Polarizing Plutocrats

Also published at Democratic Underground at http://www.democraticunderground.com and at Bartcop Reader at http://www.bartcopnation.com.

Jan. 19, 2002

I listened to Bill Gates’ Dad talk last week at a D.C. hotel at an event put together by United for a Fair Economy. He wanted to further limit the number of estates touched by the estate tax and to make sure we recognized the benefits to the country of allowing a small number of people to live in a world of tremendous comfort unlike anything most of us ever experience.

He also wanted to keep most of the estate tax in place, because he opposed allowing families to eternally maintain their wealth, and because he believed our society and our government create the playing field and educate the workers that allow for the accumulation of wealth.

With Republicans intent on completely eliminating the estate tax, we should be pushing to expand and increase it even if we believe the status quo to be ideal (I don’t, I really want the tax expanded). Politicians love the middle ground, but the middle ground is pretty far to the right these days because the prostitutes for the plutocrats push an extreme agenda and the first words out of most progressive mouths are a compromise. In fact, that’s not quite the right name for it, since you have to have an initial position before you can compromise. Self-censorship (or deferral to a moderate quasi-celebrity) may be a better description. Leftists have become the conservatives, as the debate is between radical or moderate shifts to the right.

In the Jan. 27. issue of The Nation, Gates Sr. and Chuck Collins refer to limiting the estate tax as “reform,” even while explaining that there isn’t much need for it. In the next sentence they cite evidence that there is in fact ZERO need for it:

“Proposals to reform the tax have been blocked since 2000 by the ‘all or nothing’ repeal lobby, which understands the peril of not having smaller estates as camouflage. Once exemptions rise above $3 million, it becomes impossible to find a credible and photogenic farmer or restaurant owner who will complain about what opponents call the ‘death tax.’ It’s hard enough to find them now. The pro-repeal American Farm Bureau was asked to produce an example of a farmer who had lost a farm because of the estate tax. It could not identify a single one.”

The same issue of The Nation contained a much wiser proposal by Gar Alperovitz called “Tax the Plutocrats,” which argued for significant increases in taxes on the top one or two percent of the wealthy. “The first step is to stop compromising at the outset,” he wrote, before arguing for a tax system that sharply differentiates between the top 2 percent and the bottom 98 percent. Alperovitz recommended a repeal of Bush’s tax cuts at the top, a return to the 50 percent top marginal income tax rates of the first Reagan Administration, corporate taxes equivalent to those in force during the Nixon Administration, and a wealth tax of at least 1 percent, in addition to public programs to create wealth for the rest of us, including government-funded accounts for every individual at birth.

This sort of positive vision is exactly what’s needed, though it needs to be more aggressive if it is going to serve as a long-term (20-year) plan. And it has a major loophole. Unless the value of the minimum wage during the Nixon Administration is restored and indexed to automatically keep pace with the cost of living, and unless workers’ right to organize is to some significant extent protected, we will continue moving toward a society in which the wages paid to a majority of us converge on zero and the government is faced with the responsibility both to provide families with sustenance and to do so in a way that encourages work. If the government taxes corporations and plutocrats only to pay their employees for them, real gains will be limited, inequality of wealth and power will continue to grow, workers/beggars’ ability to obtain credit and accumulate wealth will be further diminished, and a common fund to feed the wage slaves will be substituted for common participation in power.

Already many make a rational decision not to work for $5.15 per hour. Often child care costs more than a single parent can earn. And various illegal activities can pay bills that $5.15 won’t. The decision not to work hurts the economy but benefits the calculators of the fiction known as the “unemployment rate,” since people not actively searching for work are not considered “unemployed.” Opponents of living wage laws routinely promote earned income tax credits, housing and food assistance, and government job training programs as preferable to the “socialist” idea of a wage standard. Median wage rates for non-supervisory workers are declining after dropping from the mid seventies through the mid nineties and then rebounding slightly in the late nineties. Welfare for non-workers is being eliminated. Second class labor rights for workfare workers and undocumented immigrants are being established.

If we pinch some of the plutocrats’ wealth but do not establish a living wage for workers, the middle class will not benefit and the poor are bound to become poorer still.

Gates Sr.’s position makes no sense to me. To him any accumulation of wealth is worthy of praise as long as it occurs within a single lifetime. But the instant that wealth is passed to a family’s next generation, it becomes intolerable. Presumably he believes this regardless of whether a billionaire dies at 35 or 102.

In contrast, I maintain that possessing enough money to alleviate all the serious deprivation in one or more countries, without suffering any pain, hardship, or humiliation oneself (and, on the contrary, receiving awards and praises of historical proportions), and NOT DOING SO, is shameful in the extreme. Some years back, Ralph Nader wrote a letter to Bill Gates Jr. suggesting this. The effect was not a rapid conversion, and some Americans thought that Nader should have been ashamed of suggesting such a thing. But the belief that Gates Jr. and lesser plutocrats should fork over much of their wealth seems to be growing, probably in response to increased hardship and increased awareness of the dishonest and monopolistic tactics often used to acquire great wealth.

A campaign to change our current system of wealth could mobilize lower income Americans by demonizing the billionaires and their hired-gun lobbyists and lawyers. Someone like Rick Berman who takes money from fast-food chains and hotels in order to argue against wage standards, non-smoking laws, food safety standards, or lower blood-alcohol levels for drunk driving laws, seems an easy target. His anti-government rhetoric suggests he would do away with laws on child-labor, workplace safety, or even that pesky ban on slavery, and do so in the name of letting “the market” benefit the poor.

The reason it is helpful for progressive groups and magazines to promote the moderate views of someone like Gates Sr. is that it helps to muddy this image of demonic plunderers. Even Berman must have a heart somewhere inside him. And so – dare I say it? – must George Bush Jr. The moderate allies whom progressives need already know this.

I marched for peace yesterday in D.C. and noticed that many marchers were turned off by comparisons of Bush to Hitler and other uses of demonization. Martin Luther King Jr., whose holiday is tomorrow, urged us to aggressively pursue a positive vision while loving our enemies and seeking reconciliation. If King were here he would not predict the speedy conversion of Bush into a good and compassionate president. King might very well argue for Bush’s impeachment, as Ramsey Clark did at the peace rally. But King would insist on our recognizing the remote possibility of persuading Bush to change.

Hatred hurts the haters and wastes our energy. We are so focused on fighting Bush that we are distracted from proposing a vision of our own. We are miserable about it, and that misery does not attract allies, just as the hatred itself discourages allies. Strangely, finding kindness in our hearts and respect or agape for George W. Bush may be part of a strategy that will allow us to oppose Bush’s policies more fervently. This seeming contradiction made sense 40 years ago when King so eloquently explained it to us time and time again. Now is not the time to forget it.

We must build a powerful majority movement not through compromise but through love, respectful persuasion, and a passion for justice as we conceive it, not matter how radical the changes required to get us there.

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