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America has no nobles. How much noblesse oblige?

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 2003

IT'S an age-old American question - with an urgent new twist: Do the country's richest citizens owe an extra debt to society? Does the crystal-and-caviar class have a "peculiar obligation," as Theodore Roosevelt put it, to help the struggling masses? Or in its newest iteration: Should the legions of dotcom millionaires - who got rich in the gilded '90s - pitch in during the slumping '00s?

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Some states say yes, and are moving to hike taxes on their wealthiest citizens. Also in the "yes" camp are those who say a growing rich-poor divide demands that the rich shoulder extra burdens. President Bush in effect disagrees, opting recently to pitch new tax cuts that help the wealthy along with the masses.

Much of the debate is driven by financial imperatives: States must balance their budgets, and Mr. Bush seeks to spur a weak economy. But behind it lies a larger philosophical tension over the role of the rich in America - one that goes back to the days when colonists put powder on their wigs and in their muskets.

Among the latest moves:

• Connecticut will likely pass a "millionaire tax" to help fix its fiscal troubles. California, New Jersey, and other states may follow suit.

• Bill Gates Sr., father of the world's richest man, is stumping to stop repeal of the federal estate tax, which targets the wealthiest 2 percent of American families.

• California Gov. Gray Davis's new budget would squeeze the state's richest 59 school districts especially hard. Other states' cuts may be similarly skewed.

Critics say targeting the rich stifles society's proven wealth builders - and job creators. President Bush argues that cutting taxes on the wealthy will spur a national recovery that will benefit everyone. Furthermore, in a society that prides itself on equality and opportunity for all, singling out any class for extra duty can be uncomfortable. And in America, there's a cultural aversion to picking on the rich.

"We haven't institutionalized envy in the United States," says California State Librarian Kevin Starr. "You'd think the middle class would be infuriated by the salaries of its favorite basketball stars and baseball heroes."

Rather than begrudging the wealthy, many middle-class Americans hope to become rich themselves.

It's one of Americans' strongest cultural traits, says Robert Reich, the former Clinton labor secretary: "We are individualists. We credit or blame ourselves" - not others - "for where we stand in the social order." But, he says, "there are limits - and we may be reaching those limits."

On one level, the limits are economic, as states face budget crises. Connecticut, for instance, faces a combined $2 billion budget gap over the next two years. Conservative GOP Gov. John Rowland is leading the "millionaire tax" charge. By boosting the levy on million-dollar incomes by one percentage point - to 5.5 percent - the state could get $100 million this year, $170 million next year.

The idea is popular: A University of Connecticut poll last month found that 88 percent of state residents support the new "millionaire tax."

The risks of the strategy are serious: The state's economic elites could begin to move - or simply change their legal residences to Florida, Wyoming, or Nevada, which have no income tax.

Yet targeting the affluent is tempting - as there are so many newly rich.