Published September 29, 2010
Editor's Note: A correction has been added at the end of this article.
A prominent college law professor's posting of his family's finances on the Web to make the case that they're struggling to make ends meet -- despite their more-than-$250,000 income -- has lit the fuse of an online debate that he claims has made him the target of an "online lynch mob."
Todd Henderson, a corporate law professor at the University of Chicago -- and a neighbor of President Obama -- says that since he posted his finances online he's been barraged with comments such as "die yuppie scum," forcing him to shut down his blog out of fear for his family.
“The consequences are devastating for me personally,” Henderson wrote, “but my family has to come first, and my blogging has caused them incalculable damage.” Contacted by FoxNews.com, he said he no longer wants to comment on his post.
Henderson usually kept his blog posts to matters of corporate law and the markets. But last week he made it personal. He posted a portrait of his family finances to make his case that those who make more than $250,000 a year are struggling, like everyone else, to make ends meet -- and people in that income bracket will see their taxes go up if Obama succeeds in his plan to extend the Bush tax cuts only for low- and middle-income Americans.
“A quick look at our family budget, which I will gladly share with the White House, will show him that, like many Americans, we are just getting by despite seeming to be rich. We aren’t,” Henderson wrote.
He said he and his wife, a doctor, paid $100,000 in federal and state taxes last year and $15,000 in property taxes. He wrote that they have a mortgage on a house they own a short distance from President Obama’s home, and they are paying off $250,000 in student loans. With an annual income of more than $250,000, he wrote, he and his wife are far from super-rich.
But almost as soon as he hit the send button, a firestorm erupted.. Henderson says he was inundated with e-mails that divided along the lines of “die yuppie scum” and “thank you for saying what we couldn’t say.” He says the vehement tone of the responses -- he called it “an electronic lynch mob” -- and fears for his family forced him to delete the post and quit blogging altogether. A business website estimated his income at more than $400,000, a figure Henderson disputes.
But though his blog was short-lived, it opened up a fiery online debate over the continuation of the Bush tax cuts and Obama's plan to raise taxes on the “super-rich,” said Robert Bluey of the Heritage Foundation. Among the questions being asked: Just what is rich? Do the rich feel rich? Does America have a class system?
“Often these debates are conducted by the same faces. [Henderson] brought a new perspective to it,” Bluey said.
“Any time you want to take away a sizable chunk of people’s money, it has a big impact. You just have to look at Bell, Calif., to see how sensitive people are to wages,” he said, referring to the outrage there when it was revealed that public officials in the city had voted to give themselves salaries that reached as high as $800,000.
Bluey said Henderson's post showed not only that there are different perspectives on wealth, “but that the additional taxes will impact everyone.”
But others disagree -- and none more bitingly than Prof. Bradford DeLong of the University of California at Berkeley, who dismissed Henderson’s posting as whining.
"By any standard they are rich,” DeLong said. "But they don’t feel rich.”
He said the things Henderson takes for granted — retirement savings, private schools, new cars — are out of reach for most Americans, and he dismissed his complaint as a simple “cash flow problem.”
But Michelle Newton-Francis, a sociology professor at American University, said Henderson's blog had an impact because it showed “the country is redefining what it means to be rich and powerful.”
“We used to have a class hierarchy and most people wanted to be middle class,” she said. “Being labeled rich or poor carried a stigma. Now it appears we are either rich or poor. His blog opened up a debate about where he stands.”
And, by implication, where everyone stands. “But the bottom line," she said, "is that no one wants to pay more taxes.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report inaccurately stated that the Henderson family's income exceeded $400,000. Henderson acknowledges that he and his wife make more than $250,000, but he disputes claims circulating on the Web that they earn more than $400,000.