The bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform released its report to a cheering crowd of enthusiastic supporters of fiscal responsibility but those cheers were drowned out by the thunderous roar of just about everybody else. Unlike the hoax of global warming, the growing national debt is a real and serious problem that will spell doom if not addressed immediately, so say neo-conservatives. The Commission, in its reserved and even-handed examination of the facts and figures, has decided that the working poor must bear as much of the burden as the super rich to rectify this difficult situation. We are Americans; we can do this!
Higher taxes and reduced benefits for the middle class will be necessary. Millionaires will be treated just like everyone else. They will need to make do with only two vacation homes instead of three. Billionaires, on the other hand, will be exempt because their fortunes are not tied to America’s fortunes. They transcend nations. They are citizens of the World and can move their assets where taxes cannot touch them. “Stop picking on the super-rich! You’re only envious,” the neo-cons say. They are the quintessence of the American Dream, rags-to-riches and all that. I say, “Phooey!”
My dad was abandoned by his father when his mother died. When he turned sixteen, he left the orphanage and took any job he could find. He served in the Merchant Marines in World War II (one of the most dangerous assignments) and went to work for the B&O Railroad after his service. He routinely worked twelve to sixteen hours a day on the road to support ten children and spent his vacations helping friends file their income tax forms. He died almost as poor as he was the day he entered this world but never complained, not once, about the lot he drew. His top salary was around $10,000 per year, which was good money in those days. I suppose today, we would call him part of the working poor because with ten mouths to feed and prolonged strikes every few years, that ten grand was spread thin.
My older brother began working as a longshoreman after his eight years in the navy. I can personally attest to how difficult his work was as I toiled side-by-side with him when I was working my way through college. He recently retired and is receiving disability for his exposure to asbestos on the job.
My Aunt Shirley was stricken with polio shortly after graduating from nursing school. However, she worked nearly five decades in her chosen profession, even though she needed to be carried in and out of buildings by my uncle until his death. Most folks have similar stories of simple, working people who endured hardships to support a family. None have bank accounts in the Cayman Islands or a staff of tax lawyers to help them avoid paying their fair share. They have served in our military and done the drudge jobs Wharton grads sneer at. They have all paid their debt to this country in sweat and blood.
What galls me is that many on the Right argue that the super-rich have paid their debt to America. There are a few notable individuals – Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and others – who have come to realize that wealth in and of itself has no value. Their philanthropic projects are reminiscent of the great philanthropists like Carnegie and Rockefeller, who also came to see how empty their fortunes were when others suffered. Would it not be great if these individuals were the norm rather than the exception?
Consider this. Was the work performed by anyone of these multi-billionaires any more strenuous or wearisome than the lifetime of work performed by my father, brother or aunt? Was their sacrifice worth millions of times more than that of my family’s sacrifice? Wealth can come in many forms. Some scratched at the ground to build an empire. Some were handed empires built by others. Some were in the right place at the right time (e.g. Bill Gates) and got a free step up the ladder. Still, others cheated and manipulated their way to the top. Regardless of how they attained their great wealth, all owe a debt to the nation that allowed them the opportunity to get and stay rich. This is the rationale for progressive tax rates and it is entirely appropriate. Asking the rich to pay back a nation for the privilege of being able to amass such wealth, especially in order to preserve that nation is not un-American, it is in keeping with the core ideal, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”