I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the only child of two relatively old parents. My dad was born in 1912 and my mom in 1921. I’m not even 60 yet. You do the math. The thing is, though, even though they were older than my friends’ parents, my folks were always further to the left politically. Constantly, I would hear them complain about economic inequality. And when they weren’t complaining, they were schlepping me to marches -- like the May 12, 1968 “Resurrection City” rally in which tents were placed on the National Mall to fight poverty. I had yet to have my religious awakening then. In fact, inspired in part by my parents’ railing against religious hypocrisy, I didn’t trust what came out of the mouths of most clerics. But this much I did recognize: if the Abrahamic faiths stood for anything valid, it was to fight poverty in particular and injustice generally. All this “love” crap meant nothing if it wasn’t associated with working hard for the poor. I also realized for myself back in elementary school that those who think that the private sector alone will take care of the poor were no better than Mary Antoinette, whose “let ‘em eat cake” line has always, for me, defined the spirit of unbridled capitalism.
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, my country had two political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. They still exist today, albeit with different spirits. My parents always voted Democrat because the Dems were the party of progressive taxation and using governmental programs when needed to help the poor and the working class. From 1965 – 1980, the top marginal tax rate varied from 70-77%, yet even those figures weren’t high enough for the loudest voices of the Democratic Party. They didn’t see why the richest of the rich needed all the money they had when so many people were poor. In my house, all I heard was that for the most affluent country in world history to have a high level of poverty and economic equality is a “shanda.” Whether or not you know Yiddish, you get what that means.
Fast forward now to 2019. The top marginal tax rate is no longer in the 70s. Today, depending on how you calculate it, it’s roughly 40 percent. Not coincidentally, economic equality has only gotten worse. Far worse. This was chronicled most exquisitely in a book by Thomas Piketty called “Capital,” which was published in 2014. Since then, the problem has only become more extreme, thanks to tepid leaders on the “left” and bold leaders on the right. But what do you say we look at some of Piketty’s comparisons between the situation in 1980 and the situation 30 years hence. From 1980 and 2010, the share of the top decile in national income rose from 33 to 48%, the share of the top 1% in total income rose from 10% to 20%, and the share of the top 0.1% in total income rose from 1% to nearly 8%. As for wealth inequality, the differences aren’t so dramatic. But the trend is the same – the top 1% and 10% had a significantly greater share of the nation’s wealth in 2010 than in 1980. Moreover, whereas our wealth equality in the USA was less than that of Europe from 1810 to 1960, it has well exceeded that of Europe ever since.
By today’s standards, the America of my youth thus had far more economic equality than it has today, yet it still had a far more progressive tax system. To repeat, Democrats back then didn’t think that tax system was progressive enough. But Republicans represented quite a range. There were the folks my parents referred to as “conservatives,” who liked things pretty much as they were, though they would allow for a little tinkering here and there. And then there were the folks my parents called “reactionaries,” who wanted to return things to a by-gone era – like perhaps the 1920s, when the top decile earned roughly 45 percent of national income, less than they make today, but far more than they made throughout my childhood. When I was growing up, we had Republican Senators like New York’s Jacob Javits or Maryland’s Mac Mathias. My parents thought of them as conservatives, others would have called them centrists or even liberals, but they demonstrated that the Republican Party created a home for folks who loved the status quo and wanted only to tinker around the edges. And remember – the status quo back then was FAR more economically equal, and may I say “progressive,” than today.
So let’s return to 2019 and, specifically, last Tuesday night. We had 12 “Democratic” candidates – so many that a comic on the Daily Show requested that in the future, the Party leaders should ensure that their candidates are spayed and neutered. The 12 candidates were all attempting to unseat Donald Trump, the Republican President who enjoys a 94% approval rating within his party. Two candidates on Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, were passionately arguing for the position that our tax system isn’t nearly progressive enough. They both want to dramatically increase the taxes on the top 0.1% -- and perhaps even the top 1% or 10% -- in order to raise funds that are needed for the poor, the working class and even middle-class Americans.
My father, as you imagine, has long since passed from this Earth, so I can’t ask him what he thinks of Warren or Sanders. My mom, while still alive at 98, isn’t in good enough shape cognitively to worry about the nuances of American politics. But I suspect that if I took the time to explain what happened on Tuesday, she would have been proud of Warren and Sanders for their willingness to fight for those who our capitalist system is leaving behind. In short, I saw two Democrats on that stage who would have been recognized as Democrats by any political observer of the ‘60s and ‘70s, let alone the Depression Era period that shaped my parents’ thinking.
But what about the other ten Democrats? How were they responding to the phenomenon that Piketty chronicled so extensively in his book? I was struck by the unwillingness of the other men and women on that debate stage to sound like Democrats even during a primary contest. Sanders, who had a heart attack a couple of weeks earlier, was kindly left alone by the other candidates. But Warren, who has risen to the lead in the betting markets, if not the polls, was relentlessly piled on by one Democratic candidate after another. The first wave was Biden, and Buttigieg, and Klobuchar. They were critical of the idea that Warren supported a single payor health care system and was afraid to admit that taxes might have to go up if we wanted to ensure that the poor get the same health care as the rich. Well, OK. I get why they would have wanted to press her to be more candid. But later, when Warren started talking about adding a tax on wealth in excess of $50 million and Beto O’Rourke criticized her for being “punitive,” where was Biden? Or Buttigieg? Or Klobuchar? Were they coming to Warren’s defense? Were they saying that “We’re Democrats. We believed back in the ‘60s and ‘70s that the uber-rich weren’t paying enough taxes when they were taxed a hell of lot more than they are today. We’re not going to sit back and let you bash a candidate as ‘punitive’ simply because she wants the uber-rich to shoulder a lot more of the tax burden.” They said nothing of the sort. In fact, when called upon to show their passion for economic equity, they responded with radio silence.
The loudest of Warren’s interlocutors would like us to see them, first and foremost, as “pragmatists.” This philosophy can best be summarized by a line from Amy Klobuchar, in direct response to Warren’s progressive plans: “The difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.”
And there you have it. From the time Bill Clinton took back the White House for the Dems after 12 years of GOP Rule in 1992, the idea that we would make America’s economic profile resemble that of my youth has been viewed by the Democratic establishment as a “pipe dream.” Clinton sought a “third way” – one that isn’t nearly as progressive as the approach of old Democrats, but is more compassionate than the Let ’Em Eat Cakers who served as the vanguard of the “Reagan Revolution.” In 2016, when his wife ran for President against Bernie Sanders, only a single Democratic Senator supported Sanders. Even Warren refused to commit; that was the extent of the stranglehold that the “Third Way” has had on Democratic politics.
So now that Warren has regained her progressive voice, and Bernie has gotten out of his hospital bed to resume his jeremiads, I keep asking the same question: what would my parents think of Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and the rest of them? Are they more like the Democrats of my youth? Or are they merely the second coming of Jacob Javits and Mac Mathias – centrist 60s-70s style Republicans?
My parents, being professional economists, would probably point out that Biden, Buttigieg and company may even be further to the RIGHT than Javits and Mathias, for at least the latter are not on record as essentially tolerating our pitifully non-progressive tax system. Truly, if things have moved so much further to the Republican side of the spectrum in the last 30-40 years, why do Warren and Sanders seem so damned alone on that stage? Or was that evening just another reminder that Ronald Reagan has won the soul of America, and that the two-party system is really about nothing more than nibbling around the edges of the cake that he (and Marie Antoinette) have given us?
There were times during Tuesday’s debate when both Warren and Sanders frustrated me. Most notably, neither explained very well why they supported Medicare for All. My parents would have been disgusted with how little they tried to demonstrate the downside of the so-called “public option” approach to health care or why a focus on taxes instead of COSTS as the primary metric on which to evaluate a health care system is simply a Republican talking point. Bernie and Elizabeth had a chance to speak out articulately for all progressive economists that night and their performance left something to be desired.
But at least they were recognizable as Democrats. At least I felt they represented my party. At least I felt they have absorbed the teachings of Thomas Piketty, Julius and Evelyn Spiro, and all other economists who clearly have given a damn about the poor and the working class.
You see, Senator Klobuchar, it’s not enough to join the Democratic Party, insert yourself across the aisle from Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, and vote in favor of top marginal taxes that are 40% plus rather than 40% minus. I’m not young anymore. In fact, I’m only two months and two days younger than you are. I remember when Democrats were Democrats. And if you want to act like one, you’ve got to show me that you couldn’t even abide being satisfied with the America of our youth because of its economic inequalities, let alone that you can’t satisfy yourself with mere tinkering when America has become far LESS economically equal now than it was before.
I heard you say, Senator Klobuchar, that neither you, nor Mayor Pete, nor even the billionaire on that stage Tuesday night is “standing up for billionaires.” But that’s not enough, is it? I need to see that you are standing up for the guy I saw lying on the ground late Friday night two blocks from my daughter’s row house in a part of Washington DC that most of the barons of today’s Democratic Party wouldn’t set foot in. I can see that Bernie and Elizabeth, for all their slip-ups, are standing up for that guy. One of them will get my vote in the primary.