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Take Back the Center

Take Back the Center: Progressive Taxation for a New Progressive Agenda

Peter S. Wenz
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Take Back the Center
    Book Description:

    Midcentury America was governed from the center, a bipartisan consensus of politicians and public opinion that supported government spending on education, the construction of a vast network of interstate highways, healthcare for senior citizens, and environmental protection. These projects were paid for by a steeply progressive tax code, with a top tax rate at one point during the Republican Eisenhower administration of 91 percent. Today, a similar agenda of government action (and progressive taxation) would be portrayed as dangerously left wing. At the same time, radically anti-government and anti-tax opinions (with no evidence to support them) are considered part of the mainstream. In Take Back the Center, Peter Wenz makes the case for a sane, reality-based politics that reclaims the center for progressive policies. The key, he argues, is taxing the wealthy at higher rates. The tax rate for the wealthiest Americans has declined from the mid-twentieth-century high of 91 percent to a twenty-first-century low of 36 percent--even as social programs are gutted and the gap betweeen rich and poor widens dramatically. Ever since Ronald Reagan famously declared that government was the problem and not the solution, conservatives have had an all-purpose answer to any question: smaller government and lower taxes. Wenz offers an impassioned counterargument. He explains the justice of raising the top tax rates significantly, making a case for less income inequality (and countering society's worship of the wealthy), and he offers suggestions for how to spend the increased tax revenues: K-12 education, tuition relief, transportation and energy infrastructure, and universal health care. Armed with Wenz's evidence-driven arguments, progressives can position themselves where they belong: in the mainstream of American politics and at the center of American political conversations, helping their country address a precipitous decline in equality and quality of life.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30594-5
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Much of the news lately is not just sad, it’s infuriating. The United States has a crumbling physical infrastructure—roads, bridges, dams, levies, electrical grid, and more¹—as well as an underused and poorly prepared human infrastructure—unemployment, underemployment, school dropouts, students less prepared than those in competitor countries, and higher education that many in the middle class cannot afford.² The middle class is generally hard pressed and thinning out as corporate profits soar, Wall Street bonuses often exceed the lifetime earnings of most workers, and the gap between the rich and poor increases. Most state budgets are in deficit,...

  5. 2 The Rich Get Richer
    (pp. 23-44)

    Much of the anger that is common among Americans today and that animates antigovernment-antitax activists—anger at the bailouts of financial institutions in 2008, anger at the lavish bonuses that many high-flying workers at those institutions have received since then, and anger at the deteriorating financial situation of many middle-class families—stems from widespread frustration in the face of the growing gap between the rich and the rest in our society. Such anger is understandable because the gap has been increasing for almost forty years. But the antigovernment-antitax solution of less government and lower taxes on the rich is counterproductive....

  6. 3 Progressive Taxation and Free-Market Prosperity
    (pp. 45-66)

    Many opponents of the new progressive agenda are free-market conservatives who object to increasing taxes on rich people because, these conservatives think, people typically become rich in a free-market economy by improving productivity and creating jobs, both of which enrich society in general. High taxes on the wealthy, they say, unfairly punish people for success and discourage future innovation, thereby impoverishing society.

    But higher taxes on rich people are foundational to the new progressive agenda. Its many components cost a lot of money and, as we’ve seen, poor and middle-income households are already under such financial stress that their taxes...

  7. 4 How Some People Make Millions in America
    (pp. 67-90)

    We saw in the last chapter that a major free-market conservative objection to progressive taxation that could provide funds for a new progressive agenda is the claim that such taxation is unfair. It’s unfair, they say, because people become wealthy only by helping others, and benefactors shouldn’t be punished with unusually high taxes.

    This chapter disposes of this free-market conservative objection to progressive taxation by showing that people do not make their fortunes in the United States only by helping others. Some people do make their fortunes this way but others do more harm than good to the public in...

  8. 5 Workers Are Cheated
    (pp. 91-112)

    We’ve seen that a lot of people become rich in the United States through fraud, disinformation, and conflict of interest, without doing much good for others. We now look at ordinary workers and find that in many cases the poverty of the working poor is another factor that augments the wealth and income of the rich. This chapter argues that unfair treatment of the working poor is a positive reason for the kind of progressive taxation needed to fund a new progressive agenda. Again, more general knowledge of these facts will help progressives take back the center.

    Here’s an example...

  9. 6 Corporate Welfare
    (pp. 113-134)

    Business people in the United States often think of themselves as favoring a small government that allows the business community to operate within a free market to produce what consumers want. In fact, however, businesses often seek and receive government help at taxpayer and consumer expense to increase profits beyond what the free market would allow. The prevalence of such government favors, which enrich the already affluent, justifies progressive taxation. Revenues from such taxes could enable the government to return some ill-gotten gains to ordinary Americans.

    Consider, for example, the sugar industry. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) lends...

  10. 7 Stealing from Our Common Heritage
    (pp. 135-160)

    I often get e-mails from my conservative friends to the effect that government programs for the poor are unjustified because working people shouldn’t have to subsidize those who don’t work. They often quote Margaret Thatcher, who championed the importance of people working for a living. She said, for example, “Pennies do not come from heaven. They have to be earned here on earth.” She was not opposed to charity but maintained that people need money before they can be charitable. “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”¹ It was...

  11. 8 The Social Contract
    (pp. 161-182)

    High in the crow’s-nest of the new White Star LinerTitanic, Lookout Frederick Fleet peered into a dazzling night. It was calm clear and bitterly cold. There was no moon, but the cloudless sky blazed with stars. The Atlantic was like a polished plate glass; people later said they had never seen it so smooth.

    This was the fifth night of theTitanic’s maiden voyage to New York, and it was already clear that she was not only the largest but also the most glamorous ship in the world. Even the passengers’ dogs were glamorous.¹

    So beginsA Night to...

  12. 9 Democracy
    (pp. 183-208)

    The New York State Senate was in turmoil in June 2009 when two Democratic senators, Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate, decided to switch parties and give Republicans a majority. The new majority quickly voted to make Senator Espada its president pro tempore, which made him first in line in case anything happened to Governor David Paterson because the state lacked a lieutenant governor at the time.

    All this happened because a billionaire became upset with the Democratic majority in the senate. Tom Golisano had bankrolled the Democrats, thereby helping them to gain control of the senate, but became upset...

  13. 10 Conclusion: Economic Growth
    (pp. 209-232)

    George Will is an often insightful commentator on social and political issues from whom I’ve learned a lot over the years. For example, his insights into the relationship between character and country or, as he puts it, between statecraft and soulcraft, are illuminating.¹ He’s generally part of the sane center, but when it comes to economics, he seems to have a learning aversion or a learning disability. In July 2009 his column entitled “The ‘Tax the Rich!’ Reflex: It Will Make the Investor Class Anemic” seemed directed against the new progressive agenda that I advocate in this book.² He writes,...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 233-254)
  15. Index
    (pp. 255-298)