by Joe Shea
December 1, 2010
EVEN IN SECRET, AMERICA LOOKS GOOD
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The light of late November streaming through the bare trees of the hillside I live on in Vermont summons memories of another late November afternoon, when three shots from a rifle altered the course of history.
I was a toddler on the afternoon when President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in the streets of Dallas. But I have felt the ripples from that day throughout my lifetime, from the portraits of the president that were still hanging on the walls of homes in my town years after his death to the proud day I accepted my degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Yes, the debunkers have chipped away at the heroic image of a martyred president. But no one can take away the memory of the optimism and energy that his all-too-brief presidency kindled in the hearts of Americans.
One line from President Kennedy's inaugural address strikes a chord with me at this moment in our history, a line that our current leaders in Washington must heed: "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."
We are now living in a nation where nearly 1 in 5 Americans are either unemployed, under-employed or have given up looking work altogether.
We are now living in a nation where nearly 1 in 8 Americans rely upon the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, to put food on their tables.
Yet we are also living in a nation where the top 1 percent of all income earners in the United States made 23.5 percent of all income - more than the bottom 50 percent.
We are living in a nation where the percentage of income going to the top 1 percent has nearly tripled since the mid-1970s - the same 1 percent that has garnered 80 percent of all new income earned from 1980 to 2005 and who now owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
Few in Washington seem concerned that the United States now has, by far, the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of any major country on earth. And that is why we are seeing the absurdity of conservative politicians constantly braying about the need to reduce taxes on the wealthy.
President Kennedy's name gets invoked by conservatives because he was a supporter of tax cuts. But conservatives usually fail to mention that the top income tax rate when Kennedy took office was 91 percent, and that a year after his death, the top rate was cut to 70 percent, or double what it is today.
They also fail to mention that most Republicans and some conservative Democrats opposed Kennedy's tax cuts, warning it would mean fiscal ruin for the country.
It didn't lead to ruin, but when a Democratic majority in Congress voted to cut taxes in 1964, it didn't foresee how much money would end up being spent on a war in southeast Asia and a war on poverty at home.
That is why President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress imposed a 10 percent income surcharge in 1968 - to cover the growing costs of the Vietnam war and to preserve Johnson's Great Society social welfare programs. Again, the majority of both parties thought that raising taxes was preferable to cutting programs or increasing debt.
But the consensus of the Kennedy/Johnson era - that a certain amount of taxes are necessary to maintain the general welfare - disappeared by the time Ronald Reagan came into the White House. Since 1980, the refrain of conservatives hasn't changed - government is the problem, not the solution, and cutting taxes on the wealthy will benefit the economy as a whole.
The Kennedy/Johnson tax cut of 1964, President Reagan's tax cuts of the 1980s and President George W. Bush's tax cuts of 2001 all offered modest. short-term boosts to the U.S. economy. But in the long term, it led to less money coming into the federal treasury and less money available to take care of the basic services that government provides.
That's why the current battle over extending the Bush-era tax cuts needs to be viewed through the lens of past tax cut fights. Mainstream conservatives of the 1960s, people who generally favored Main Street over Wall Street, would have supported ending tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, especially when those tax cuts over 10 years would add an estimated $700 billion to the deficit.
We've been fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, for nearly a decade. We have our troops garrisoned all over the globe. But the idea of a tax surcharge to pay for the so-called Global War on Terror has never been seriously considered and is unlikely to ever be considered.
In his inaugural address, President Kennedy vowed that our nation "shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty."
Mainstream conservatives once understood those words. Today's conservatives are afraid of them. They are content to let the same handful of brave men and women be ground into dust rather than ask the wealthy to pay their fair share to defend the nation.
How can politicians talk about tax cuts, given the growing costs of our two wars - estimated at $1 trillion and counting? Or given the need to deal with decades of deferred maintenance on our national infrastructure - something that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates will cost at least $2.2 trillion dollars? Or given the need to deal what is now the largest and longest bout of long-term joblessness since the 1930s?
Too many politicians in Washington think it's more important right now to save the rich. But the accumulated weight of bad policy decisions, combined with a total disregard for the actual needs of our nation, means that we will all go down together if we stay on this path.
The struggle against what President Kennedy called "the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself" no longer seems urgent, not when there is a new generation of Americans that scoff at the idea of public service and making the world a better place.
Our politics has descended into the petty and nonsensical. People still boast of American exceptionalism, but few want to pay the cost of greatness. That's why the late November light makes me feel melancholy.
The loss of optimism and energy, and the can-do spirit that the New Frontier epitomized, was snuffed out on the streets of Dallas nearly five decades ago, and it desperately needs to be rekindled.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.