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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