The debate about whether or not to extend Bush's tax breaks for the wealthy is raging. Indeed, the new Republican leadership in the House has been very clear that this is their primary agenda item on which they will not budge. Democrats, though still in power, seem to be losing resolve. In the meantime, we watch daily as infrastructure, basic services and jobs disappear, and of course, the deficit looms larger everyday.
Nevertheless, the facts speak for themselves: the wealthiest 10 percent of the population takes home 50 percent of the wealth in this country. Given this obvious imbalance, it's important to ask how we got here and what can be done about it.
Questions like where we are going to get the money to fix roads or pay for basic fire, police and school services deserve real answers. The problem is that real answers are mystifyingly unpopular. Simply put, we won't have money for these basic needs until the wealthy in this country return to paying their fair share of taxes.
The greatest period of income growth for the middle class was between 1950 and 1980. Why? Because until 1980, when Ronald Reagan enacted tax polices that favored the rich, a fair taxation structure was in place. Now, 30 years later, wealth has trickled up while income for the middle class has stayed the same.
It used to be that the Democratic Party spoke for the middle class. But make no mistake, many Democrats have been as collusive in the erosion of a healthy middle class as Republicans. Moreover, Republicans, and the wealthy or spineless Democrats that collude, have been ingenious at convincing working-class people that it's social programs that threaten our economic stability. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It wasn't recipients of social programs that nearly brought down our economy, was it? No, it was that bloated monster called the banking industry. Who's the real threat here? Some out-of-work schlob who finds a way to bilk the system out of a few hundred dollars, or the corporate scholbs who sell bad loans to good people, make a legal killing and then play a cat-and-mouse game to avoid paying taxes on it?
When everyone puts in his or her fair share, there's money for basic services, park protections and the aging members of our society to live in health and dignity until they pass. Indeed, fully funding healthcare for every person in the country is affordable when corporations and the wealthy who stand behind them behave honorably by paying a fair share.
It's no secret that since Reagan opened that floodgate in the early 1980s the wealthy have influenced—and some would say bought—the political arena in this country. It's not rocket science when you see how the wealthy fund the political careers of people who will make policy that turns in their favor. But it creates an unfair advantage against the middle class who have less discretionary income to spend on things like elections.
The Founding Fathers understood that power corrupts. That's why they created the brilliant system of checks and balances. When power (i.e., money) invades the political landscape as never before, the only tool left to restore democracy is the ballot box. So far, working- and middle-class folks still have the right to vote. If we're smart we won't vote based on left or right, or even Democratic or Republican, but on who stands for the middle class and who stands against the corporate leeches that exploit every possible resource for private gain but refuse to pay their share.
Economists are predicting that restoring the tax burden to pre-Bush levels would eliminate $160 billion of looming national debt over the next 10 years. Hell, even billionaire Warren Buffet came out recently in favor of increasing taxes for the wealthy. Rebuilding prosperity for the middle class can only happen when a fair taxation system is applied to all Americans, and letting Bush's unfair tax breaks for incomes above $250,000 expire at the end of this year is a step toward restoring a more fair and equitable tax burden.
Kevin Russell is a therapist and musician living in Sebastopol.
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