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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Inequity real risk to capitalism

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: June 13, 2021, 6:02am

In the politics of fear and outrage, the favored bogeyman of recent years has been “socialism.”

Never mind that the phrase has been bastardized beyond the boundaries of accuracy. If politicians and right-leaning media can score points and raise the hairs on your arms by invoking “socialism,” they are happy to do so. Cheap political points count just as much as meaningful ones.

But in making “socialism” a pejorative, they seem to be missing the point. They seem to be ignoring the real threat to American capitalism.

By all means, capitalism has served us well. It is what built the American automobile industry and put money in the pockets of workers so they could buy those cars. It is what created the middle class that was the backbone of the nation — when policymakers cared about the middle class. It is what put a computer that doubles as a phone in the palm of your hand. You didn’t see the iPhone being invented in Cuba.

Capitalism has spurred innovation and creativity and American exceptionalism that built the world’s largest economy and lifted millions out of poverty.

But if conservative politicians and policy wonks — let’s face it, it’s always conservatives who use this as a wedge issue — are genuinely concerned about preserving capitalism in the United States, they are going about it the wrong way. Rather than relying on fearmongering rhetoric, they should rely on policies that ensure capitalism actually works.

Because for too many people, American capitalism is not working very well. And for too many people, a recent report about taxes paid by the super wealthy is not an aberration but a symptom of an ailing system.

You probably saw it; it was in all the newspapers. ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news outlet, reported last week that many super rich Americans pay little or no income taxes.

Jeff Bezos, who now has a net worth estimated at $192 billion, paid nothing in income taxes in 2007 and 2011 and a relative pittance in other years. And a collection of some of the nation’s wealthiest people paid a total of $13.6 billion in federal income taxes during a period when their net worth increased $401 billion. That’s 3.4 percent, and the guess is that it’s lower than your tax rate.

That is not a criticism of the wealthy; they didn’t make the rules. But it is a condemnation of a system that allows them to draw a salary of, say, $1 a year while accumulating wealth in stocks and other items that are taxed at a lower rate. And it is a denunciation of a system in which the rich take out loans against their wealth, allowing them to declare a negative net income for the year.

“Americans knew that billionaires played these kinds of games,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said. “What was significant yesterday was it was all laid out in stark detail about the most affluent people in America.”

Now, you might care or you might not. But all of this matters to young adults who are trying to enter the system and are hoping it works for them.

Consider a 23-year-old American. They have witnessed a devastating recession when they were 10, have needed burdensome loans to get through college because the United States has disinvested in higher education, and have seen a delayed government response to a pandemic brought about by this nation’s inability to work together. They are entering the job market at a time when reliable employment is iffy and homeownership is a pipe dream.

Young Americans have seen the shortcomings of the systems that are in place. So it is unsurprising that a 2019 Gallup Poll found: “Since 2010, young adults’ overall opinion of capitalism has deteriorated to the point that capitalism and socialism are tied in popularity among this age group.” And that was before the pandemic.

“Socialism” long has been used as an excuse for opposing policies that actually help people, and the strategy long has been effective. But if politicians desire to preserve capitalism, they should work for the benefit of young people rather than the super-rich.