There follows a sequence of nonrandom musings and ramblings, added in time, which eventually might come together to form a point in the end, or at least pose a few questions.
Not so long ago people seemed to run the world and corporations bent over backwards to serve us — or at least made a point of seeming so. This was in living memory for some of us, and I’m in my fifties. I’ve just watched a documentary about the founding of the massive Selfridge’s department store in London in March 1909 — apparently the first high-toned “shopping cathedral” where idle people were not moved on by bouncers but actively encouraged to “browse”. In New Zealand through these years of the early 20th Century before much government welfare had been introduced, the biggest employers in the country had their own health, welfare and old-age schemes for employees and their families. In the US, Independent senator for Vermont, Bernie Sanders, has just released details of a telling comparison between corporate responsibility in the good old days and irresponsibility in the rotten new days. In 1952, the last year of the Truman Democrats before the Eisenhower-Nixon administration took over, corporations paid 33% of the US tax bill; now, in an era of record corporate profits, 9%. Hearing of the depravities of Walmarts and their many, many cohorts around the world these days, inflicted on their employees it’s hard to believe we’re in the same universe. Maybe we’re not — dropped through some wormhole.
Next month, on September 20th 2014, comes the general election in New Zealand. This morning on a current affairs program the spokesmen of the Labour and Green parties were interviewed — two parties promised to ally to form a “left wing” government. In NZ the Greens are said by the media to be Far Left, and the Labour Party — no longer recognisably to the right of centre as they have been for most of the past 30 years — are said to be way to the left also. The main right wing, and ruling party, National, has up to now sided with the far-right libertarians called Act, yet the combination of the two of them have somehow produced what has always been called a centre-right government.
In the good old days things were so much simpler. Even the master of spin, Goebbels, was easy to see through if you didn’t have blinders on. Sometime between the two World Wars, income tax in that bastion of Free Enterprise, the United States, multiplied out of sight from virtually none in the 1920s to massive during the Roosevelt era when resources were poured into civil works, but even long afterwards. Through the Great Depression and World War II and beyond there was a general realisation by people that there was a great deal of luck involved in who got rich and who didn’t. In a concession to humility, the lucky who received money mostly saw it as their duty to spread it around and include people in their “good fortune”. In 1959, after seven years of Republican rule under Eisenhower, the tv and rock’n’roll star Ricky Nelson was questioned about his income, heading up towards half a million annually, and was matter-of-fact about it and the tax rate he was paying. He paid 78% tax on the first $150,000 every year, and 93% on everything over that. Britain, also still investing in its people and infrastructure in recovery from the war, was even in 1965 charging the Beatles a tax rate of 95% — and American promoters were paying them fortunes of millions of dollars in cash under the counter on every concert tour. (By the time the canny Rolling Stones reached the 1980s, with the celebrated financial acumen of Mick Jagger, without shame they had spread their tax “burden” across five different countries and ended up paying a total of less than 3% tax — just one pointer to how the world has changed.)
These days it seems to be enough for rich people to take one of two attitudes: either, like Oprah, tell everyone “Follow your passion and your inner child, think positive — If I’ve done it everyone can do it”; or to take the diva route with “Thank God I have this much talent (and God must know what he’s doing to have given it all to me. It would be questioning Him to say I don’t deserve it).” Those billionaires can be counted on one hand who have come out publicly worldwide to admit they haven’t done anything approaching deserving of their riches and they’re where they are based on vagaries of the world economy. In the Wall Street Crash of 1929 rich people went bust overnight and threw themselves out of high windows when they realised suddenly they were not God’s chosen ones,but just His moral guinea pigs. Rich people these days don’t seem to have got the same message after the so-called disaster of the 2008 share market downturn — because bailed out by the heavy taxpayers of the middle class.
The lower-income tax payers of New Zealand too, in just one instance, bailed out $1.8 billion worth of bad loans (the equivalent of more than $150 billion in the US economy) issued by a capialist mate of the government. Yet, this morning on the interview show the big question, according to the interviewer, was how the Labour Party could possibly reconcile its tax policy after the election with that of the Greens. Labour would charge an increased top tax rate of 36% on top earners on over $150,000 — whereas the Greens wanted a 40% top tax rate over roughly the same amount ($140,000). The Labour Party spokesman refused to be drawn, knowing that these days even the mention of 40% will produce a kneejerk reaction in most people these days and send them screaming from the room in horror. WHY? Why on earth is it taboo to tax rich people?