Eleventh Revolution
September 15, 2004
Economic Equity

Thirty years ago, the well-off had a look at their IRS forms and frowned. They felt put upon. Like any Wall Street trader after a run of good fortune, they figured it was time for a little profit-taking. Enter the cabal of voodoo economists who have chipped away at what the rich pay, shifting the burden on the poor. Taken as a whole, it's a remarkable accomplishment.

The Times has an editorial about the latest installment, the doublespeak-named "ownership society" Bush hopes to foist on an unsuspecting (and generally nonvoting) Wal-Mart nation.

But in tax terms, "ownership society" means only one thing: the further reduction, if not the elimination, of taxes on savings and investments, including taxes on dividends and on capital gains on stocks, bonds and real estate. That, in turn, means, by definition, a shift in the tax burden onto wages and salaries - or, put more simply, a wage tax.

It's a great plan, unless you don't happen to own anything. Hey, let us eat cake.

But instead of weeping over our ill fortune, we should take notes. The circumstances leading to this proposal are instructive. Thirty years ago, to have argued for a tax cut for the wealthy, followed by a repeal of the inheritance tax, de facto repeal of corporate tax, privatization of huge sectors of the federal government (including the military), all followed up by yet another shift to the wealthy through an IRS shell game--well, it would have been a nice way to cleanly get out of politics. But by increments and with a hefty layer of pancake makeup, the transfer of federal revenues to the wealthy has become regular business.

To reverse this, the rebel alliance (read: the bottom 90%) must offer a similarly clever plan. It must be comprehensive in scope, but targeted in practice. It must be incremental. And it must be accompanied by a complementary rhetorical assault. The comprehensive plan is for those, like Grover Norquist, who saw in the mid 80s where they wanted to go. The incremental plan allows for steady small gains, each by itself unthreatening. And the rhetoric must be used to argue, at each stage, in very general, vaguely moralistic terms, to appeal to the largest possible audience.

So: Progressive taxation, expanded labor rights (organized or not), targeted incentives for small business, re-regulation of industries to ensure an even playing field, rules punishing multinationals that dodge taxes--that's the comprehensive plan. Incremental plans should be guided by political expediency. Kerry is right to go after the worst of the corporate giveaways--in the post-Enron age, even hardcore conservatives are embarrassed by the obscene corruption.

Finally, the rhetoric is simple. Americans have always been torn between the twin, competing ideals of the nation--equality and liberty. Following the gilded age and the roaring twenties, the nation recognized that unrestrained focus on liberty lead to to devasting inequality and corruption--leading to the New Deal and Great Society reforms. Norquist and his band of raiders recognized that they could exploit our desire for liberty at all costs--never mind the results. It's time to shift that back and point out that what looks like liberty to the wealthy looks a hell of a lot like an entrenched aristocracy to the rest of us. For us to have true economic liberty--the old Horatio Alger American Dream liberty--we have to have fairness and opportunity.

The country might have been founded on the notion of "life, liberty, and property." That's what Dubya offers with his "ownership society"--natural rights for the landed aristocracy. Instead, Jefferson, father of liberalism, slipped in a little of the old American Dream: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." For the rest of us to pursue happiness, we must not be driven to penury. That's the message.

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