When Jesse Jackson ran a strong populist campaign for president in 1988, advocating bold new policies and programs to address inequality, establishment skeptics scoffed, “Where ya gonna get the money?” Jackson answered directly: “Get it from where it went.”
He meant from corporations and the rich, which had been rigging the economic system and government policies to shift income and wealth from the workaday majority to themselves. Thirty years later, that shift has become an avalanche, with income and wealth inequality reaching the plutocratic excesses of the Gilded Age. Just three men — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — now own more of the nation’s wealth than the 165 million Americans who make up the bottom half of our population.
This extreme — and expanding — separation of the few from the many is an economic, social and moral disaster in the making, which is why today’s progressive policymakers are calling for big, forward-thinking populist solutions, ranging from free higher education to a Green New Deal. But again, the smug forces of the status quo scoff, “Where ya gonna get the money?”
The answer is the same one Jackson offered decades ago, but there are now three big differences: (1) The voracious grabbiness of the uber-rich has become ever more obscene and offensive, obvious to the general public; (2) From both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, we now have detailed, viable, easy-to-understand proposals for a wealth tax on multimillionaires and billionaires to pay for the structural changes needed to open opportunities for the poor and middle class; and (3) There is now wide and enthusiastic public support for a wealth tax. A recent poll found two-thirds of Americans (including a majority of Republicans) favor Warren’s plan for a tax on those who have fortunes exceeding $50 million.
Inequality will not fix itself. As the American majority has had to do periodically in our history, We the People must intervene to keep greed and wealth concentration from suffocating our society’s essential democratic values of fairness, justice and opportunity for all. A wealth tax is the place to start, for the rich are different from you and me. For one thing, they’re rich.
Among the superrich, though, there tends to be a peculiar sense that they are especially deserving, as though their net worth is a testament to their true worthiness. Thus, they seem to desperately cling to the very idea of being extremely wealthy — and to accumulating more wealth as the measure of a live well lived. This, then, leads to one very specific difference between them and us: Most of us favor the wealth tax to help bridge the gaping chasm of inequality in our society; they do not.
Indeed, the shrieks of abject horror, the gnashing of teeth, the cries of doom coming from corporate boardrooms, country clubs and defenders of the plutocratic order would be comical if they weren’t so pathetic. They exclaim that such a tax will “depress” business confidence, “destroy” entrepreneurial motivation, “dis-incentivize” investment, “sap” innovation, “punish” success and — get this — “spur” a wave of divorces! The psyches of the rich are so fragile, goes this line of bull, that a tiny tax on people with more than $50 million in wealth would keep them from getting out of bed in the morning.
Jamie Dimon, a billionaire Wall Street banker, disingenuously asserted that superwealthy people like him would “be happy to pay more in taxes.” But he feared the government would just squander it on giveaways “to interest groups and stuff like that.” I have to admit that Dimon does know his “stuff.” He weaseled billions of dollars in bailout money from our government in 2007 to keep his bank from collapsing due to Wall Street fraud, mismanagement and greed.
Far from squandering wealth-tax revenues on corporate giveaways to make elites like Dimon even richer, those supporting the tax specifically call for the money to fund access to higher education for every American who wants it, Medicare for All, grassroots jobs to repair and extend our national infrastructure, universal child care and other direct efforts to restore the common good. To help advance passage of the wealth tax — and our nation’s democratic ideals — check out Citizens for Tax Justice.
Populist author, public speaker and radio commentator Jim Hightower writes “The Hightower Lowdown,” a monthly newsletter chronicling the ongoing fights by America’s ordinary people against rule by plutocratic elites. Sign up at HightowerLowdown.org.