There’s nothing “normal” about having a middle class. Having a middle class is a choice that a society has to make, and it’s a choice we need to make again in this generation, if we want to stop the destruction of the remnants of the last generation’s middle class. Despite what you might read in the Wall Street Journal or see on Fox News, capitalism is not an economic system that produces a middle class. In fact, if left to its own devices, capitalism tends towards vast levels of inequality and monopoly. The natural and most stable state of capitalism actually looks a lot like the Victorian England depicted in Charles Dickens’ novels.
At the top there is a very small class of superrich. Below them, there is a slightly larger, but still very small, “middle” class of professionals and mercantilists – doctor, lawyers, shop-owners – who help keep things running for the superrich and supply the working poor with their needs. And at the very bottom there is the great mass of people – typically over 90 percent of the population – who make up the working poor. They have no wealth – in fact they’re typically in debt most of their lives – and can barely survive on what little money they make.
So, for average working people, there is no such thing as a middle class in “normal” capitalism. Wealth accumulates at the very top among the elites, not among everyday working people. Inequality is the default option.
You can see this trend today in America. When we had heavily regulated and taxed capitalism in the post-war era, the largest employer in America was General Motors, and they paid working people what would be, in today’s dollars, about $50 an hour with benefits. Reagan began deregulating and cutting taxes on capitalism in 1981, and today, with more classical “raw capitalism,” what we call “Reaganomics,” or “supply side economics,” our nation’s largest employer is WalMart and they pay around $10 an hour.
This is how quickly capitalism reorients itself when the brakes of regulation and taxes are removed – this huge change was done in less than 35 years. The only ways a working-class “middle class” can come about in a capitalist society are by massive social upheaval – a middle class emerged after the Black Plague in Europe in the 14th century – or by heavily taxing the rich.
French economist Thomas Piketty has talked about this at great length in his groundbreaking new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He argues that the middle class that came about in Western Europe and the United States during the mid-twentieth was the direct result of a peculiar set of historical events. According to Piketty, the post-World War II middle class was created by two major things: the destruction of European inherited wealth during the war and higher taxes on the rich, most of which were rationalized by the war. This brought wealth and income at the top down, and raised working people up into a middle class.
Piketty is right, especially about the importance of high marginal tax rates and inheritance taxes being necessary for the creation of a middle class that includes working-class people. Progressive taxation, when done correctly, pushes wages down to working people and reduces the incentives for the very rich to pillage their companies or rip off their workers. After all, why take another billion when 91 percent of it just going to be paid in taxes?
This is the main reason why, when GM was our largest employer and our working class were also in the middle class, CEOs only took home 30 times what working people did. The top tax rate for all the time America’s middle class was created was between 74 and 91 percent. Until, of course, Reagan dropped it to 28 percent and working people moved from the middle class to becoming the working poor.
Other policies, like protective tariffs and strong labor laws also help build a middle class, but progressive taxation is the most important because it is the most direct way to transfer money from the rich to the working poor, and to create a disincentive to theft or monopoly by those at the top.
History shows how important high taxes on the rich are for creating a strong middle class. If you compare a chart showing the historical top income tax rate over the course of the twentieth century with a chart of income inequality in the United States over roughly the same time period, you’ll see that the period with the highest taxes on the rich – the period between the Roosevelt and Reagan administrations – was also the period with the lowest levels of economic inequality.
You’ll also notice that since marginal tax rates started to plummet during the Reagan years, income inequality has skyrocketed.
Even more striking, during those same 33 years since Reagan took office and started cutting taxes on the rich, income levels for the top 1 percent have ballooned while income levels for everyone else have stayed pretty much flat. Coincidence? I think not.
Creating a middle class is always a choice, and by embracing Reaganomics and cutting taxes on the rich, we decided back in 1980 not to have a middle class within a generation or two. George H.W. Bush saw this, and correctly called it “Voodoo Economics.” And we’re still in the era of Reaganomics – as President Obama recently pointed out, Reagan was a successful revolutionary.
This, of course, is exactly what conservatives always push for. When wealth is spread more equally among all parts of society, people start to expect more from society and start demanding more rights. That leads to social instability, which is feared and hated by conservatives, even though revolutionaries and liberals like Thomas Jefferson welcome it.
And, as Kirk and Buckley predicted back in the 1950s, this is exactly what happened in the 1960s and ’70s when taxes on the rich were at their highest. The Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the consumer movement, the anti-war movement, and the environmental movement – social movements that grew out of the wealth and rising expectations of the post-World War II era’s middle class – these all terrified conservatives. Which is why ever since they took power in 1980, they’ve made gutting working people out of the middle class their number one goal.
We now have a choice in this country. We can either continue going down the road to oligarchy, the road we’ve been on since the Reagan years, or we can choose to go on the road to a more pluralistic society with working class people able to make it into the middle class. We can’t have both.
And if we want to go down the road to letting working people back into the middle class, it all starts with taxing the rich. The time is long past due for us to roll back the Reagan tax cuts.