Wealth and Our Commonwealth

Book by William H. Gates Sr. and Chuck Collins

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at buzzflash.com on December 2, 2004.

This marvelous book is ostensibly presented as an argument for keeping the Estate Tax (aka the Inheritance Tax and now renamed by wealthy conservatives as the Death Tax). And if that's all it were about and all it had in it, I'd put it on a list of "good to know about" books and leave it at that.

But "Wealth and Our Commonwealth" is really much larger than just a book about Estate Taxes. Instead, it's one of the finest treatises in print about the history of progressive economics in America.

Most Americans these days don't remember why (or when) we instituted a progressive income tax, or why taxes even matter in society beyond the obvious issue of paying the cost of government functions like police and fire departments. They don't realize that the Founders of our republic had a visceral and intense concern about multigenerational accumulated wealth and the power of great wealth to corrupt democracy itself. They know that none of the supposedly "rich" founders left great fortunes and no foundations bear their names, and that the foundations of today are only named after people who lived in the late 19th and 20th centuries -- but they don't know why.

Most Americans also don't realize that a middle class is not a normal thing, and is brought about by direct intervention in the marketplace by government, including laws protecting labor, defining minimum wages, and taxing great wealth.

Without these progressive foundations, America would revert to what it looked like during the era of the Robber Barons -- the average worker earning the equivalent of around $9,000 a year in today's dollars, and a wealthy elite so rich and powerful that every branch of government was under their direct or indirect control.

America's first middle class was based on land and the family farm -- the agricultural nation that Jefferson idealized. That began to disintegrate after the Civil War when the railroads were so omnipresent that they made it possible for large corporations to define grain prices and drive small farmers out of business. This produced the eruptions of the Grange movement, and the Progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that brought us direct election of the Senate, the right of women to vote, laws protecting the right to unionize, the estate tax, and a progressive income tax.

These all set the stage for the emergence of the second American middle class, which only began to decay with the "Reagan Revolution" in the 1980s when Reagan declared war on organized labor and conservatives in Congress began dismantling progressive taxes.

"Wealth and Our Commonwealth" has one of the very best (and certainly the most concise) explanations of why progressive economic policies are essential to maintain a middle class -- and why a middle class is necessary for a functioning democracy. It's summarized in fewer than 20 pages in the first chapter, "What Kind Of Nation Do We Want To Be?"

The second chapter -- "The Origins of America's Estate Tax" -- is an extraordinary overview of the history of wealth, power, and democracy in the United States. It's essential reading for every American, and particularly for progressives who want to understand the interplay of economics and democracy in this nation (and around the world -- the principles are universal).

The third chapter starts just short of halfway through this 140 page masterpiece, and chronicles the rise among the wealthy of an organized opposition to the estate tax, and the sometimes shockingly devious means they use to convince average people they should be opposed to this tax. The book wraps up with several chapters about the politics of the estate tax, and a final, brilliant chapter that neatly frames the issue of "What We Owe Our Society."

There was a time in America when everybody understood that taxes are the price of admission to a civil society. And we called "freeloaders" those people who tried to avoid paying taxes, but still wanted to make use of public facilities from roads to bridges to fire and police protection.

Restoring a strong middle class and the vibrant democracy it makes possible will only happen if we wake up enough Americans to the conservative war against democracy and the middle class. Reading and sharing "Wealth and Our Commonwealth" is one of the most important first-steps you can take in helping bring about this awakening.

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