’s Two Americas.

              • Denverite

                I mostly agree with jfL, but he’s misreading that table. The median income for the top quintile is $194k — meaning half of the quintile is below it, and half is above it. About 10% of households make $194k or higher. $200k is about 6% if memory serves.

                All of that said, it’s still not the top 1%. And if you’re looking at a two-income family paying student loans and childcare for multiple children in a high cost metro area, you can take $75k off the top in post-tax dollars, plus whatever premium you’re spending on housing to live in that high cost metro area. So you’re still very well-off, but I can understand if you don’t feel rich.

                • Whoops, you’re right – I thought those were the boundaries of the quintiles. My bad.

                  So you’re still very well-off, but I can understand if you don’t feel rich.

                  The point of the 99%/1% classification is that the real elites are hoovering up all of the gains from growth, while the rest of the population sees their incomes stay flat. This is true even of people at the 90th percentile. Expressing the common interest of people throughout the 99%, rather than arguing in favor of a movement of the poor and working class against the ordinarily well-off, is both a more accurate description of how the economy is functioning, and better politics.

                  The way the hollowing out of the middle class has worked has not just been to off-shore working-class manufacturing jobs. It’s also involved going after people – unionized teachers, for example – who have already achieved a decent slice of the pie, to try to take it away.

                  We ought to stick with the 99% characterization. Defining people a married couple with the Sanders’ income as outside the 99%, sticking them in with the actual 1%, would be a terrible mistake.

      • ChrisTS

        They released one year.

        • smott999

          Correct, 2014 only.
          And only the 1040, not a full return.

          none of the additional schedules of deductions, charities and so forth,

  • KNX

    I’ve been amusing myself arguing with NRO commenters about that piece. They are adamant that this is HYPOCRIGHAZI!!!!1!!!!

    The argument, such as it is, seems to be “Bernie bashes millionaires for taking deductions, but he takes the same deductions himself!” Of course, this fails because Bernie does not actually bash anyone for taking deductions (conspicuously absent is any quote from Bernie arguing rich people should donate money to the IRS), but rather argues that (some of) those deductions should be eliminated. Such logic is lost on the NRO commentariat, however.

    • Mike G

      In RepublicanWorld, advocating for tax changes that will personally benefit you and your cronies is The Way Things Should Be. While Dems who follow the rules while advocating for changes that will not benefit them, or actually cost them money, is as alien to RepublicanWorld ideology as evolution and climate change.

    • DrDick

      All logic is lost on anyone connected with NRO.

  • ChrisTS

    I don’t think it is hypocritical at all. I do think the ‘optics’ are unfortunate (not only because they then require articles like this one).

  • JKTH

    The Democratic socialist from Vermont, a man who rages against high earners paying a lower effective tax rate than blue-collar workers, saved himself thousands using many of the tricks that would be banned under his own tax plan.

    The thing is, this isn’t true either. Granted I don’t know what he took but I assume it was some combination of state and local taxes, charitable contributions etc…the type of deductions people with earned income take. And Sanders really isn’t proposing do much with these types of things. He’s raising rates a lot and the really rich who get most of their income from capital gains get soaked but it’s not deductions that get hit.

    • Denverite

      Yeah, around $200k is right at the sweet spot where you can afford a lot of expenditures that are deductible (relatively big mortgage and property taxes, child care, medical expenses, charitable donations), but relatively little of your earnings are taxed at the highest marginal rates. I would expect that most households making around $200k pay an effective rate around 15% +/- a couple of points.

      • rewenzo

        I don’t know much about taxes but I was struck that Geraghty was saying that Sanders had an effective tax rate of 13.5% when the average should be 15.2%.

        1) This doesn’t strike me as a huge difference. I assume the couples paying 15.2% also have deductions. Maybe the difference is how much Sanders gave to charity?

        2) I pay a much higher rate than both of those, while making much less! :(

        • Denverite

          Yeah, at his income level, 1.7% is like $3500. That’s about $12,000 worth of deductions at his marginal rate. Some combination of extra charitable deductions, mortgage interest, business expenses (i.e., if he used any of his own money campaigning), high medical expenses, etc., will get him there pretty quickly.

        • Rob in CT

          We tend to pay ~16.5%. I think we crossed 17% this year.

          OMG, Bernie and Jane pay a lower federal tax rate than my family. BURN HIM!

          • Denverite

            Going by AGI, we pay exactly the same as them. Within 0.05%. On a bit less money though.

            • Rob in CT

              Actually, I think I may be wrong about the % paid by us this year.

              I always have to remember to back out the employer-side FICA taxes we pay for our nanny, and then calculate the rate.

              I’m not sure I did that when I came up with >17% for this year.

      • Rob in CT

        Yup. You left off 401ks, which for my family make a big difference. Max out two 401ks for the year and that’s $33k off your taxable income.

        • Denverite

          I don’t even think about those because it’s all pre-tax in our family.

          • Rob in CT

            Mostly* pre-tax for us too, but since I got into the habit of debating/arguing with people about federal taxes online it’s something I think of.

            * our employer rolled out a Roth 401k option several years ago and my wife split her contributions, so it’s a little more complicated.

            But yeah, probably not technically a deduction to be claimed, so nevermind that bit.

            • Denverite

              Several years ago we had massive business expenses (i.e., we both had temporary/termed jobs in another city, and had to eat relocation costs ourselves, plus job search costs for one of us before the move back). We legitimately could count maybe a quarter of our income as business expenses.

              We got hit by the AMT that year. Boooo!

              • Rob in CT

                Heh, we just tripped the AMT this year. Barely, I think, b/c the added tax attributed to it on the return is quite small. But then the AMT is more about limiting deductions (the point of your story) so maybe I’m wrong about that. We definitely got hit harder than we’re used to this April.

            • Juicy_Joel

              If your employer allows after tax-contributions and in-service distributions your wife could max out her pre-tax contribution (18k) and then make after tax contributions up to 35k, and roll the after-tax portion to a Roth.

        • Juicy_Joel

          Limit is 18k per (under 50) person boss. Assuming your MAGI isn’t too high you could potentially cut another 11k of with Traditional IRA contributions.

          • Rob in CT

            Right you are. 36k then.

            MAGI is too high for IRA (sad, violin plays)

  • Joe_JP


  • Owlbear1

    Sanders could use this as a teachable moment by putting together a faux form that shows what he’d being paying in taxes if Congress cooperated with him.

    Hell, I’d love to see that from all the candidates. Their tax returns under their tax plans.

    • Richard Gadsden

      That’s a great idea!

      • tsam

        +1040. That IS a great idea.

    • N__B

      I’ll go a step further: I’d love to see the democratic candidate in the general say “Here’s what I paid in taxes the last few years. Here’s what I would pay under my plan. Here’s what I would pay under my assholish esteemed opponent’s plan.”

      • CJColucci

        Seems so obvious. Why hasn’t anyone done it already?

      • tsam

        I’d like to see an independent group do that for all of them. Take their tax plans, their tax filings and show the results for all of them. Then compare it to a 50k/year (which I believe is the median income in the US…?) tax filing.


        • Owlbear1

          Most likely because no candidate ever has offered up more than vague hand waving?

  • Bitter Scribe

    This is akin to “[Politician] sends his kids to private schools but doesn’t support school vouchers.” Or “[Corporation] is protesting anti-gay/transgender laws but does business in [repressive country].” Piffle, in other words.

    • Murc

      “[Politician] sends his kids to private schools but doesn’t support school vouchers.”

      The easy answer I have to this has always been “Public benefits represent a floor, not a ceiling. I am protected by the police by virtue of merely existing; but if I had the money, I could be accompanied by bodyguards all the time. The local fire department protects my home from fires, but if I had the money, I could have an on-call private fire service available 24/7. Public school is available to everyone just for existing, but if their parents have the money they can pay for private school. All of those things, police, fire, and schools, should have a very HIGH floor, because we should provide excellent things to our society, but it is still just a floor, not a ceiling.”

      People rarely have a good response to that one.

      “[Corporation] is protesting anti-gay/transgender laws but does business in [repressive country].”

      … this is piffle how? It was applying such moral opprobrium to corporations that got them to divest from South Africa.

      • Bitter Scribe

        “Investing” and “doing business in” are not the same thing. Apple, for instance, probably sells equipment in countries that have repressive anti-gay laws. Does that make Tim Cook a hypocrite?

      • CJColucci

        I’ve never understood how that argument works when someone, like the targeted liberal “hypocrite,” actually advocates more spending on a public education system his or her family doesn’t use, to be paid for by his or her taxes.

        • Murc

          Bunch of ways. The big thing is “they’re advocating this spending to funnel more dollars into the pockets of the fat cat teachers unions” but I’ve also seen “if private schools are so great everyone should get vouchers to go to them.”

          Both those lines of attack are bullshit but that’s what I’ve seen.

      • Lurker

        There is a sensible answer. Private alternatives above the floor level mean that a person who is able to afford them I not touched by the low quality of the floor.

        Thus, the non-floor options should be regulated out of the reach of the majority of voters, so the floor remains the only option for even the upper middle class. Only this way you can reach a steady support for the floor level.

  • Murc

    If Bernie Sanders opposed ending tax deductions because they benefited him personally, that would be hypocrisy.

    Er… it would? How? It would be very self-interested, but not hypocritical.

    Arguing that such deductions should be ended but taking advantage of them while the laws remain on the books is not hypocrisy.

    Only to an extent. I would say what Sanders has done tax-wise in the past isn’t hypocritical at all, but in the hypothetical situation of him having engaged in perfectly legal but ethically dubious shell games in order to, say, nearly zero out his taxable income while simultaneously claiming vast government benefits and subsidies, then he’d be a hypocrite even though he hadn’t broken any laws, because a big part of his platform isn’t just that such behavior should be illegal, but that it is actually immoral as well; that is, it makes you a leech upon society, a bad person.

    But he hasn’t done that. As near as I can tell he’s taken a bunch of perfectly regular deductions, many of which he might not even touch even if he were given a free hand to reform the tax code. It seems like he is paying his fair share.

    • sonamib

      Yeah, if somehow Sanders’s name appeared in the Panama papers or some similar offshore financial scandal and he replied “but it’s totally legal!”, that would be hypocritical.

  • efgoldman

    I think the questions about the Sanders’ tax returns aren’t: what deductions did they take. They are: what took him so long, and why his he not as open with them as other Democratic candidates have been?

    • smott999

      It looks bad and takes away from his attacks on Clinton for transparency re the GS speeches.
      He has released only a 1040 page for 2014.
      I believe Clinton has release full returns going back 20 years so yes he is not open in comparison.

      What’s disappointing is the press simply accepted a single year 1040 as apparently everything needed.

    • To bait his opponents into digging a dry well in their messaging?

  • ThusBloggedAnderson

    And yet, HRC is supposed to “unilaterally disarm” as regards campaign contributions that might not be allowable under some hypothetical future reform. Or so the Sanders folks have no trouble arguing.

    • random

      Exactly. I just assumed this was what the title of the post referred to when it said ‘refusing to unilaterally disarm’ and ‘hypocrisy’. Did not realize the GOP was still rolling with this again, but I guess the classics never die.

      • Robespierre

        But Sanders already “unilaterally disarmed” on that front.

    • EliHawk

      Yeah, I really thought his would be about the nuisance suit they “filed” (actually just mailed to the DNC) yesterday. Though, on the tax issue, it is worth nothing that the Clintons, with much higher income and certainly plenty of opportunity to use creative accounting to lower their tax bill, don’t seem to, paying an effective combined tax rate of ~45%.

    • Unilaterally?

      Did Bernie Sanders set up a super PAC and start taking lobbyist-bundled fossils fuel money when nobody was looking?

      • eclipse

        Well, there’s the little inconvenient fact that the greatest beneficiary of superPAC spending on the Democratic side is… Bernie Sanders. Besides his main allied SuperPAC which has spent million and millions on his behalf, he also has a few other secret ones in the mix

        The Anchorage-based America’s Youth PAC, made up almost entirely of former Bernie 2016 campaign staffers, is the latest unconventional outside group to throw its support behind the Vermont senator. Its leaders broke off from the Sanders campaign last week and have holed up in an old mall on the outskirts of town, just steps away from the official campaign’s office in the same building.

        The attack on Bernie’s taxes is dishonest, but it’s the exact kind of attack he makes all the time to smear Hillary and any other group who’s not feelin’ the bern.

        I honestly started this primary liking the guy and now I just think he’s a total charlatan.

        • Lol:

          America’s Youth PAC’s 10-person team is canvassing, making buttons and registering voters in the hopes of giving him a victory in the Alaska caucuses on March 26 against Hillary Clinton.

          Uh, yeah, “the greatest beneficiary of superPAC spending on the Democratic side.”

          BTW, he doesn’t have a “main allied SuperPAC.”

          And writing “honestly” into the beginning of your sentence is total tell. “Dear Editor: As a lifelong member of the Democrat Party…” Honestly!

  • tsam

    I never once smoked marijuana until it was legal in my state. GET WITH IT, BERNIE.

  • tsam

    If you don’t like the designated hitter rule in baseball,

    You don’t like baseball at all.

    • N__B

      You’re dead to me.

      • tsam

        That’s UNDEAD to you, mister.

    • Rob in CT

      Oy. Watching pitchers “hit” is just painful. It’s not some pure joyful baseball nirvana. It’s guys flailing away (or standing there taking pitches so they don’t risk injury) helplessly for the most part. To hell with that. DH should be standard.

      • I love defenders of the NL. “Watching people who are terrible at their jobs is a real pleasure for me. This is totally worth the money.”

        • rewenzo

          Isn’t this also the argument for Hack-a-Shaq?

          • Basically. Although the difference is that no one actually defends that as some aesthetically pleasing choice like they do watching pitchers strike out.

            • Rob in CT

              True baseball fandom is watching a pitcher ground out meekly to second,

              • Rob in CT

                … and being happy he made contact.

                [for some reason I can’t edit even though I just [mistakenly] posted that comment.

                • CJColucci

                  You have to admit that watching Bartolo Colon at the plate is entertaining.

              • ColBatGuano

                You’re underselling the pop out to the shortstop.

        • Linnaeus

          You just don’t understand the “magic” of the double switch.

      • Bitter Scribe

        I’ll start agreeing with you as soon as the Cubs pitchers stop getting clutch hits.

        J/K I already agree with you. For one thing, if the NL had the DH, Kyle Schwarber wouldn’t have wrecked his knee colliding with another outfielder chasing a line drive.

  • rewenzo

    These don’t even look like “tax tricks” so much as the kind of deductions that every single person uses. Like these are so basic Turbotax Online will prompt you to itemize these deductions when you’re filling out your return.

  • royko

    CITIZEN: There have been 5 accidents at this intersection in the last year. I think we need to put a stop sign there.

    BOARD MEMBER: Do YOU stop there now?

    CITIZEN: What? No? I mean, there’s no stop sign there. I want to PUT one there so it’s safer!

    BOARD MEMBER: So you’ve been just racing through the intersection, but you want everyone else to have to stop? HYPOCRITE!

    CITIZEN: No! I want EVERYONE to stop there, including me!

    BOARD MEMBER: But you just said you haven’t been stopping there!

    CITIZEN: It would do no good! One person stopping won’t help anything! It would be stupid! I’d probably just get rear-ended! I want a stop sign so EVERYONE stops there. That’s how our traffic laws work.

    BOARD MEMBER: Past You has been flagrantly going about doing what you want to forbid Future Us from doing! Sounds like hypocrisy to me! Denied!

    • ribber

      I think this form of argument should be the Batman argument.
      “I am a rich citizen of Gotham and think something should be done about crime!”
      “Well as a fellow rich citizen of Gotham, I don’t want my taxes raised to pay for police. If you care about crime so much, why don’t you dress as a vigilante bat and do it yourself? If you don’t, you’re a hypocrite!”

      • sonamib

        That was funny and to the point, thank you. I may or may not steal it for future use.

      • Hogan
    • Murc

      With respect, I don’t think this analogy is doing what you want it to. If there’s an intersection that it is unsafe to roar through, roaring through anyway because there’s no stop sign is… not good. Drivers are, in fact, obligated to drive in a safe manner even absent traffic control devices and signage mandating that they do so. That’s how traffic laws work.

  • anonymous

    Whenever someone like Sanders or Buffett talks about raising taxes and the rejoinder is that that person is a hypocrite for not volunteering to pay more, the response is simple:

    There’s no hypocrisy on my part. I’m not volunteering to pay more but I’m not asking others to volunteer either. I’m asking for everyone to be forced to pay more, myself included.

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