The Great Debate: America And Equality

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." - Thomas Jefferson, July 4, 1776 "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." - Thomas Jefferson, July 4, 1776

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." - Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 19, 1863

"When was America all about everyone being equal?” - Florida contractor and Gingrich fundraiser Mary Forristall, quoted in the Washington Post on Jan. 28, 2012

There you have it: America's great political debate summarized in three quotes. Forristall is not the first conservative, and definitely won't be the last, to dislike equality. Our history is littered with a surprising number of quotes just like it. Most of us think the ideas of Jefferson and Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. firmly planted equality in American soil and made it as apple-pie all-American as you could imagine, but the debate goes on. From Alexander Hamilton to John C. Calhoun to the Social Darwinists of the 1880s to Ayn Rand, William Buckley, and Jesse Helms of the last century and the tea partiers of this, there has been a long line of conservatives who are appalled and terrified by the idea of equality. There are a lot of remarkably blunt quotes on how absurd the idea of equality is from all kinds of conservatives which I featured in my book, "The Progressive Revolution: How the Best of America Came To Be."

When conservatives want to be a little less overt about their disdain for the notion of equality, they will say that, of course they believe in equality of opportunity, they just oppose equality of results. Besides being a ridiculous straw man (no one I have ever met has argued for absolute "equality of results,” or the idea that it isn't fine for people to get rewarded when they build and sell great products), they almost always immediately undercut their own argument by proposing cuts in student grants and loans, public education, Head Start and child health programs that get kids off to a better start in life. They are all for equality, they say, but never want to extend equal protections under the law to new classes of people being discriminated against. They support equality but don’t care if people with illnesses or pre-existing conditions can’t get health care coverage. They are for equal rights under the law but support eliminating funding for legal services, and allowing bankers who commit financial fraud to skate by without ever being investigated. They think equality is wonderful, but are indignant that progressives ask that millionaires and billionaires pay at least as high a tax rate as their secretaries.

Conservatives are on the defensive on equality issues to a degree they haven’t been in at least four decades, and they are flailing around pretty badly trying to defend their patrons in the 1 percent. More straw men are being created than in the Land of Oz. The Washington Post has had two big pieces in their editorial pages the last two days with conservative writers desperately trying to defend wealthy people from having to pay a fair share of taxes.

First up, with the lead editorial on the front page of The Washington Post Sunday Outlook section, was a piece by James Q. Wilson with the monster-sized headline “Don’t Blame the Rich.” The Post’s sub-headline was “Scholar James Q. Wilson argues that taxing the wealthy won’t end poverty.” Straw man number one: I’d be hard pressed to ascertain what progressives were blaming “the rich” for. I, appropriately, blame a lot of the big Wall Street bankers for crashing the economy through financial fraud, forcing the rest of us to bail them out, and then whining because we don’t love them anymore. Likewise, I blame oil and coal companies for polluting the air and threatening the earth with catastrophic climate change. I blame health insurance companies for dropping millions of people out of coverage when they get sick. I blame big business execs who outsource jobs from America so they can pay slave wages in China and Third World countries. But I have nothing against rich people generally.

If you are a manufacturer who has created a great product and employs a lot of people to make it while paying them a decent wage and making sure they have health benefits, and gets rich as a result, I have nothing but love for you. If you are a small business owner that provides amazing service for your community and gets rich as a result, that is tremendous. If you are a community banker who gives small business and home and auto loans to the people in your community, and make great money, God bless you. If you run a website that produces great content with a huge audience, and you reap the rewards, wonderful. I blame entrepreneurs like that for nothing, and am thrilled for their success. But I still want to see them, and everyone with the ability to, pay their fair share of taxes.

Straw man number two: I have never heard anyone say that taxing the wealthy, all by itself, would end poverty. There are many different ways we can attack the poverty problem, and a lot of them do require money, some of it private and some of it public, but poverty is not going to end overnight or be solved by any one policy measure. But what could taxing the wealthy more do? Help reduce the federal deficit, pay for more schools, repair the schools we have in so many places that are falling apart, hire more and better teachers. It could rebuild our roads, highways, sewer systems, bridges, and the rest of our crumbling infrastructure. It could make sure the entire nation has access to high speed broadband internet service, pay for more research and development, invest in more prenatal care, early childhood programs, Head Start, and quality child care. There are many other needs this country has, and taxing the wealthy at a fairer rate would definitely help us pay for all those things. But you know what else? It is also a matter of simple fairness and justice: People with wealth got wealthy in part because of the blessings of this country, and they ought to pay their fair share to support it.

Straw man number three: Progressives want to tax the rich only to help the poor. Now I will admit something here: Being the lefty freak that I am, I do actually care about helping poor people. Although I don’t believe all the theological teachings of my childhood, I do still believe that the Jesus of the Gospels was right when he said we would ultimately be judged on how we treated “the least of these,” and in general those with less than us. And I think it is also just good public policy: When you help lift poor people up, give them opportunities for a better life, you make our country stronger as a whole. But the conservatives’ goal in saying the only point of taxing the rich is to help the poor is to divide poor people from the middle class. The fact is that while the safety net for the poorest among us is tattered and in need of repair, there is very little safety net at all for the middle class. It is the middle class that built this country, and when the gap between us and the wealthiest keeps growing exponentially, the middle class gets crushed. Poor people are in trouble in this country but the middle class is as hard-pressed as it has been since the 1930s.Their wages are stagnant, their homes have crashed in value, and they have groceries, energy, health care, and college tuition costs rising. Their kids’ schools have been falling apart and seeing teacher layoffs, fire and police services keep getting pared back, roads have big potholes that never seem to get fixed and bridges are in danger of collapse because the wealthiest in society aren’t paying their fair share in taxes. This issue of fundamental fairness and vast economic inequality is not just about helping the poor; it really is about helping the entire 99 percent.

Wilson’s opinion piece ignores a wide range of recent research showing social mobility slowing down dramatically in America and being far worse than most industrialized countries, and he is remarkably selective about the data he does use—using statistics more than once that mysteriously only go up to 2006, before the collapse of the last few years, and ignoring data from more recent years that shows how income inequality has gone up in most Western countries, but by far the most here. He makes a special point, of course, in noting that inequality has gone down in Greece, while never mentioning how much stronger than ours the economies have been of several European countries (including Germany, Denmark, and Sweden) who have far better income inequality numbers.

Then there is Robert Samuelson’s piece. He adds a fourth straw man to Wilson’s big three: that passing the Buffett Tax wouldn’t solve the deficit problem. Well, no, Mr. Samuelson, but it would help. No one who supports the Buffett tax has argued that if we just passed that and did nothing else, all our federal deficit problems (or the deficit in public investment for education, infrastructure, and all the rest for that matter) would magically go away. To solve all those problems, you would also need to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, close all the unproductive corporate tax loopholes, end the deduction for million dollar-plus homes, stop subsidizing oil companies and big corporate agribusiness, impose a tax on Wall Street speculation, cut wasteful defense spending, create a robust public option in health care, negotiate with drug companies on Medicare Part D, and reform federal contracting policy. Oh, and start creating economic growth and new jobs at the rate Bill Clinton did in the 1990s. You do all that stuff and the deficit gets solved pretty easily, but I’m guessing a hard-line conservative like Samuelson would oppose almost all of those policies.

Samuelson concludes his article by saying this: “But recognize that the anti-wealthy populist rhetoric is mostly political expediency. It distracts from the serious issues the country faces—creating jobs and closing long term budget deficits. The anti-rich backlash is growing; a Pew poll finds 66 percent of Americans see strong conflicts between rich and poor, up from 47 percent in 2009. Pandering to this is easier than dealing with the future.” Not seeing that the richest 400 families in America have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans is a “serious issue” and one of the most tragic flaws of conservatism. This kind of imbalance creates a country that looks far more like the Third World than like America in her mid-20th Century glory years. And you will never create big numbers of jobs or curb long-term deficits without a prosperous and expanding middle class. To suggest that those of us who care about issues of economic equity are pandering, or—another one of my all-time favorite straw men—are envious of the rich—suggests a fundamental lack of understanding about either good economic policy or our nation’s history. I’m not envious of the rich; I’d just like the rest of us not to be crushed by their greed.

The truth that we are all created equal is indeed self-evident. America was in fact conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created equal. And if a certain small sector of our economy grows so much richer and more powerful than the rest of us, it strikes at the heart of the America we used to be, and are supposed to be.

About Mike Lux

Mike Lux's picture
Author, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be

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