Johnny Harris in a still from a New York Times video
A still from the video, Blue States, You’re the Problem (Via The New York Times)

This morn­ing, the New York Times pub­lished a new opin­ion video provoca­tive­ly titled “Blue States, You’re the Prob­lem,” in which John­ny Har­ris and edi­to­ri­al­ist Binyamin Appel­baum take aim at a selec­tion of the nation’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic-run states for sup­pos­ed­ly fail­ing to live up to their val­ues.

The four­teen plus minute video con­sists of an intro­duc­to­ry seg­ment fol­lowed by a set of three cri­tiques con­cern­ing issues in three dif­fer­ent states under Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nance: Cal­i­for­nia, Wash­ing­ton, and Connecticut.

The Cal­i­for­nia seg­ment focus­es on hous­ing, the Con­necti­cut seg­ment on edu­ca­tion, and the Wash­ing­ton seg­ment on our state’s upside down tax code.

Sev­er­al Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate read­ers were par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the Wash­ing­ton seg­ment and got in touch to ask for NPI’s take on it.

Our team watched the video and came away pret­ty disappointed.

Here’s a tran­script of the Wash­ing­ton segment:

HARRIS: Let’s go to anoth­er lib­er­al bas­tion, up here in Wash­ing­ton State. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty talks about tax­a­tion, say­ing that our tax code has been “rigged against the Amer­i­can peo­ple”. Democ­rats all the time are decry­ing the fact that tax cuts are going to the wealth­i­est Americans.

ELIZABETH WARREN [CLIP]: It is time for a wealth tax in America!

HARRIS: Democ­rats believe in a pro­gres­sive tax sys­tem where the rich pay a larg­er share of their income than the poor.

This is like the most basic pol­i­cy vision of, like, a pro­gres­sive move­ment. It’s front and cen­ter in Democ­rats’ pol­i­cy platform.

APPELBAUM: But if you go and look at Wash­ing­ton State, what you find is that in Wash­ing­ton State, if you look at the state and local tax­es that peo­ple pay there, less afflu­ent fam­i­lies pay a much larg­er share of their income in tax­es than the wealth­i­est res­i­dents of Wash­ing­ton State.

So peo­ple like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos — two of the state’s most famous and wealthy res­i­dents — are in this love­ly sit­u­a­tion of, of pay­ing less in tax­es as a share of their income than the poor peo­ple who live in that same state. And this is a fun­da­men­tal inver­sion of the val­ues that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pro­fess­es. There is no state with a more regres­sive sys­tem of tax­a­tion than Wash­ing­ton State.

HARRIS: And I’m talk­ing like the most regres­sive mean­ing [more so than] Texas. Which is like the con­ser­v­a­tive bas­tion of like anti tax­es… is more pro­gres­sive than Wash­ing­ton State, lib­er­al Wash­ing­ton State.

How is that real?

Oh, and guess what oth­er states on our map also are in the top ten of most regres­sive tax regimes, like Neva­da and Illinois.

APPELBAUM: There have been some changes, par­tic­u­lar­ly in recent years, but the over­all sit­u­a­tion remains resis­tant to change.

CLIP FROM THE SEATTLE CHANNEL, UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: So I’m very con­cerned that at this time — which is a very poor time to dis­in­cent peo­ple from cre­at­ing jobs in Wash­ing­ton State — that we’re even con­sid­er­ing it.

APPELBAUM: From that pay­check that you earn more of that mon­ey is going to state gov­ern­ment. And so the effect of that is basi­cal­ly to exac­er­bate inequality.

HARRIS: Okay. So rich lib­er­als don’t show up when it comes to hous­ing or taxes.

The odd­est part of the seg­ment is a clip from the Seat­tle Chan­nel that shows up near the end, seem­ing­ly for no rea­son. It con­sists of a short sound bite in which a speak­er says he’s very con­cerned that we’re con­sid­er­ing “it”.

What’s “it,” a view­er might be won­der­ing? What is this speak­er refer­ring to? A pro­pos­al to do what, exact­ly, that the speak­er fears could dis­in­cent job creation?

Har­ris and Appel­baum don’t both­er to explain. They sim­ply wrap up their com­ments about Wash­ing­ton and move on to their next state, Connecticut.

Johnny Harris in a still from a New York Times video
A still from the video, Blue States, You’re the Prob­lem (Via The New York Times)

While Har­ris and Appel­baum do a good job explain­ing how upside down Wash­ing­ton State’s tax code is (mak­ing use of ITEP’s rank­ings and state by state data for their visu­als), they did not both­er to dive into any of the fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry that explains how we got to where we are. That his­to­ry dates back near­ly a cen­tu­ry, to a series of events that took place in the 1930s… includ­ing a dis­as­trous, inde­fen­si­bly rea­soned and extreme­ly con­se­quen­tial Supreme Court rul­ing strik­ing down a peo­ple’s ini­tia­tive that would have levied an income tax.

Nor did they talk about what the Leg­is­la­ture and Gov­er­nor Inslee have recent­ly done to address the prob­lem. If you watch the video, you might be left with the impres­sion that Wash­ing­ton’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship isn’t doing any­thing to make Wash­ing­ton’s tax code more pro­gres­sive, when in fact, the Leg­is­la­ture and Gov­er­nor Inslee have tak­en a num­ber of impor­tant steps towards secur­ing a fair­er tax code for the Ever­green State in the last few leg­isla­tive sessions.

These include:

  • Mak­ing the real estate excise tax (REET) more progressive
  • Repeal­ing tax breaks that pow­er­ful inter­ests like Wall Street banks used to enjoy at Wash­ing­to­ni­ans’ expense
  • Levy­ing a cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy to sup­port education
  • Fund­ing the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Tax Cred­it (WFTC)

Impor­tant­ly, the state’s new cap­i­tal gains tax requires the wealthy to pay more while the WFTC reduces tax oblig­a­tions for Wash­ing­ton’s least afflu­ent peo­ple. Leg­is­la­tors have com­mend­ably been work­ing on this prob­lem from both ends.

These were hard fought wins achieved dur­ing the 2019 and 2021 ses­sions over the objec­tions of Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors and even, in some cas­es, more con­ser­v­a­tive Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­is­la­tors like Mark Mul­let of Issaquah.

There’s more to do, of course, which is why Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­is­la­tors are cur­rent­ly work­ing on pro­pos­als to levy a wealth tax on bil­lion­aires, raise the estate tax, and make prop­er­ty tax­es more pro­gres­sive and equi­table. Leg­is­la­tors are also hold­ing tax town halls this autumn to hear from Wash­ing­to­ni­ans on this very top­ic.

None of this — none of it — was men­tioned by Har­ris or Appelbaum.

The duo also neglect­ed to men­tion that Wash­ing­ton has the ini­tia­tive and ref­er­en­dum, and that right wing forces rep­re­sent­ed by Tim Eyman have his­tor­i­cal­ly used those pow­ers of direct democ­ra­cy to try to keep Wash­ing­ton’s tax code per­ma­nent­ly bro­ken and rigged in favor of the wealthy and the pow­er­ful. Wash­ing­ton may have Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­er­ship, but that does­n’t mean there are no obsta­cles or bar­ri­ers in the way of achiev­ing a goal like pro­gres­sive tax reform.

Con­text mat­ters. His­to­ry mat­ters. Yet so much of the polit­i­cal com­men­tary being pub­lished nowa­days is shal­low instead of sub­stan­tive. Super­fi­cial instead of sol­id. Sen­sa­tion­al instead of stu­dious. And that’s a shame.

Rather than div­ing into the issues and try­ing to unpack what’s real­ly hap­pen­ing in Amer­i­ca’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic run states, and why, Har­ris and Appel­baum zoomed through three weighty top­ics at warp speed, then threw their dis­cus­sion up on the NYT’s web­site as click­bait for the pub­li­ca­tion’s lib­er­al lean­ing audience.

“Blue States, You’re the Prob­lem” cer­tain­ly has excel­lent pro­duc­tion val­ues and slick visu­als. The dis­cus­sion, on the oth­er hand, leaves a lot to be desired. This video could have been so much bet­ter… deep­er, rich­er, and more informative.

What a missed opportunity.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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