Taxes, Grand Fortune, and Gloria Vanderbilt

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Hundreds of advocates for a more equitable economy will be gathering in Washington, D.C. this coming Tuesday for an all-day conference on “Taxing the (Very) Rich.” Hundreds more will be streaming online and watching as conference speakers explore a variety of bold new proposals, everything from an annual tax on wealth to tax penalties on corporations that pay their top execs unconscionably more than their workers.

Many of these same proposals will then soon likely surface again almost immediately, at next week’s first set of national debates for the Democratic Party’s White House hopefuls. Most of the 20 debaters figure to endorse one — or more — of the ideas that get Tuesday’s “Taxing the (Very) Rich” spotlight.

In other words, we’re shaping up to have a really good week for tax justice. We haven’t had a political climate this open to new initiatives for taxing the super rich since FDR sat in the White House.

All this political momentum, not surprisingly, has America’s flacks for grand fortune more than a little bit worried. They thought they had us convinced that upping taxes on the rich would wreck the economy and penalize “success.” But Americans aren’t buying what the flacks are selling. Our richest owe their “success,” many more of us now understand, to an economy they’ve spent the last four decades rigging.

Serenades to the “successful” are clearly not winning over a deeply skeptical — and cynical — American public. So the flacks are switching gears. They’re doubling down on the cynicism all around us. They’re arguing that taxing the super rich will always be a fool’s errand — because the rich and their armies of lawyers and accountants will always be able to stay a step ahead of Uncle Sam.

So why bother trying to tax the rich, the argument goes, when these deepest of pockets can simply evade whatever taxes Congress imposes? Just accept reality, the flacks implore us. The rich will always stay rich.

That happens not to be true. History shows we can make real progress against grand concentrations of private wealth. We did just that in the mid-20th century, a time when Americans making more than $400,000 a year faced top income tax rates over 90 percent and heirs to grand fortunes had to watch estate tax rates as high as 77 percent carve multiple millions off their inheritances.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality. He is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Last year, he played an active role on the team that generated The Nation magazine special issue on extreme inequality. That issue recently won the 2009 Hillman Prize for magazine journalism. Pizzigati’s latest book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives (Apex Press, 2004), won an “outstanding title” of the year ranking from the American Library Association’s Choice book review journal.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

An Invitation to Sunny Miami. What Could Be Bad?

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

If a billionaire “invites” you somewhere, you’d better go. Or be prepared to suffer the consequences. This past May, hedge fund kingpin Carl Icahn announced in a letter to his New York-based staff of about 50 that he would be moving his business operations to Florida. But the 83-year-old Icahn assured his staffers they had no reason to worry: “My employees have always been very important to the company, so I’d like to invite you all to join me in Miami.” Those who go south, his letter added, would get a $50,000 relocation benefit “once you have established your permanent residence in Florida.” Those who stay put, the letter continued, can file for state unemployment benefits, a $450 weekly maximum that “you can receive for a total of 26 weeks.” What about severance from Icahn Enterprises? The New York Post reported last week that the two dozen employees who have chosen not to uproot their families and follow Icahn to Florida “will be let go without any severance” when the billionaire shutters his New York offices this coming March. Bloomberg currently puts Carl Icahn’s net worth at $20.5 billion.

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