Can Democrats step up and save the country?
Democrats have become irrelevant, and a government shutdown is looming.
Republicans offered Democrats two more weeks before the doomsday shut-down. Democrats countered with four. Republicans held their ground. Democrats agreed to two.Skip to next paragraph
Robert is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Clinton. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including “The Work of Nations,” his latest best-seller “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future," and a new e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.
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This is what passes for compromise in our nation’s capital.
Democrats have become irrelevant. If they want to be relevant again they have to connect the dots: The explosion of income and wealth among America’s super-rich, the dramatic drop in their tax rates, the consequential devastating budget squeezes in Washington and in state capitals, and the slashing of public services for the middle class and the poor.
It is not a complicated story. Begin with what’s happened to the typical American, whose wages have been stagnant for thirty years. Today’s typical 30-year-old male (if he has a job) is earning the same as a 30-year-old male earned three decades ago, adjusted for for inflation. (Although women are doing better than they did 30 years ago, their wages still trail men’s.)
The bottom 90 percent of Americans now earn, on average, only about $280 more per year than they did thirty years ago. That’s less than a 1 percent gain over more than a third of a century. Families are doing somewhat better but that’s only because so many families now have to rely on two incomes.
But wait. The American economy is more than twice as large now as it was thirty years ago. So where did the money go? To the top. The richest 1 percent’s share of national has doubled – from around 9 percent in 1977 to over 20 percent now. The richest one-tenth of 1 percent’s share has tripled. The 150,000 households that comprise the top one-tenth of one percent now earn as much as the bottom 120 million put together.
Given this explosion of income at the top you might think our tax system would demand a larger share from them. But you’d be wrong. You’re not taking account of the power of the super rich. As income and wealth have risen to the top, so has political power. As a result, their taxes have plummeted.
From the 1940s until 1980, the tax rate on the highest earners in America was 70 percent or higher. In the 1950s, it was 91 percent. Even if you include deductions and credits, the rich were paying a far higher share of their income than at any time since.
Under Ronald Reagan the top rate dropped to 28 percent. Under Bill Clinton it rose to 39 percent and then under George W. Bush dropped to 36 percent. As you recall, Republicans have managed to keep it there. Their avowed aim is to keep it there permanently.
Meanwhile, estate taxes (which hit only the top 2 percent) have been slashed, as have taxes on capital gains – which comprise most of the income of the super rich. In the late 1970s, capital gains were taxed at well over 35 percent. Under Bill Clinton, the capital gains rate was 20 percent. Now it’s 15 percent.
So who’s going to foot the bill for everything we need? Even before the Great Recession, the middle class’s share of the nation’s total income had shrunk. Yet their tax burden had grown. They were paying a bigger chunk of their incomes in payroll taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes than decades before.