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5 Ways to Beat the Plutocrats

Americans today can take more than inspiration from the struggles against plutocracy that progressives waged years ago.

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In the early 1930s, Brandeis advocated the expansion of postal savings banks, a system — in effect since 1911 — that paid 2 percent interest on modest savings accounts maintained with the post office. That expansion never took place, and postal savings banks withered away. They deserve a second shot.

Four: Tax undistributed corporate profits. America’s biggest corporations are currently sitting on stashes of cash that have hit mega-billion levels. Money that could be invested in creating jobs sits instead in income-generating financial assets that only sweeten corporate bottom lines and executive paychecks.

A similar problem plagued the nation back during the Great Depression, and progressives pushed for a stiff tax on these “retained earnings.” In 1936, Congress passed a watered-down version of this tax that didn’t last and didn’t make much of an impact. A stronger tax today just might.

Five: Cap income at America’s economic summit. In 1942, in the midst of a war-time fiscal squeeze, President Franklin Roosevelt proposed a 100 percent tax on all individual income over $25,000, the equivalent of about $355,000 today.

Congress didn’t go along. But lawmakers did set the top tax rate at 94 percent on income over $200,000, and federal income tax top rates hovered around 90 percent for most of the next two decades, years of unprecedented prosperity.

America’s rich fought relentlessly to curb those rates. They saw no other way to hang on to more of their income. But what if we restructured the top tax rate of America’s postwar years to give the rich a new incentive.

We could, for instance, set the entry threshold for a new 90 percent top rate as a multiple of our nation’s minimum wage. The higher the minimum wage, the higher the threshold, the softer the total tax bite out of the nation’s highest incomes.

Our nation’s wealthiest and most powerful, under this approach, would suddenly have a vested interest in enhancing the well-being of our poorest and weakest.

Years ago, progressives yearned to create an America that encouraged just that sort of social solidarity. They couldn’t finish the job. We still can.

Sam Pizzigati edits the Institute for Policy Studies inequality weekly Too Much. His latest book, published by Seven Stories Press, is entitled "The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class."

 
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