Persons of a certain age (like me) will recall a time in America when everything was brand new. We had new schools, new highways, new cars. We had rockets that went to the moon. My sixth grade teacher used to drive from Tacoma to Detroit every year to buy a new car. He owned a house. His wife didn’t work. He had kids. It was called the American Dream and it applied to everybody, not just entrepreneurs. It was all possible back then.
Of course, it wasn’t all perfect back then. Institutional bigotry was a fact of life. A woman couldn’t own a credit card without her husband’s permission. There was no such thing as no fault divorce so abusive marriages were common.
But economically it was a relative paradise. The year I was born, 1956, the top tax rate was 90%. Later in the 60s, the top tax rate was 70%. Even so, everybody paid their fair share. Economically everyone was much better off.
Of course, that didn’t mean the rich paid 70% income tax for all of their income, oh no. That’s a lie that Republicans tell in order to terrify people who want to return to those better times. But that portion of wages beyond a certain limit were taxed at that rate. It meant that as soon as you became very rich, rich enough for anyone’s sane idea of luxury, the government would start taking more of your excess money. In other words, the more you earned beyond an already huge income the more they taxed the excess.
It worked for everyone. Then along came Ronald Reagan and the “prosperity gospel.” It was Reagan’s idea that the rich should really pay no taxes at all, and it was the idea of evangelical preachers that everybody should have unlimited wealth. That way the rich would become so rich they would get stupid with generosity, and shower their excess wealth down on the rest of us. Just like Jesus did. It was called “trickle down economics,” and it was a lie. It didn’t work.
Instead of being generous, hundreds of Americans became obscenely rich and obscenely selfish and obscenely greedy and obscenely self-righteous. They looked down their noses at the rest of us. They became billionaire assholes.
Instead of paying more taxes at the top end they paid fewer taxes. And year upon year it became so bad that the very richest among us paid no taxes at all. And then they would brag about how smart they were while homeless children starved to death in America’s streets. They would take rocket trips into outer space just to show off how big and bad they were. They would buy football teams and social media companies because they could.
And then everything started to crumble to dust. Potholes started appearing on America’s highways and there was no longer enough money to fill them up again. Buildings grew old and tattered. Nobody could afford houses any more. Nobody could even afford apartments. More and more of America’s youth continued to live with their parents well past their teenage years and into adulthood.
More and more Republican politicians recognised that things couldn’t continue this way. So instead of going back to taxing the rich, they started looking at the huge pot of money that constituted retirement money for the poor — Social Security — with increasingly greedy eyes. They decided they would take that too, since they’ve already taken everything else.
Today two or three Americans own half the country’s wealth. Many others have become so obscenely rich that they can do just about anything they want. It’s amazing the shit they can get away with. They have effectively become above the law. It hasn’t gotten so bad that they can have any peasant they don’t like murdered. But give it time.
Bernie Sanders suggests that billionaires should be eliminated from the American landscape entirely, and I agree. The idea goes like this: any money they have beyond $999 million should be wholly confiscated by the federal government. In other words, they should be taxed at the usual rate for money they earn each year less than a billion dollars, but the excess above that should go straight to the federal government.
If rich people don’t want their money to go to the federal government then they can give the excess to bona fide nonpolitical charities. But any leftover excess all goes to taxes. I think that’s a great idea, and it would demolish the absurdly enormous power billionaires have.
Suddenly everyone would have money again. The growing gap between rich and poor would start to close. Life would become bearable again for people now oppressed to the point of suicide by money worries. People would get smarter because it’s been shown that money worries lower your IQ, and economic prosperity raises it. People would be happier and healthier again.
But that’s too much like “communism,” a word Republicans revived because they’re terrified that the billionaires who fund them will become unhappy with the job they’re doing. So instead they want more and more and more and more and more. And more. Of your money, of your time, of your blood. Because that’s the way the friends of the obscenely rich roll. And that’s why they have to go. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.