The Irony of the Tax Cut Debate

There are different ways that people might try to become wealthier. They might try to get a larger share of the pot. The wealthiest Americans have increased their share of American national wealth so that they now reap most of the benefits of the entire economy.

A second possibility is to try to improve the value of the investments they already have. If the economy does better, their businesses will do better and they will be better off – even though their share of national income doesn’t rise.

For decades now the wealthiest have been steadily increasing their share of the entire wealth generated in America. And the more they have, apparently the more they want, and the more they cry that they should get more, and claim that giving them even more will be good for the rest of us, even while giving more to the wealthiest obviously hasn’t done anything for the great mass of us – we’re suffering from a major recession with persistent 10% unemployment. But what is more intriguing is that the wealthy aren’t much better off if at all. The value of the stock market has tanked. In constant dollars it has been declining. The value of many business investments have tanked as the public is less and less able to buy. Our poor little rich folk are finding that their dollars don’t go as far as they once did.

Part of the problem is that there is no one left in America to buy what they make. That is the problem that has restricted the fortunes of the wealthy landowners in impoverished republics. They can get most of the wealth produced by their workers, often very much abused workers, but the pie is not very large. The really big opportunity for them is corrupt interference in foreign trade. Just the kind of thing we have been trying to stop, or at least we claim we are trying to stop it. So the much put-upon multimillionaires are limited by the size of the economy they are trying to feast on.

Then there is the alternative. Henry Ford and many of his contemporaries actually believed in paying his workers well. And they did OK. Their workers could buy their products – their own and the produce of other business – and everyone did well. Until the super rich managed to put half the wealth of the country in their own pockets just before the Great Depression. Then after World War II we once again achieved decades of prosperity. And most of us did well. But the super rich just couldn’t stand sharing. Even though their selfish greed has been undermining their own fortunes. During the Great Depression many people who thought they were very rich jumped out of tall buildings. They suddenly discovered that all that wealth wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. And if they couldn’t share the wealth, they’d just have to share the streets and the sewers.

Greed can be systematically self-destructive. It’s ironic. The wealthiest Americans can choose public spirit over private greed – and many have – but too many of the wealthiest and too many of the politicians in their pay haven’t figured it out. The way to real wealth is to share. It’s actually the selfish thing to do – what Americans described by Alexis de Tocqueville used to call “self-interest rightly understood.” It would be nice to recover that insight, and the public spirit that once made this country work so well.

—  This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 7, 2010.

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