An American Exception, in Danger

Chuck Collins is an analyst and agitator around the grand canyon of inequality in American incomes and property.

With Bill Gates Sr., the grandfather of Microsoft, so to speak, and father, till yesterday, of the richest man in the world, Chuck Collins wrote the book in favor of “death” taxes: Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes.

Our conversation with Chuck Collins picks up on James Q. Wilson’s view that Americans have no problem with extreme wealth as long as it’s earned — by Michael Jordan, as Wilson said, or Warren Buffett. The catch, as proud papa Gates is impelled to say, is that even the great entrepreneurial harvests are not exactly earned — certainly not earned alone:

What’s interesting about Bill Gates’ dad is: he grew up in working class Bremerton, Washington. His dad had a little furniture store. He fought in WWII, went to University of Washington and law school on the GI bill and then into law practice. He had a prosperous life. His son was fortunate, went to Harvard, almost graduated and was very successful. He would be the first person to tell you that as smart as his son is, he didn’t earn all that wealth alone. It was a function of growing up in a particular society that has a lot of common welath, a lot of public investment in research, and education, and infrastructure, and technology – and all the things we do together to make this a good soceity. So his view is: an inheritance tax is a righteous tax, a fully beautifully American tax. Which is to say: “Blessings on you, now that you’ve made all this money; but if you make this much money – over $5 million or $10 million or $50 million, you have an obligation to pay back the society that made your wealth possible… Bill Gates Sr. calls the estate tax the gratitude tax – it’s the tax you pay back as a person who’s prospered in this society so that other people can have the same opportunity.

Chuck Collins in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 9, 2008.

Our conversation is about American Exceptionalism again: about the civic DNA of the first middle-class society in the world, and evidence on all sides that we are in fact becoming Richistan (Robert Frank’s coinage) and its sullen suburbs. The rising culture (and fact) of inequality, Chuck Collins says, is one of the most important conversations America isn’t having. Comments please.

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  • ghostofdali

    Excellent show, I think the analysis of our present inequality is spot on. I do think there were some other factors that brought about the end of the “first gilded age” that also may prove to be important today, however.

    First is immigration, and attached to that is a second factor that involves competing world views. Perhaps their relationship was symbiotic, but one of the real concerns for the big wigs and fat cats around the turn of the century was the influx of European, especially Italian, immigrants whose labor fueled the industrial machine. These people also brought with them some ideas about governance and equality that truly threatened the status quo. And after a generation or so when socialist ideas began taking hold in Europe, many middle-class people in the US also began having a lot of sympathy for such ideas – there was, in fact, a very real alternative to the “way of life” that many people found unsatisfactory. Whether or not that alternative was any better doesn’t factor in, since the US ultimately made enough concessions like the New Deal, the alternative played itself out to a (mostly) fateful end and the American system prevailed in that round. This could perhaps be the source for so much right-wing paranoia about immigration, although it seems to me that today’s immigrants are more interested in assimilation than reformation, even though their plight is just as dire as the immigrants of a century ago.

    Back to the present day, it was clear to me from watching the RNC speeches that those “cocky wackos” (yes, there was more than one) feel like wealth should not be taxed at all. From the way they were talking, you’d think paying taxes was crippling the American economy – not predatory lending, a credit and housing crisis, rampant inflation and reckless speculation. It seems as though wealthy people in this country have absolutely no interest in giving anything back to society, rather they would like to continue strip mining our labor force and hiding their wealth in offshore accounts and foreign investments. I don’t know about you, but I think the amount we pay in taxes is pretty fair, by comparison to interest rates on mortgages and rental and usage fees for our living necessities. If there wasn’t so much bloat and waste, kickbacks and tax breaks for corporations, we’d probably have a pretty well funded government.

  • nother

    Thank you for a conversation that melded and coalesced and illuminated frustrations I could feel but not formulate.

    Greed is the culprit indeed.

    I was bartending private functions for some time. Generally we would split the money and make between $150 and $300 hundred dollars each. With this money we would tip out the bussers (usually undocumented Brazilians who spoke little English). They helped out enormously but it was left to us to value their help with pay. Some of us would be generous and many of us would not.

    On occasion we would make up to $500 or $600 for a single function and the dynamics would suddenly change. One might surmise that we would be more generous or at the very least, be as generous proportionally. Yet to my absolute amazement, things would turn edgy. Not only would there be disagreements on what to pay the bussers (“they don’t know what we made, right?”) there would be whispers and infighting about certain waiters who supposedly worked more or less, and thus deserved more or less. People who had worked together for years would dismiss their dignity for that extra dollar.

    But what was sad to me was not simply the petty greed on the surface. Even though the extra money we made was only a couple of hundred dollars, there was a delusion that seeped in – in some fantastical way this extra money bestowed to us from some rich family we were serving…was our ticket out, it was a branch – no matter how flimsy – a branch to a higher class. Desperate clawing for a higher station in life.

    The American way can be wondrous when an individual with help of family and friend pulls herself up by her own bootstraps to success and happiness. But it turns out there is point of diminishing returns on this American wayward upward.

    At some point we lose perspective on the concept of contentment.

    I remember my brief foray working in the sales world. I was working a convention with a fellow salesman who made over 6 figures and lived in Sudbury MA, one of the most posh towns in Mass. He told me that he had dropped his kids off at their friend’s house recently and those parents had a much bigger screened in pool then he did. He conveyed to me earnestly how embarrassed he was in front of his kids. This was a good man who had lost perspective.

    I’m thinking that a good country can lose perspective just as well.

  • nother

    I just heard a statistic that Americans now have more credit card debt than money saved for retirement. My worry is that the credit card bubble could be the next to burst. If those chickens come home to roost…watch out baby.

  • potter

    Very timely and clearly presented. Inequality gets focussed on and then fades away. With the Wall Street collapse and now emergency bailout on everyone’s mind 24/7 the last week and now this week, this is the perfect moment for this interview to surface though it appears it was recorded before last week.

    I was also wondering how we here measure up to other countries.