You can’t fix this with a slogan

“Silence is violence.”

“I can’t breathe.”

“What’s his name?” “George Floyd!”

Here you have three slogans that sum up the protests: 1) You’re either with us or against us. 2) The death of one is the death of all. 3) We are not anonymous and our lives matter.

You can add to that some descriptions:

“You are a racist because of where you live.”

“You are a racist because of the company you keep.”

“You are a racist because you refuse to protest.”

“You are a racist.”

These are things that have been said directly and indirectly to me.

I suppose they are all true in varying degrees.

But I won’t be protesting any time soon.

I won’t point to any of the stances I’ve taken on race and inequality in the past, amply detailed on this blog; that’s what the “search” function is for. Apparently what happened before doesn’t matter anyway. The only true believers in justice and equality are the people who say it now, today, loudly, en masse.

That many of these same outraged fighters for justice are people who voted for the President because they hated Hillary, or worse, because they didn’t think it mattered, or worst, because they don’t even believe in voting? Not relevant.

The heroes today are in the streets. You are with them or you are against them.

Now let me help you out with some facts.

Racism is systemic and it is a function of economic inequality. Where some people have everything and most others have inordinately less, there has to be a philosophy and a system of rules that keep those with less in place. In the U.S., that system is racism. It’s been around for going on five centuries now, and is responsible for things like slavery, Black Codes, redlining, peasant sharecropping, segregation, employment discrimination, lynching, police brutality, extra-judicial killings, stereotyping, and many other inventive devices.

You are not going to break it with civil war. That’s been tried.

Or with violent protests. That’s been tried.

Or with peaceful ones. That is being tried.

Inequality is built into the U.S. Constitution and into the emotional fabric of the U.S.A. The Constitution was written to set forth a framework for property laws, the relationship of slaves to white people, and the methods through which white people could vote to maintain those white-slave relationships while not infringing on the rights of other white people. The civil rights sections of the Constitution were “amendments,” a/k/a “add-ons.” The document itself, shorn of the Bill of Rights? It is a property document, a kind of deed in fee simple for the lives and labor of human beings.

The United States operates on two simple principles. 1) You can keep as much as you can legally take, and 2) The government can’t regulate how rich you become.

As economists and sociologists and the lives of ordinary people have proven beyond any reasonable doubt, these principles, built as they are on concepts of economic and social inequality, lead to economic and social inequality. Who knew?

Racism doesn’t cause inequality except to the extent that inequality, the idea that some people should be able to have everything and others shouldn’t have anything, is built, supported, and perpetuated through racism. The chicken, in this case, most definitely came first. But even if it didn’t …

In the same vein, after the abolition of slavery and segregation, the only tool that the government has to reduce inequality is the institution of progressive taxation. That’s it. The only way to make fewer people perpetually poor is to tax in a way that fewer people are perpetually rich.

And this, America will never do. It has nothing to do with party or whether you’re liberal, conservative, libertarian, or something else. It simply has to do with America’s conviction that wealth without limits is the human ideal.

Limiting unfettered wealth and its acquisition infringes on the fantasy that anyone can become Steve Jobs or Michael Jordan, but most crucially, it requires you to take away the money and power of the people who have the money and power.

You cannot do that because they will not allow it. If you think Joe Biden is going to progressively tax the rich so that 84% of all families in America are no longer below the mean in ownership of wealth, you are mistaken. If you think that the 1% of the people who own 40% of the nation’s wealth are going to ever give that up, no matter how many slogans you shout, you are mistaken.

If you think that the tax schemes of the 1950’s in which high earners were taxed up to 90% of their income is ever coming back, you are mistaken. If you think that shareholders who are making billions in a rising stock market while 40 million people go jobless are going to give up those profits, you are mistaken.

And if you think your slogan is going to change the tax code, you need to, maybe, think a little more carefully about your slogan.

Whatever names you call me, they’re probably not too far off, but name calling is not going to stop me from advocating in my own way, on my own terms, for the things that I think matter in the way I see fit.

Support people and policies who advocate a fair distribution of wealth. A whole host of interpersonal issues get resolved when you have a roof over your head, food in your belly, healthcare, and a good education.

And in the meantime, ride yer fuggin’ bike.


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31 thoughts on “You can’t fix this with a slogan”

  1. Not sure your 90% number is what actually happened, but you make some interesting points. And I’m not sure that the idea that if I work harder and longer I keep less of my earnings is really motivating me to work harder and longer. Bracing for impact now….

    1. Seth is completely right that coming out of WWII and into the 50’s the progressive tax rate was in place. Those rates don’t mean you only kept 10% of what you “earned” because 1) that was “Earned Income” and most wealthy folks had ways to limit the amount of “Earned Income” they received. 2) was based on “Earned Income” above various thresholds got taxed at higher rates. Every threshold you crossed, the delta in that threshold gap got taxed higher. That is a fact that anti-progressive tax people always lie about. It’s a free country, you can lie as much as you want to.

      It is also a myth, that the more you are taxed, the less incentive you have to work. That just doesn’t pan out to be any kind of true.

      The United States experienced a lot of growth in the 50’s and 60’s with all that progressive taxation, AND the high corporate tax rates that worked the same way. Corporations thrived and the US of A had a decent steady income of monies that were spent on programs. Infrastructure, space, education, etc.

      Germany, and Sweden and most of Western Europe tax high, and they have many fewer problems than we do. They do however, have populist assholes just like we do, and those assholes have been working to undermine their institutions, just like those assholes have undermined ours.

      Good points Seth. You are spot on.

      1. Thanks, Eric. For some reason this got hung up in spam. It’s now “un-hung.” I also wonder why more work for longer hours is a virtue? What’s wrong with a moderate amount of work? Or (perish the thought) a little?

        1. People in Europe work to live. They enjoy, for the most part, a pretty decent standard of living. For European corporates, the per – person loading for a worker is about 60% or less that of the equivalent worker in the US. Why?? Because of their healthcare. Because they value their society. “We are all in this together, so let’s make it better for everyone.”

          Again, there are Populist Assholes in Europe that are connected to the Populist Assholes here in the US. Hell, Paul Fucking Manafort was into spreading Populist Assholism as much has he possibly could.

          Where do people think our )once) tremendous infrastructure came from?

          A society that is “all for me” isn’t a society at all.

    1. I think Karl believed in the abolition of private property. I believe that the progressive system of taxation that has existed in theory since the Constitution was amended to allow it, should be progressive in deed as well as word and should be on wealth, not fake tax returns that fail to account for real wealth, onshore and offshore as well.

    2. And I think corporations should pay at a minimum what they used to in terms of taxes, i.e. 35%, and not be able to sneak around it with flubby accounting and loopholes big enough to drive the planet Venus through.

  2. During our “Golden Era”- post WWII to early ’60s- corporations covered about 35% of our country’s tax load. Now they cover about 18%, IIRC.
    BTW, Abe Lincoln and Karl Marx had a lot in common, other than both being abolitionists.

  3. This was an interesting weaving of inequality and racism narratives, Seth. I’ve never had a good hold on how to deal with racism by itself, but I’ve always believed (since college, anyway), that a much more progressive income tax would be a good way to deal with the mal-distribution of wealth, and if enforced properly, would help a lot of people of color (and others) who are dispossessed. I think that’s pretty close to your conclusion, if I read it right. Great post!

  4. I have a question. I’m all for everyone (including corporations) pay their fair share, but how does that end up with poor people getting food in their belly or roofs over their heads? Seriously, not trolling.

    If you tax more, the government gets the money. I’m not clear on how the government redistributing that money works exactly. Aid programs? Grants? Welfare? I’m not sure that is the best idea based on the past, nor do I necessarily trust the government to do what’s right. Do we think the government will finally start maintaining & improving the countries infrastructure with the new money? Using it for health care for all so everyone has more money in their pockets?

    Is the idea that the tens to hundreds of million dollar salaries of corporate leaders, athletes, entertainers won’t be so attractive if they have to pay taxes on their giant incomes? So then corporations will hire more, pay more fairly, not lay off their employees who actually generate the wealth?

    It sickens me to see the financial inequity in this country & hear the smug contempt the haves for the have nots, but does simply increasing the government’s share of the money fix the issues you so aptly describe?

    1. I think the short answer is that we become a social democracy akin to Germany/Norway/Sweden/Denmark, where healthcare costs are borne by the government, education costs are borne by the government, and rent subsidies are available to most people. Greater concentrations of private wealth have not solved anything. Historically, and currently, when inequalities reach a certain point, the destitution and misery of the poor becomes unbearable because “the poor” starts to include vast numbers of people. Those people, rightly or wrongly, get angry and tear stuff up. But the system does not change, and the people least able to cope with “torn up stuff” are of course the poorest.

      We have presided over a great transfer of public wealth into private hands in the last 50 years as well, so not we’ve not only given the green light to unlimited private acquisition, we have donated public money to private people and corporations. I don’t think this is fair.

      On the other hand, if people don’t want to redistribute wealth through progressive taxation, then perhaps they should eliminate corporations so that the risks they take with their capital will be personal risks. This includes the risk of debt, the risk of personal civil liability, and of course the risk of personal criminal liability, all of which are to varying degrees shielded by the fiction of the corporation. Or we can just hunker down, wait for this to blow over, and then switch the meat grinder on again. As long as there’s NFL and beer and Instagram, people can endure a lot.

      What matters is that the Constitution was written to protect property, which at that time included human beings. I’m not sure that society is willing to put human lives, human happiness, human values, ahead of property the right to unfettered acquisition thereof. But we’ll see, I guess.

      1. Thanks Seth. Agreed for the most part, especially those that take the risk, pay the consequences. Rights = Responsibilities. (My dad was big on that. 😬)

      2. It’s been pointed out before (possibly Piketty??) that once wealth inequality goes beyond a certain point, redistribution is often accomplished via revolution.

        Perhaps the US is at the early stages of this? As an external observer, it seems like non-whites have always been discriminated against, African-Americans bearing the brunt of it. However, since the white majority believe in “The American Dream” (TM) they have no incentive to change the system.

        However, now that the actually rich have been shipping jobs overseas for many years, more and more whites are realising that “The American Dream” (TM) is slipping out of their reach, too, and will some day notice that the the social divide is based on wealth, not skin colour and that rich people don’t care about poor white people either.

        The election of Trump is the early warning “fuck the system” sign, but when poor whites get to the point where they realise have more in common with non-whites than wealthy whites, it’s game on.

        Or maybe I’m just a pessimist.

        1. It doesn’t sound like pessimism. The greater the inequality in distribution of wealth the greater the risk of violent change. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that point. Orderly, compromised, negotiated change that redistributes wealth has never happened before.

        2. Piketty said that the only solution that wasn’t the result of “shock” to the system was progressive taxation.

      1. I voted third party and will continue to do so. The two party monopoly keeps us flip-flopping between two crooked organizations that keep us divided.

    1. Just because one place is worse than another doesn’t mean the better place is paradise.

  5. I think we should consider raising the minimum wage as a compliment to progressive taxation. I say that because in the 70s I was a college student, and I made little more than the prevailing minimum wage. With that modest income I was able to feed myself and rent a very modest apartment.

    Fast forward several years, and a marketing guy where I worked concluded that a reason young people weren’t buying our products like before was that the minimum wage had lagged far behind inflation.

    I’m not sure how to do the math, but I expect that if the minimum wage from the early seventies was adjusted for the inflation since then, it would exceed $25 per hour. That would open up new privileges for the young and poor, and it might force big corporations to pay top executives less insane amounts in order to pay their every day workers.

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