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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Wealth and democracy

Whoa! For a mixture of the usual and a few unusual reasons, I've been totally swamped since spring break. Maybe blogging is like exercising -- once you get addicted to it, you can't live without it (so I hear), but until then it's tough to find time for it when the going gets tough. Well, I have a small stack of clippings to report on and I'll chip away at those (so to speak) as time allows. It's finals week here.

For the moment, just a quick comment about Cornell economist Robert H. Frank's column in this morning's New York Times about the estate tax. Popular support for repeal of the estate tax seems to run high, he writes, but how one asks the question can (as usual) make all the difference, and he illustrates this with the results of a (very) small comparative survey.
Robert H. Frank, "Economic Scene: The much-reviled estate tax: efficient, fair, painless as possible and misunderstood," New York Times, May 12, 2005, C2.
Perhaps, as he suggests, when people register opposition to the estate tax, they're really just saying that they oppose taxes in the abstract. But, still, what is striking is the way that concentrations of wealth have become so acceptable, politically and socially. In the usual discourse, there's hardly any recognition that concentrations of wealth might pose a fundamental challenge to a democracy and that the estate tax helps to level the playing field and to stave off the rise of a monied aristocracy in the United States.

Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest Americans in the late nineteenth century, supposedly favored an estate tax (so I understand--I haven't verified this myself) because he thought people should do what he did, work their way to wealth. Granted, he had social access to investment circles (see Pamela Laird's forthcoming book, Pull), and it was arguably more difficult to climb the ladder of capitalism by the late 19c precisely because of the gigantic increases in scale that he and men like him wrought in the world of business. But, in his extensive philantropic activities (e.g., Carnegie-funded public libraries), he did put his money where his proverbial mouth was.

Further reading on this theme: Entering the title of this post reminded me of Kevin Phillips' book by the same title. Also, see the collection of essays entitled Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy, edited by Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle.