Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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“One Nation, Indivisible,” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment.
If you go back to the end of World War II, for every dollar that Washington got from American taxpayers, it got $1.50 from corporations. In other words, taxes on corporate profits brought 50 percent more money to Washington than taxes on individuals. In 2011, for every dollar that the federal government gets in revenue from individuals, it gets twenty-five cents from corporations. Corporations have lobbied successfully to shift the tax burden from themselves to wage earners. That’s class warfare.
Now let’s look at the history of the individual income tax. In the 1950s and 1960s the top income-tax bracket for an individual was 91 percent. That means that for every dollar an individual earned over a certain amount — let’s just say one hundred thousand dollars — he or she had to give Uncle Sam ninety-one cents. Even in the 1970s it was still 70 percent. What is the tax rate for the richest Americans today? Thirty-five percent. Think of it: the tax rate for the richest Americans went from 91 percent down to 35 percent. Now, that’s a tax cut the likes of which has never been enjoyed by the vast majority of Americans.
So over the last forty or fifty years, the tax burden has shifted away from corporations and the richest individuals and onto the rest of us. Keep that in mind when you’re angry at the government about taxes.
“Capitalism and Its Discontents,” Richard Wolff, interviewed by David Barsamian, February 2012
My check was late again, which meant another trip to the welfare office. First I had to get Jeremy and Justin fed and dressed. At the age of two, Jeremy could eat his own oatmeal, but Justin was only a baby and had to be spoon-fed.
After breakfast I put Justin in the playpen and gave Jeremy some paper and crayons to keep him busy while I brought in the laundry and put some beans in the pot to soak for dinner. Then I packed a diaper bag, stowed the boys in the double stroller, and set off for the welfare office downtown.
It took a couple of hours to get there, which meant the waiting room was already full. Nothing could be done over the phone, and the office was understaffed. You couldn’t even make an appointment in advance; you had to just wait in a corner, with no play area for the children. It was a constant struggle to keep the boys occupied. I ended up getting out all the toys I’d packed, which they shared with other children.
The social worker we finally saw tracked down the problem and said I’d get my check in a week. I pointed out that it was already one week late and I was almost out of food stamps and cash. She said I should have budgeted better.
“Nine to Five” (Readers Write), B. Morrison, November 2006
When the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, these two things do not happen in a vacuum. The rich get richer at the expense of the poor. This mechanism is built into the capitalist system, around which our societies and our economies are organized. You know capitalism’s “golden rule”: whoever has the gold makes the rules. This system rewards greed and a complete lack of accountability on the part of ceos, investors, and transnational corporations.
This is not a result of human nature. Nor is it something that just happens. It is a matter of power being exercised without any social, political, or environmental concerns. It is the planned exploitation of the poor on the part of those who stand to profit from it. And it is deeply ingrained in our society, because the powerful have built an entire economic and governmental structure to support it.
“Amid Plenty,” Anuradha Mittal, interviewed by Derrick Jensen, February 2002
The main thing I learn from the job-hunting process is that, despite all the help-wanted ads and job fairs, Portland is just another $6-to-$7-an-hour town. This should be as startling to economists as a burst of exotic radiation is to astronomers. If the supply (of labor) is low relative to demand, the price should rise, right? That is the “law.” At one of the maid services I apply at — Merry Maids — my potential boss keeps me for an hour and fifteen minutes, most of which I spend listening to her complain about the difficulty of finding reliable help. It’s easy enough to think of a solution, because she’s offering $200 to $250 a week for an average of forty hours’ work. “Don’t try to put that into dollars per hour,” she warns, seeing my brow furrow as I tackle the not-very-long division. “We don’t calculate it that way.” I do, however, and $5 to $6 an hour for what this woman freely admits is heavy labor with a high risk of repetitive-stress injuries seems guaranteed to repel all mathematically capable job seekers. But I am realizing that one job will never be enough. In the new version of the law of supply and demand, jobs are so cheap — as measured by the pay — that a worker is encouraged to take on as many of them as she possibly can.
“Cleaned Out,” Barbara Ehrenreich, January 2003
Domestic workers are in a fascinating position. They are poor or working-class women who live in both their own world and the upper-class world of their employers. They witness the difference between these realities daily. They might accompany their employers on vacation, but they never get a vacation themselves. They see employers taking taxis, but they return home on the bus. They know when one of their employers would rather spend four hundred dollars on a pair of shoes than pay them a living wage, because they watch it happen. It’s a brutal reminder of inequality. But domestic workers also have a deep sense of their employers’ humanity, because it is too hard to do this work if you do not love the people you take care of. Workers can’t view their employers as the enemy; so there is tremendous incentive to find common ground.
“Swept Under the Rug,” Ai-jen Poo, interviewed by Anna Blackshaw, May 2013
In the summer of 2001, the little biotech company my husband had started as a “hobby” after retiring from academia was bought by a major firm. We went abruptly from being upper-middle-class to being rich — hugely rich. . . .
At first I pretended the money didn’t exist. I was determined to keep buying my clothes at discount stores and driving my battered station wagon. I vowed never to retire from the job I loved. I felt unentitled to such wealth, and I wondered whose good luck I had stolen.
Then came my first lesson of being rich: money makes things possible.
Ever since our son had been little, he and my husband had loved hiking in the woods around our house. On one of their rambles that year, they were horrified to find orange surveyor’s ribbons marking off a large tract in their favorite wooded locale. The next day my son and I went downtown and learned that the land was being sold to a developer and would become an upscale residential subdivision. The bulldozers were set to arrive in two weeks.
My son and I were both in tears. Could anything be done? Of course: all we had to do was offer the seller more than the developers had promised, and the real-estate deal would be off. We did, and the owner sold us the property, which we promptly donated to the local land trust. . . .
So how rich are we, really? Compared to the other 6 billion people on earth, we are in the top .001 percent. If we had lived during the French Revolution, Robespierre would have lined us up for the guillotine, and who could have blamed him? But among moneyed Americans we barely even rank. The five hundred wealthiest Americans are all multibillionaires. Compared to them, we are middle-class.
“Fame and Fortune” (Readers Write), Alice A. Chenault, January 2008
When I was on welfare, I moved with my two-year-old son into a house with some college students several years younger than me. They told me they were true socialists and had learned to live with only the bare necessities. I told them it was different choosing to live on so little when you had a bank account to fall back on. They told me I was bourgeois.
About the time I applied for and got government grants to attend the university, they dropped out of their last year of college, not wanting to support the system it represented. They dipped into their bank accounts, bought a new truck, and left for New Mexico to attend an expensive school of holistic health, where they learned to heal with crystals.
That was ten years ago. I finished school, married, had another child, and moved out of the poverty cycle. At times things are tight but I no longer feel that clutching anxiety in my chest when rent is due. I can feed my kids a healthy diet instead of white rice and government-surplus cheese.
Damn straight, I like money. It feels good to buy my kids shoes when they need them or take them to the dentist when they have cavities. Poverty is romantic only to those who have never known it.
“Money” (Readers Write), Name Withheld, August 1992
We’re all crowded into the hospital corridor, waiting for word about the ailing economy. No, it doesn’t look good: vital signs worse each day, internal bleeding, liver and kidney functions starting to shut down. Do you remember, someone whispers, when she started partying all night with those subprime lenders, then began gulping down credit-swap derivatives as if they were vitamins? Of course the hospital staff has seen it all before. The U.S. economy seems addicted to these periodic cycles of boom and bust. Let’s face it: collectively we’re like some hopeless romantic who moves from one affair to another (the junk-bond bubble, the dot-com bubble, the mortgage-backed-securities bubble), always in love at the beginning — what’s not to love? — and always in despair at the end. Eventually we rise from the ashes, sweep them under the rug, vow never to make the same mistake again — and, after a suitable period of mourning, fling open the windows and start flirting with the new neighbor, who looks like a million bucks.
Sy Safransky’s Notebook, December 2009