What if, instead of cutting taxes for the rich as its current president calls for, the US raised them significantly, implementing a 100% annual wealth tax on all personal assets over $10 million? And, at the same time guaranteeing high quality employment, health care, housing, education and retirement benefits for everyone residing in the US, no exceptions?
What a painless way for the US to both address social ills at home and set a healthy example for the rest of the world. The quality-of-life floor could be funded by tax revenues from the wealth ceiling. The wealth ceiling, in turn, would reduce the need for spending on military, policing and security operations that currently safeguard the excessive wealth of the few.
Every US citizen and resident would be required to declare their net worth each year, and any assets above $10 million would be taxed at a 100% rate. Bill Gates, who tops Forbes’ list of the richest in the US (and world) with a net worth of $86 billion, would have to either donate, give away, or spend $85.99 billion of his assets, pay that amount in taxes, or some combination of the above. Lucky Bill would still be left with $10 million to easily maintain a comfortable and luxurious lifestyle, and his wife Melinda would get to keep $10 million, too.
Those with net worth of over $10 million represent roughly 1% of the US population, owning together a mind-boggling 35%, or $32 trillion, of total personal net worth in the US, estimated at $93 trillion. Of this 1%, nearly 2,000 are billionaires and multi-billionaires. Invested conservatively at 3-5%, $1 billion could yield annual earnings of $30 to $50 million, without lifting a finger. Assets of $10 million could easily yield $300,000 to $500,000 in annual income. Compensation for work would be in addition. The scope of such wealth is truly difficult to grasp for people of modest means who just get by from day to day and even more so for those who struggle to survive.
Unchecked economic growth is cancerous and ultimately lethal. Such highly concentrated wealth must be viewed as pathological when half the US population—disproportionately people of color—are poor and low income, while about 15% of children and the elderly live in poverty, and nearly a million are homeless. Not to mention the widespread misery in other countries as a result of US foreign policy (directed by the political clout of wealthy elites) of warfare, neoliberalism, usurious IMF loans and US-imposed austerity measures. Researchers have shown that high levels of income inequality, more than poverty per se, cause major social problems, with the US having the greatest income inequality of all industrial nations.[i]
Exactly 100 years ago workers in Russia shook the world by seizing political and economic power by force from the super-rich and holding onto it. Given the deepening economic divide in the US and elsewhere, many say that revolutionary changes are needed now. Let’s start with changes that would cause no harm to anyone and would bring much good to all. During the Occupy movement of 2011, the 99% rose up and called out the excesses of the 1%. Instead of demonizing the 1%, let’s invite them to join with the 99% in ensuring a decent and dignified life for all, the 100%.
Imagine trillions of dollars being redistributed and diversified throughout the economy, including the public coffers, to provide much needed services and infrastructure. Too often the very wealthy invest their earnings in exotic financial instruments that have nothing to do with tangible activities. Implementing the wealth ceiling together with a strong quality-of-life floor would result in increased money circulation in job intensive activities in both the private and public sector. It would incentivize movement towards:
- Phasing out military domination and abuse of power while phasing in more and more peaceful means of solving conflicts and healing the traumas at the root of violence,
- eliminating exploitation of people and natural resources in other countries,
- paving the way for true reparations for Native Americans and descendants of enslaved Africans,
- creating rewarding jobs that make people’s lives more wonderful,
- increasing cooperativism with joint ownership and collective success while decreasing competitivism with winners and losers,
- transforming money into a public utility managed by public banks,
- removing the anti-democratic scourge of money in politics and giving power to the people,
- overcoming the “divide and conquer” tactics by the super-rich that pit oppressed groups against each other, and strengthening a culture of inclusion and solidarity, and
- taking better care of our earthly habitat for future generations.
Some of the super-rich may protest and claim they would suffer greatly from losing the power that comes from owning and controlling the wealth they feel they deserve. The response is simple and straightforward.
“Your goal of accumulating unlimited wealth is illegitimate for two reasons:
- It prevents many from having their basic needs met;
- It is not reciprocal, since only achievable by a relative few.
“However, you, too, are most certainly deserving of a decent and dignified life, which is assured at the material level with the assets still under your control ($10,000,000 worth!). For any emotional suffering you experience from having to part with assets above this limit, we offer you abundant therapy and treatment to heal you from your addiction to excessive wealth and power. We welcome you as a full member of the human family.”
The house in which we all can live has a quality-of-life floor with a minimum material living standard and a ceiling of maximum material personal wealth. It can be built by harnessing the boundless energy of inclusive populism, or “people-ism” (term used by Johan Galtung during recent presentations in Portugal). It would need to be constructed on the most stable foundation possible, one of “equi-archy” (another term Galtung used in Portugal to describe an egalitarian structure, as opposed to hierarchy and oligarchy which currently prevail in the US and much of the world). Most importantly, the house would have a beautiful garden, open to the sky, where everyone could enjoy unlimited intellectual, social and cultural wealth.
Many might say it will never work, the rich will never agree to give up control of their wealth. Maybe not today, but why not at least talk about it and keep building momentum from the bottom up? Human beings are incredibly intelligent, capable of making the most fantastic devices, such as virtual reality headsets, self-driving cars, and fuzzy logic appliances that appear to work magic. So why haven’t we yet succeeded in eliminating human misery from this earth once and for all? It’s not that we can’t
figure out how, we are simply unable to galvanize the collective will to do so at the present time.
It’s not for lack of trying. People, being social creatures whose survival depends on cooperation and mutual support, have tackled this challenge often throughout history. Examples of attempts in this direction with varying degrees of success have occurred in countless indigenous communities on all continents, with socialism in Cuba and many former communist countries, the global labor movement, the Lavalas movement in Haiti, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain, the liberation theology movement throughout Latin America, the Earth Charter (in 53 languages) the World Dignity University, TRANSCEND, and there are many more.
Every time a movement committed to the notion that all people deserve a decent, dignified life with wealth and power spread more or less evenly throughout the population emerges, it is invariably attacked, demonized, marginalized, subverted and/or suppressed by states and institutions where wealth and power are highly concentrated among a few. Therefore, in addition to supporting inclusive and egalitarian social movements wherever they occur, we need to lovingly, persistently and courageously hold those who stand in the way accountable.
What I propose is merely one step, starting in the country I call home where it’s greatly needed. Consider it, evaluate the premises, look at the numbers, make counter-proposals, and have the conversations. Much more needs to be done, and we’re all in it together. May a thousand dialogues bloom!
[i] Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (Bloomsbury Press, New York 2009).
Marilyn Langlois is a member of TRANSCEND USA West Coast. She is a volunteer community organizer and international solidarity activist based in Richmond, California. A co-founder of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, member of Haiti Action Committee and Board member of Task Force on the Americas, she is retired from previous employment as a teacher, secretary, administrator, mediator and community advocate.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 November 2017