By GENE H. McINTYRE
Income inequality, and its corollary, much more for the few and much less for the many in access to goods, services and even educational opportunity, has of late become a concern again. Some conservatives argue that this kind of talk is unwise as it will do harm to economic growth. These Americans, seeking the matter muted, want us to ignore the growing disparities, viewing such discussions as un-American. For them, it’s a no-no to suggest that some people control too large a share of the nation’s wealth, possessing inordinate power and permanency by it, keeping every cent of it for their heirs.
Of course, then, no true conservative American would ever say this: “The absence of effective state, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men whose chief objective is to hold and increase their power” and not call, as a result, for “a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”
Who was this “threat” to those who believe it an American right to greedily own and control forever, everything in sight? Why it was none other than a conservative Republican former President Theodore Roosevelt, in a speech on the “New Nationalism, “ he delivered in 1910.
Fact of matter is, in the early part of the last century, a number of leading Americans warned about the dangers of extreme wealth concentration being passed along untouched and supported tax policy used to limit the growth of big fortunes. Another example from the time came from noted economist Irving Fisher in 1918 to warn against the effects of “an undemocratic distribution of wealth” and spoke in favor of ways to limit inherited wealth through effective taxation of estates. Economist Thomas Piketty said that taxation to reduce income and wealth disparities was an “American invention.”
Back another 100 years, this “American invention” had its roots in the Jeffersonian vision of an egalitarian society of small farmers. At the time Teddy Roosevelt gave his speech, thoughtful Americans realized that extreme inequality was making a mockery out of Jefferson’s dream while the U.S. was in considerable danger of turning into a society dominated by huge fortunes and hereditary wealth. Their view: that this relatively new nation, the United States of America, was at high risk of becoming decadent, corrupt, self-indulging, and rotten-to-its-core, like Old Europe.
Taking notice of current data, it is interesting to look at the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans and, by a somewhat rough count, to be aware of the top inherited large fortunes that about a third of them are inherited. Another third are 65 or older, so they will likely leave large fortunes to their heirs. The bottom line is that we are closing in on becoming an aristocracy of hereditary wealth.
Hence, criticizing our fellow Americans who talk about the dangers of concentrated wealth in a very few hands misleads the public into ignoring the consequences from history where nations with concentrated wealth led to decadent, corrupt, self-indulging, rotten-to-the-core cultures. It should be very American to be concerned and to do whatever’s possible to replace those members of Congress who are busy now with a new taxation scheme making sure that the wealthy can aggrandize excessively and keep it all for those they have sired.
Masterpiece Theatre presentations such as Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey glorified and celebrated domestic service in the England of near yesteryear. However, that work in reality meant totally surrendering one’s freedom, being at the beck and call of inherited wealth and facing loss of employment for the most petty of infractions. In Merry Ole England, if you were not born rich, then you served the rich, for all intents and purposes you gave up your citizenship to the rich, you dug coal to keep the rich warm or you starved and no one gave a damn and a class society ruled. Is this what Americans want for their progeny?
(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)