Progressives 100 Years Ago

Beverly Gage at Slate tells us about President Taft’s

Commission on Industrial Relations to investigate “the general condition of labor in the principal industries.

She points out how different the progressive era of a hundred years ago was from today. In some ways that’s probably because of the success then. We currently have a progressive income tax, Social Security, unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, etc. All of these programs help keep the wolf from the door so that poverty is no longer a terminal illness.

But income inequality is just about as bad now as it was then. And comparing now to then, Gage says:

…what’s striking about the commission’s report, read from a 21st-century perspective, is how limited our own debate about inequality seems by comparison. For the commission, inequality was a fundamental problem that threatened the entire fabric of American democracy. Today, by contrast, we’re busy debating whether a multimillionaire like Mitt Romney ought to pay a few more percentage points in federal taxes.

Out of this commission came two proposals:

The first was an inheritance tax, aimed not at the fearless entrepreneur, but at his sons and daughters, who had done nothing to deserve a fortune. The second was increased support for union organizing, on the principle that workers deserved to elect their own representatives on the job just as they did in the government.

Unions today are on the decline, in the private sector, or under attack, in the public sector. And somehow the inheritance tax has become known as the “Death Tax” despite the fact that very few beneficiaries actually have to pay it and those that do did nothing to earn the windfall coming their way.


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