This feud about what wealthy pay

Here's what Barack Obama said chatting with Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher, who had questioned the Democratic candidate about his tax plans during a campaign stop in Ohio: “My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody. I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.”

It would be difficult to find an utterance much more commonplace, almost to the point of cliche, or one less bothersome to most folks, especially to people who by now have been trickled down on quite enough, thank you.

Shudder! Horrors!

This casual comment his been seized upon by John McCain, by his shrill runningmate Sarah Palin, by the Republican Party and by right-wing bloggers and radio talkers as evidence that Obama is – shudder and horrors – a socialist. The more lurid-minded even have it that he is Marxist – that is, a socialist who really, really means it.

All this because Obama's economic plan envisions restoring the 39.5 percent top income tax rate that President George Bush's 2001 tax legislation lowered to 35 percent. The increased revenue would be used in part to fund too-long delayed infrastructure improvements, a program that incidentally would create jobs and help to stimulate economic recovery – in other words, spread the wealth around.

Nearly all other taxpayers – households earning less than $250,000 a year – would get tax cuts, a further stimulus. Yet the conservatives, who are pretending to fear revolution, have converted “spreading the wealth” into a socialist mantra “redistribution of wealth,” which Obama didn't say.

As it happens, we have already had a revolution that redistributed the wealth. Bush's big tax overhaul redistributed it to the already rich, so they could be richer yet already.

By 2005, households enjoying the top 1 percent of incomes – those over $348,000 a year – were receiving the biggest share of national income since 1928. The income gap between the well off and others has stretched beyond shouting distance. Where middle and lower earners had shared in the 1990s boom, they generally lost income in the meager “Bush recovery” from the brief 2001 recession.

In their rush to make Obama out as a socialist readying tumbrels for the rich, conservatives have sometimes explicitly implicitly reverted to the old country-club grumble that the graduated income tax is nothing more than a radical scheme to coddle the undeserving poor with the money of the deserving rich.

What's the difference?

Some radicalism. The income tax, with progressive rates no less, was introduced in 1862 to pay for the Civil War. It became permanent with the adoption of the Constitution's enabling 16th amendment in 1913, after the Supreme Court had demurred in the meantime.

The income tax is the way we have been doing our civic business off and on for nearly 150 years and fulltime for nearly 100. If Obama is a socialist for proposing to reassert its pre-Bush progressivity, then unless McCain means to repeal the income tax he is a socialist, too. He's just squabbling with Obama, not about some grand difference of economic philosophy, but only about how much the wealthy should pay.