The Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has a predictably unsparing view of the effects of “unfettered capitalism”: it “destroys anything that gets in its way in the pursuit of profits. It destroys the environment. It destroys our democracy. It discards human beings without a second thought. It will never provide workers with the fulfillment that Americans have a right to expect from their careers. [And it is] propelled by uncontrollable greed and contempt for human decency.”
The two-time presidential candidate makes his case with the usual horrifying numbers about the acceleration of inequality in America: 90% of our wealth is owned by one-tenth of 1% of the population; the wealth of 725 US billionaires increased 70% during the pandemic to more than $5tn; BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street now control assets of $20tn and are major shareholders in 96% of S&P 500 companies.
Sanders recites these statistics with religious fervor, and poses fundamental questions for our time: “Do we believe in the Golden Rule? [or] do we accept … that gold rules – and that lying, cheating, and stealing are OK if you’re powerful enough to get away with it?”
Bernie believes (and I strongly agree) that it’s long past the time when we should be paying at least as much attention to American oligarchs as we do to those surrounding Vladimir Putin. Our homegrown plutocrats “own” our democracy.
“They spend tens of billions … on campaign contributions … to buy politicians who will do their bidding. They spend billions more on lobbying firms to influence governmental decisions” at every level. And “to a significant degree”, the oligarchs “own” the media. That is why our prominent pundits “rarely raise issues that will undermine the privileged positions of their employers” and “there is little public discussion about the power of corporate America and how oligarchs wield that power to benefit their interests at the expense of working families”.
We were reminded this week of how this system works. Joe Biden released a budget with perfectly modest proposals for tax increases, like a 25% minimum tax on the wealthiest Americans and a seven-percentage-point raise in the corporate tax rate to 28%, which would still leave it seven points lower than it was before Donald Trump gutted it with his gigantic tax giveaways.
Instantly, experts owned and operated by the billionaires started spewing their familiar bilge, like these moving words from the Cato Institute: “Higher tax rates on the wages of a narrow segment of the United States’ most productive executives and business leaders will have strong disincentives against their continued work and other negative behavioral effects that translate into a less dynamic, slower growing economy.
“Higher taxes on investment income target the financial rewards to successful entrepreneurs who undertake risks and persevere through failure to build high return businesses that provide welfare enhancing goods and services to people around the world.”
Sanders quotes one of the most prescient Americans of the mid-20th century, from 1944: “As our industrial economy expanded [our] political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”
The name of that dangerous revolutionary: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Several decades before that, Theodore Roosevelt similarly bemoaned the “absence of effective state, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting” which “has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power”.
There is something extremely refreshing about an author who assumes it should be obvious that billionaires should not be allowed to exist – and has perfectly reasonable proposals about how they should be eliminated. At the height of the pandemic, Sanders proposed the Make Billionaires Pay Act, which would have imposed a 60% tax on all the wealth gained by 467 billionaires between 18 March 2020 and January 2021.
“But why stop at one year?” he now asks. After all, the 1950s were economic boom times in America – and under a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, “the top tax rate for the wealthiest Americans was around 92%. America thrived. Unions were strong. Working-class Americans could afford to support themselves and buy homes on a single income.” And the richest 20% controlled a measly (by current standards) 42.8% of the wealth.
Sanders’ 99.5 Percent Act would only touch the top 0.5% of Americans. “But the families of billionaires in America, who have a combined net worth of over $5tn, would owe up to $3tn in estate taxes.” He would accomplish this with a 45% tax rate on estates worth $3.5m and a 65% rate on those worth more than $1bn.
There is much more here, including a convincing case for Medicare for All and an excoriation of a for-profit healthcare system which spends twice as much per citizen as France or Germany and still manages to leaves tens of millions of Americans un- or underinsured, all while nourishing an obscene pharmaceuticals business in which profits jumped by 90% in 2021.
I first toured the castles of the Loire Valley as a teenager in the company of the family of my uncle, Jerry Kaiser, a 60s radical and a very early opponent of the war in Vietnam. As we absorbed the opulence of one chateau after another, Jerry had only one question: “What took them so long to have a revolution?”
The noble purpose of Bernie Sander’s powerful new book is to get millions of Americans to ask that question of themselves – right now.
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