(Bloomberg Businessweek) — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might not have seen eye to eye with Joseph Overton, the late free-market advocate. But she has a firm grasp of the concept for which he is best known: the Overton Window. The term refers to the range of ideas that are at any given time considered worthy of public discussion. Thanks largely to her, the Overton Window on tax rates has just been moved significantly to the left.
Ocasio-Cortez, the mediagenic 29-year-old from the Bronx, N.Y., is the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. In an appearance on 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper that aired on Jan. 6, she was talking up the Green New Deal, a plan to move the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. Cooper challenged her by saying the program would require raising taxes. “There’s an element, yeah, where people are going to have to start paying their fair share,” she replied. Asked for specifics, she said, “Once you get to the tippy tops, on your 10 millionth dollar, sometimes you see tax rates as high as 60 or 70 percent.”
Seventy percent! For perspective, the top rate under the tax law that passed in December 2017 is 37 percent. And now, suddenly, a number so extreme that no one in polite society dared utter it became a focal point of debate. Ocasio-Cortez’s fans—she has 2.4 million followers on Twitter alone—loved it. Some pundits dug up economic research defending rates in the 70 percent range. Others pointed out that Ocasio-Cortez was actually lowballing the historical comparison: Top rates were 90 percent or higher as recently as the 1960s. Defenders of low tax rates heaped abuse on her, which backfired on them by inflaming her supporters.
What Ocasio-Cortez understands is that getting an idea talked about, even unfavorably, is a necessary, if insufficient, step on the path to adoption. (President Trump also gets this.) “It’s the easiest thing to say, ‘No, we can’t change anything,’ ” says Eric Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who recently retired from Columbia University. “Most of the big ideas in American history started among radical groups who were told, ‘No, you’re never going to be able to achieve that.’ ” Foner sees parallels between the strategies of today’s left-leaning Democrats and the radical Republicans who fought slavery before the Civil War, “which was put out an agenda, be aware that you can’t just accomplish it all at once, obviously, but change the political discourse by pushing your agenda and then work with those who are willing to do some of it.”