In his latest column for the New York Times, award-winning economist and best-selling author Paul Krugman argues that raising taxes on the super-rich is not only necessary but is also well within American tradition.
Citing Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican president of the early 20th century, Krugman notes that Americans have a history of worrying about inequality and advocating fiscal measures to combat it.
Contrary to what many conservatives say, using the state to combat the concentration of great fortunes into a small number of hands has long been promoted and enacted buy Americans — in fact, Krugman argues, the animating egalitarian spirit behind the movement can be traced all the way back to Thomas Jefferson and his love for the small, independent farmer.
In the past, Krugman writes, Americans "were forthright in arguing that public policy should seek to limit inequality for political as well as economic reasons, that great wealth posed a danger to democracy."
And for those conservatives who'd argue that today's hyper-wealthy get their largess through high incomes, not inheritance or capital holdings, Krugman has some unwelcome news: "[T]hat view is a generation out of date," Krugman writes. "New work by the economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman finds that the share of wealth held at the very top — the richest 0.1 percent of the population — has doubled since the 1980s" and is now just as bad as it was during the Gilded Age.
We don’t know how much of that wealth is inherited. But it’s interesting to look at the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. By my rough count, about a third of the top 50 inherited large fortunes. Another third are 65 or older, so they will probably be leaving large fortunes to their heirs. We aren’t yet a society with a hereditary aristocracy of wealth, but, if nothing changes, we’ll become that kind of society over the next couple of decades.
In short, the demonization of anyone who talks about the dangers of concentrated wealth is based on a misreading of both the past and the present. Such talk isn’t un-American; it’s very much in the American tradition. And it’s not at all irrelevant to the modern world. So who will be this generation’s Teddy Roosevelt?