A strange but familiar refrain from the apologists for the US financial elite is always and forever “no more taxes,” or “don’t you dare raise taxes on our small businesses.” Of course, when it comes to lowering taxes it is always the largest corporations and the richest individuals who benefit most.
Under the grifter I prefer to call the Fake President, the vast majority of tax cuts went to the super-rich. Now, Moscow Mitch is howling fowl play now in response to President Biden’s proposal that we roll back his predecessor’s tax giveaway to the super-rich. That rollback is desperately needed and more than fair, especially when the billionaires have reaped ever more billions since the giveaway was passed, even right through the COVID-19 pandemic when most folks lost income, their job, or their business.
But I remember a different time. I guess most people alive today were not around in the 1950s. I had just started high school in 1955. Post-war prosperity reigned. But what did I know about that? Very little, except existentially. Teenagers have little basis for comparing the tenor of their times. Much later, we look back with nostalgia.
Why Prosperity Requires Progressive Taxation in Service to the Public Good
What constitutes a good society? Well, that question has suffered from dubious answers forever it seems. The corporate state, founded in illusions of never-ending economic growth through capital accumulation of the super-richest corporations and their agents and congressional lackeys, would have us believe in the ever-failing pseudo-theory of “trickle-down” economics. Let the rich get ever richer and somehow it will eventually trickle down to the rest of us. But in fact, it never does.
Funny thing about economic systems: they require the circulation of money—not its concentration in the hands of a small financial elite—in order serve the public good. Yet, in the era of plutocratic ascendency in which we now live, circulation of the life’s blood of the nation is sclerotic. We have severe blockage of the economic arteries that feed and oxygenate the muscles and vital organs of our society. Without surgical intervention—perhaps a quadruple bypass around corruption—an economic heart attack is near.
It was different in the 1950s. The national debt was comparatively very low as a component of the total economy. Veterans could go to college and buy a house. The US industrial might reflected a post-war surfeit of capacity as everyone got back to full civilian production amid plenty of material resources and worker skills. Unions were strong; they assured a livable wage for many Americans, if not so many of color.
Despite the costs of war, the government could afford to pay to grow infrastructure to support economic development, such as the national highway system that President Eisenhower initiated. It was all affordable because the nation benefitted from a progressive income tax system. If a person or a corporation made many millions of dollars, extreme income above a certain high level was taxed at a much greater percentage. Both benefitted well, if indirectly, from having paid their fair share of taxes because the money circulated far more broadly in society than it does today.
Contrary to all the plutocratic whining in Congress and in the elitist media, the corporations and the super-rich can well afford to pay their fair share of taxes. Much of it should be based on the trillions of dollars in profits they stash overseas in secret offshore accounts hidden from tax collection.
Corporate Power Served by the Administrative State
In the 1950s, the rich were served quite well by the economy of growth. Today, they enjoy the short-term profits resulting from inordinate economic power and the generation of phantom wealth from a wildly manipulated stock market, with generous government support. This is facilitated by the administrative state, orchestrated by a Congress over which the corporate elite has taken almost full control.
However, the operative term here is “short-term.” A complex adaptive living system such as a political economy and the society it dominates cannot survive long when a major sub-system spins out of control. An accelerating self-amplifying feedback loop left unchecked by a countering negative feedback loop will ultimately accelerate its self-destructive path.
Once we reach a point of inflection, a “tipping point,” collapse becomes imminent. That is not so far off, especially in context of the destabilizing and destructive effects of an accelerating climate-ecological emergency so many deny or ignore. We need immediate counter-measures for survival, not just system maintenance.
Whither Progress? Meaning in a Time of Chaos
It seems foolish to harken back to a former era, especially to a non-existent white utopia in an imagined ‘good old days’ such as that to which the MAGA victims’ illusions aspire. But for someone who experienced the 1950s and all its growing pains and endemic racism as well as its triumphs of societal development, some clear lessons emerge.
Economic progress comes from building and maintaining a system that is economically and socially just. Money circulates broadly because living wages are widespread and workers can avoid extreme debt and afford to buy the products they produce. Such a society can run on the basis of strong communities and social networks, not extremely rigid hierarchies of power.
Progress of any society is not measured usefully by growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Ultimately, we will have to climb out of the chaos of a pandemic exacerbated by a Fake President, decades of neglect of infrastructure, growing elite indifference to the plight of the citizenry, and looming climate/ecological catastrophe. In that context, the modest efforts of an empathic president are certainly refreshing, though not yet up to the enormous tasks ahead.