Taxes & prosperity, single-issue politics

Blunt Instruments

James Kloppenberg’s article “Two Cities, Two Americas” (October 26) is refreshing in its optimism that America’s elected leaders might soon be able to build consensus and move forward. Some of us recall the days when principled leaders on both sides of the aisle could meet, listen, consider, compromise, and move substantive legislation through to completion. Tip O’Neill was able to share a drink, a joke, and some legislative progress with Ronald Reagan. George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton were similarly gifted at working with opposition majorities in Congress. Perhaps we will see that again, and may it be soon.

One statement in the article strikes me as odd: “Much higher tax rates on the wealthy failed to blunt economic expansion in the three decades following World War II.” But the “Right Reverend New Dealer John Ryan,” whom the article cites correctly as a progressive FDR supporter, also noted in his 1935 book A Better Economic Order that if a luxury comparable to the automobile “were now invented which would be within reach only of the rich and comfortable classes, and for which they had a powerful appetite, consumption would be increased and we might be moved a considerable distance toward the end of the depression.” Ryan was noting a drought of innovation which had started in 1930.

That drought persisted through the Democratic and Republican administrations of the three decades following World War II. During the 1950s, investor Warren Buffett found companies hoarding cash and government bonds rather than innovating and modernizing. President Kennedy called attention to the need for more investment and innovation to boost job growth. Data on patent applications confirm the extent of the innovation drought.

Additionally, the exclusion of African Americans from social and economic mobility in those decades produced the urban riots of the late 1960s, and women’s career choices were limited to teacher, secretary, nurse, housewife, or nun until well into the 1970s. So saying that the country got along just fine in an era of much higher taxes on the wealthy ignores the reality: limited economic blessings were distributed unevenly, making life pleasant for some and stifling for others.

President Barack Obama calls on FDR’s “bold, persistent experimentation” as a model for progressive action. It should be. But we must carefully review the results of prior experiments and honestly assess what has worked and what has not, if we are to avoid wasting resources and causing real suffering.

Joseph J. Dunn

Conshohocken, Pa.

On Point

Cathleen Kaveny’s article “The Single-Issue Trap” (September 28) deserves the highest praise. It is not only timely and helpful but so painstakingly assembled that it reads like the work of a wisdom writer. Too many of this country’s bishops have reduced politics to one or two moral issues.

Her article made me recall that in class, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis would never entertain questions foreign to the topic of the lecture. He was often asked, “When is an American going to be elected pope?” He might respond “We are not ready,” then return to the lecture. Once, however, he did pause to praise the Mediterranean mildness of Italians. They are gifted, he said, with enormous common sense and do well as diplomats and popes. He returned to his notes, then looked up and added: “I don’t think any Italians elected pope would turn out to be fanatic.”

Robert J. Paul Fox

Wolf Point, Mont.

Published in the 2012-11-09 issue: 
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