An op-ed published in the Daily last week argued that support for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 70 percent marginal tax rate is a result of populist inclinations rather than rigorous academic reasoning. Referencing epistemology in its title, the article argued that there is no clear consensus supporting this policy, and that a field-wide expert agreement is required before drawing any conclusions. This article mischaracterizes AOC’s claims and displays anti-democratic sentiments.
Firstly, an objection to the op-ed can immediately be raised on logical grounds. Very few issues have the “massive, field-wide agreement” the article calls for, climate change being a notable exception. In fact, evolving areas of academia lack wide consensus by design. The entire pursuit of research is designed to enrich the availability of information on a subject by generating competing works with alternative explanations and modified experiments. No field, including the ‘hard sciences,’ is intellectually complete. But does that mean that people are ill-equipped to form their own opinions? We will always face a certain degree of intellectual uncertainty, but that certainly should not drive us to an abyss of existential nihilism.
Secondly, the assertion that economic studies are being used by an economically illiterate population is both condescending and anti-democratic. Democracy presupposes that voters have the capacity to make informed decisions. Granted, ‘fake news’ and echo chambers challenge this premise. However, the resulting claim that “politically inclined people” come up with their beliefs first and justify them later is fallacious. Economics is not theoretical physics. It describes real phenomena and seeks to model everyday experiences. Nobody understands the effects of poverty more than people experiencing it. People outside of the top one percent have the incentives that lead them to draw conclusions about redistributive policies. Life experiences are fundamental in shaping epistemology, and arguably have more of a direct link to ‘true knowledge’ than a Master’s degree.
Thirdly, it is important to specifically address AOC’s claims. If you don’t buy the arguments put forward by Paul Krugman or Vox, simply look to the historical precedent, which does not require a doctorate to consider. Top earners under Eisenhower faced a 91 percent marginal tax rate. Tax cuts since then have largely been a product of political change, most notably under Reagan. Most pertinently, AOC’s comments were not a line-by-line policy proposal, but rather meant to serve as a conversation starter. Mainstream politicians have followed the trend of tax cuts, facing very little critical interrogation or political pushback. Under their own logic, the author of last week’s article should welcome the discourse that has been spurred as a result of AOC’s comments.
Academic thought and public policies are constantly evolving in response to the discovery of new information. A balance of open-mindedness and conviction is the only way to uphold our democratic ideals and generate productive solutions, especially those which work for people at the margins of society. Appreciating the value of knowledge gained from life experience is at the heart of democracy and collaborative decision-making, two values on which this country was purportedly founded.