I write this from Cape Cod with the winds of Irene rattling the house.
On the way from Richmond last week, Susan and I visited the “Breakers,” the seventy-room summer "cottage" built in 1892 by the Vanderbilts in Newport, Rhode Island. The end of the Gilded Age, symbolized by such remarkable monuments to wealth and power and to a grand vision of America, was hastened by the introduction of personal income tax (the Sixteenth Amendment) under Taft's Republican White House in 1913.
His predecessor and fellow Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, challenged the financial and industrial barons with his antitrust actions. He promised a “square deal” for all Americans and in industrial negotiations he treated union leaders as equals with industry bosses. This trend towards greater equity in society continued through the 1960s.
Driving north we listened to commentaries on the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington. Irene forced postponement the dedication. But the memorial is already provoking conversation about what King might have said about America today. He died as he was launching a Poor People’s Campaign. Surely he would have been shocked and outraged to find a country growing ever more unequal. More than one in five children lives in poverty, the highest rate in two decades. This is an appalling statistic for the wealthiest country on earth.
But today even talking about disparity provokes accusations of promoting class war. Warren Buffet is called a “socialist” for daring to suggest that people like himself might pay a fair share of taxes. In the Orwellian-speak of today the “wealthy” must now be termed “job creators.” People receiving welfare are described by right-wing talk show commentators as “parasites,” “moochers,” and “irresponsible animals.”
Where did we develop this disdain for those in poverty? Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dime, reminds us that the working poor are the nation’s true philanthropists: they make it possible for the rest of us to live comfortably. There’s a case to be made that our whole economic system depends on paying people less than what they are worth.
So far, America has avoided the violent upheavals experienced by several European countries. But we cannot assume that people who are being pushed to their limit will forever remain docile.
We need a revolution of unselfishness. Here’s a great example: the Fresno, California School Superintendent, Larry Powell, has just announced that he will take a pay cut – reducing his annual salary from $250,000 to $31,000. Fresno has extremes of wealth and poverty, and with schools facing painful budget choices, “My wife and I thought, what can we do that might help change the dynamic in my particular area?” Powell told ABC News.
This kind of revolutionary unselfishness is needed more urgently now than ever.