To the Point: Resuscitating Marie Antoinette

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By John Loehr

I’ve always thought of progressive taxation — the more you make, the more you pay — as a universally advantageous alternative to revolution.

I recall that I first learned this heretical distinction during my liberal arts education at Highlands, which included reading Montaigne, Bentham, Hume, Locke, Smith and others of their ilk. I don’t know that these stalwarts are still on the required reading lists, but there might be some gain if they were.

The behavioral rationale seems to be that if the have-nots truly are that, they have little or nothing to lose by trying to take what they need, by whatever means, from those who have it. Certainly, in the French, Russian, Cuban, Vietnamese and other revolutions (to name just a few of many, including our own), this was the operating principle. Most rational folks will steal from the rich, rather than starve and endure the same for their children, friends and families.

With this principle in mind, I find myself incredulous at the national portrayal of the issues of debt, spending and revenue-raising.

Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? describes his frustration with the good, solid, hardworking Kansas citizenry, at least the rural agricultural contingent, who seem to obsess in their desire to consistently vote for the conservatives who are destroying them economically. It appears that this pattern of people behaving contrary to their own interests has generalized and captured enough of our national citizenry, acting through our Congress, to achieve penury for new millions of our countrymen. The recent effort to terminate unemployment benefits by the Republican leadership is a first iteration of what promises to be further economic diminution of those already diminished.

Ironically, this approach may not actually serve the interests of the very rich. The inability of the unemployed, the underemployed and the impoverished to purchase, finance and otherwise perpetuate the great western way of ever-increasing consumption cannot, in theory or in practice, fulfill the capitalist requirements for continued wealth and mercantile success. The numbers just don’t work.

And, history tells us that no version of “trickle down” economics will come to our rescue in the current circumstances. To their credit (they need this), the right wing has avoided their usual batch of bizarre claims that this is a good idea.

Add to this obvious disconnect a government that will likely pay its trillions of debt by inflating the currency, further penalize the have-nots by regressive tax schemes (the national sales tax!) and hustle more and bigger international debt issues (please, China, keep financing us!), while rejecting the ripest of the low-hanging revenue-raising option fruits, that is, taxing the super-rich, and the result will be that the backs of the non-rich are likely to be bent further, if not broken. Couple this approach with the world’s greatest armaments expenditures (no, it’s mostly not defense; it’s offense!) and we could find ourselves on a new and untrodden path to … to … to … ?

The answer to the question, if there is one, may well be trite, if obvious. If the income disparity gap, greater than ever, continues to expand, if our currency inflation efforts fail as a debt repayment strategy, if our international competitive edge continues to dull (the South Koreans go to school on Saturdays!) and if our entitlement appetites cannot be curbed, even the reluctant rich may not be able to bail us out. And, should their motivations be altered by the prospect of having their wealth peremptorily taken, as opposed to negotiating a lesser gift, it all might prove to be too little, too late, no matter the timing of their conversion. Even an Eisenhower-era top marginal tax rate (more than 90 percent) might not do the job. (It could be worth a try, though.)

It’s not crazy to think that we ought to write some checks, however involuntarily, on their accounts, to both stop our descent into chaos and to buy some extra time to figure out a scheme to come back from where we are.

We have an historic American exemplar who, absent any intellectual pretensions, offered a pertinent view. Willie Sutton, the famous mid-Twentieth Century bank robber, when asked why he robbed banks, said, “That’s where the money is.” If we still question why we should tax the rich, Willie’s answer is as good as any.

John Loehr lives in Montezuma. He may be reached at 454-1731.