As we know by now, Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare head tax proposal is a regressive mess (I, II, III, IV). Warren’s team knows this. The goal of the proposal is not to be good policy but to hopefully allow Warren, with media assistance, to claim that her “Medicare Employer Contribution” is not a “tax” and certainly not a “middle class tax.”
Yet recent polling conducted by YouGov Blue on behalf of Data For Progress shows that even this messaging gambit does not pay off.
In the poll, participants were asked:
Would you [support or oppose] replacing out-of-pocket costs, co-pays, and deductibles with taxes if the tax plan included …
- A tax on employers that requires them to pay for health care for every employee
- A tax on individuals earning more than $29,000 a year
- A fee paid by employers to the Medicare system for each employee they employ
Substantively speaking, options one and three describe every employer-side tax anyone has ever proposed for Medicare for All.
Warren’s plan to charge each employer a fixed dollar amount for every employee they employ (the head tax) is in fact “a tax on employers that requires them to pay for health care for every employee” but could also be described as “a fee paid by employers to the Medicare system for each employee they employ.”
The same is true of employer-side payroll taxes. Those taxes are “a tax on employers that requires them to pay for health care for every employee” but could also be described as “a fee paid by employers to the Medicare system for each employee they employ.” In the case of a payroll tax, the fee is paid by employers for each employee they employ based on that employee’s wages, making it far more progressive than Warren’s head tax. But it is still nonetheless a fee for each employee that employers employ, just like Warren’s proposal.
Although there is no substantive difference between options one and three and both describe every kind of employer-side tax, the poll does allow us to see how much framing your charge as a “fee” rather than a “tax” can help you in the realm of public opinion. And to my surprise, the YouGov Blue poll found that it makes no difference at all.
The total support for the “employer tax” is 48.2 percent while the total support for the “employer fee” is 50.3 percent. The small gap is well within margin of error on the poll, which is +/- 3.9 percent.
This polling result creates some real trouble for anyone hoping to defend Warren’s head tax approach. Even though the proposal is not a good idea technically speaking, there was at least a coherent argument that said that we should look over its design problems in favor of the fact that the media is willing to describe an indirect middle class head tax, when proposed by Warren, as an “employer fee” or “employer contribution,” thereby avoiding the trigger words that sink you in public opinion polling. But it turns out that being able to unlock that nomenclature doesn’t even get you any additional public support, meaning Warren has traded sound progressive financing for literally nothing.