in the High Desert Outback of the American Dream
Expanded from the 10-6-2002 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune
"It shouldn't be this hard," said the aggrieved father.
So went the chillingly contemporary script of the season-opening episode of NBC's "The West Wing" a couple of weeks ago.
The wailer of those lamentations was the father of two daughters on a college selection tour with his eldest. Sitting in a bar, he confessed to not having any idea how he could pay for his childrens' college educations.
The father noted that he and his wife earned a combined $80,000 per year, but the family was nonetheless barely making it.
"It should be just a little easier," he confided to a pair of incognito White House aides. The staffers of the mythical Democratic administration immediately set to work closing a fat cat tax loophole as a way to pay for making college tuition fully tax deductible.
That was fantasyland. Reality, as always, remains much harsher.
I've written for many years about the grinding uncertainty expressed by that concerned father in a TV land bar room. The U.S. economy peaked in 1968 when the U.S. dollar bought the most in goods and services for the wage earner. If the minimum wage that year had been indexed to inflation, it would now stand at well over $8.00 an hour.
Then came the hyperinflation caused by the foolish spending of the Vietnam War, made worse by the 1973 oil embargo inflicted by our minions, the Saudis and the Shah of Iran. The U.S. worker's paycheck has never recovered, but the military-industrial complex was not through battering the American Dream.
As presidential candidate Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., pointed out when he ran against President Lyndon Johnson, the tax code in 1968 was basically sound and progressive. It taxed people upon their ability to pay. The more your country rewarded your efforts with higher and higher earnings, the greater the percentage you owed for the honor.
There were inequities, especially the 98 percent top rate imposed to pay for WWII, but a tax system which spread the wealth gave America the strongest economy in the history of the world. President John F. Kennedy corrected the unfairness at the top and has since been wrongly canonized by corporate proselytizers as the patron saint of trickle-down tax cutting.
For the past 40 years, the corporately wealthy have successfully greased our political leaders to cut taxes off the top and load them onto the middle class. At the same time, they have convinced the government to subsidize their export of U.S. jobs to low-wage markets. General Motors closed more than two dozen plants in the U.S. and opened up an identical number in Mexico. They are now shuttering some of those Mexican factories and moving production to even lower wage plantations.
The worst "tax reform" passed in all of this was the Reagan-era "rescue" of Social Security in 1986. Enacted under the guise of an income tax cut, it also boosted Social Security witholdings for wage earners, more than wiping out the "tax cut." (For complete details, see "America: Who Really Pays the Taxes?" by two-time Pulitzer Prize winners Donald Barlett and James Steele, available at any library. Search "Barlett Steele" at this website to read extensive commentaries on their material.)
Wage earners have long suffered like that fictional TV father making a substantial salary but broke all the time. He and his wife have labored under unfair, regressive tax hikes while corporations and wealthy individuals have seen their taxes cut. The U.S. now has the greatest disparity between rich and poor in the nation's history. The bottom 80 percent of earners compete for about 20 percent of the pie.
Which is why every tax increase on Nevada's November ballot stands in serious jeopardy. I can't wait to see the sample ballot, which I understand rivals the Oxford English Dictionary for poundage and complexity.
That vague feeling of treading in very muddy financial waters is now a much more common syndrome. With the national economy in a slip-slide, more and more Americans are focusing on that angry feeling that something is very basically wrong with the way the cards are dealt.
Nevada wage earners are in worse shape than the average American. We live in the state with arguably the most regressive tax structure in the country. The less you make, the more of your income goes to taxes. Federal, state and local tax codes pick your pocket every day.
Nevada's political leadership has been remarkably leaderless in all of this. Witness the weight of the sample ballot asking the voters to impose upon themselves every type of tax imaginable. Every political leader save one longshot Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Neal has ducked for cover. The right wing nuts say governments must cut waste, fraud and abuse. Yawn. I dare you to find me some that will make a dent in a billion-dollar deficit.
Those of slightly less mendacious mentality say they're waiting for Gov. Dudley Do-Right's oft-postponed tax study. Four years in the making, it's conveniently scheduled for publication ten days after next month's election.
The facts are simple and obvious. Nevada's growth stopped paying for itself years ago. The gambling industry's creation of low wage jobs and all the social costs inherent thereby lie at the root of our problems. (See the Guinn-Hunt administration study posted at NevadaLabor.com.)
And the gamblers expect us to go tax ourselves. If we don't, they'll do it for us at the legislature next year. You'll meet a lot of politicians in the next month. Clip this column and ask some hardassed questions.
HOIST THE TANKARDS for a hearty round of thanks to all who called, faxed, mailed and sent flowers last Tuesday to Wendy Jones on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of her hiring on Oct. 1, 1952 by Electrical Workers Union Local 401. One correction: her husband of 47 years, former Nevada labor commissioner Stan Jones, is not an electrician, but a tinbender...er, sheetmetal worker. My apologies to all wirefryers and tinners who may have felt mutually slighted.
Be well. Raise hell.
© 2002 Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano is a 34-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of NevadaLabor.com and JoeNeal.org/ He hosts Deciding Factors on several Nevada television stations. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988.
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