Thomas Paine, the Swamp, and the Democratic Aristocracy

[This is part 2 of 3 of a Meditation on Thomas Paine's Common Sense. See part 1 here.]

Paine, as noted in part 1, delivered a devastating blow to the notion of British monarchy, and its attendant aristocracy, with his Common Sense. Just as the granting of a monarchy in the Old Testament was a “curse in reserve” to the Israelites, so the setting up of a monarchy had been its own sort of curse to the British, and her colonies: the taxation, conscription, and confiscation of property and men and women, leading to indulgence and ineptitude on the part of those who were supposed to govern.

To make matters worse, the British monarchy was propagated by hereditary succession: the accident of birth was the key to being the next monarch, and yet more stupidities unfolded from this inanity. Born into a sense of privilege, succeeding generations were yet more removed from connections with real people with real concerns, thus ever more inept and indulgent.

Last, some maintained that monarchy and hereditary succession could foster peace and avoid civil war. But for Paine, this was the “the most bare-faced falsity ever.” Instead, “monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. 'Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.”

What if, instead of targeting “monarchy,” we were to update Paine’s sort of critiques? What if instead of making the king the target of such criticism, we asked Paine’s question of political power in our own day? Of the democratic aristocracy? Of the power of money?

Consider the “curse in reserve.” Samuel’s gloomy prognostication indicated that the Israelite monarchy would take 10% of everything: money, land, and sons. Oh to have Samuel’s problem. The average American effective tax rate is perhaps three times more.[1]

We may have no king, but our presidency can assuredly out-do any old-world-monarch in pretension, security apparatus, and lavish expenditure. Oh for the good old days of when the luxury entailed a mere array of great horses and carriages, a great cohort of attendants and nobility. Our king’s carriage has become a 747, his attendants the great host of the Secret Service, and his knights the capacity to push a button and destroy the earth.

A single one of Obama’s trips to Palm Beach, Florida?  Some $3 million. Trump’s trips to Mar a Lago? $1 to $3 million each.[2]

The cost of a brand-new-ultra-secret-bomber with brand-new-whiz-bang-blow-‘em-up capabilities?  Oh well, that's a secret. Mere little people are not allowed to have access to this super-secret information. But just the initial engineering and manufacturing development on this one bomber is over $21 billion.[3]

The annual cost of maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal?  $33 billion per year.[4] 

The solution to the “curse in reserve,” of course, is not as simple as on paper tax cuts. This overlooks the mechanisms of power at work. The structure of tax policies has a profound impact upon who gets leverage, and thus more power.

As one example: I’ve always found it odd that those in favor of corporate tax cuts insist that such tax cuts will create more jobs and increase wages. Cut the corporate tax rate, and then the corporations will then have more money to hire more workers. But this is either fundamentally naïve, or fundamentally deceptive.  Because: any money that a business spends on business expenses is taxed at 0%. Gonna have an extra $100,000 in profits this year?  If you hold onto it, it will get taxed, supposedly, at 35%. If you put that money into hiring a new employee, providing salary, training, and benefits, then that $100,000 gets taxed at 0%.

Consider the problem of accidental birth.  While for Paine it was a rather idiotic conception that the child of a king should be assumed to be the next king, we might ask what such an observation might say to us today. The whole notion of aristocracy—being born into privilege—is fundamentally problematic.

Thankfully, we have no principle of hereditary succession.[5] And, we also have numerous examples of those in our country raised in poverty, but were gifted with good work habits, ingenuity, creativity, and a desire to serve the common good, and worked their way into a fortune, and then they go about employing their wealth for the good of their communities. Such tales are worth celebrating.  A whole lot of the rich people I know in Nashville fall into such categories, and I’d rather them have the liberty to spend their money as they will, certainly in comparison either to the Pentagon buying a bunch more of those brand-new-ultra-secret-bomber with brand-new-whiz-bang-blow-‘em-up capabilities at $500 million a pop, or to paying for another presidential 747-with-nuclear-push-button-box-in-tow trip to Mar a Lago, seemingly one Tweet away from a nuclear holocaust.

So while we, thankfully, do not have hereditary succession in a monarchy, clearly we have democratic aristocracies.  And these democratic aristocracies appear quite indebted to hereditary succession: one need only say “Bush.” Or family connections: one need only say “Bill” and “Hillary,” or “Trump” and “Kushner.”

Consider too the elitism entailed in simply running for office: a single run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives is reported in numerous sources to run around half a million dollars, and a run for U.S. Senate around $1.5 million. Spending for the 2016 campaign—Presidential, House, and Senate races—totaled some $6.5 billion. [6]

Perhaps more troubling are the disparities in wealth, by which the wealthy get more wealthy. A recent study indicated that “in 2015, just 62 people in the world had the same wealth as the poorer half of humanity - 3.6 billion people.” [7]  Meanwhile the gap between the very wealthy and the poor continues to grow rapidly.[8]

Globalization and change in technology are often cited for the inequalities. But Paine’s Common Sense keeps pushing us to ask about inequitable concentrations of power. And so says the recently published Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (2015): “But this common explanation overlooks a critically important phenomenon: the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs.” [9]

Last, consider “the most bare-faced falsity ever” that the political power has “laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. 'Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.”

Again, what if we take the same sort of critique of the democractic aristocracy?  A widely circulated account reports that “THE U.S. HAS BEEN AT WAR 222 OUT OF 239 YEARS.”[10]

This horrific fact, of course, cannot be separated from the moneyed interests in war. Eisenhower’s farewell address from the White House regarding the moneyed interests of the “military-industrial complex” has proven prophetic.[11]

The sorts of death, destruction and squandering of resources on war and weapons of war are inconceivable, indeed beyond all common sense. Consider deaths from just the most recent warring: some 1 million killed in Iraq (a war begun on a false pre-text), 220,000 in Afghanistan, and 80,000 in Pakistan, as of March 2015. [12]

Oh to have more Paine’s Common Sense among us today; more non-partisan, equal-opportunity-debunkers of elitism and privilege and power, of left and right, of government and corporate interests.

 

Next week, part 3: The theological cheating of Paine: or, The Roy Moore Problem. Back to part 1 here.

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Notes:

[1] http://thehill.com/policy/finance/238735-average-us-worker-pays-315-pct-tax-rate-report  I immediately wondered, too, about the tax rate opposed by the famed Boston Tea Party. According to History.com, it turns out that the Boston Tea Party was more in opposition to a corporate tax break as opposed to a tax hike; a fascinating tid-bit, if true.

[2] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/ap-fact-check-trumps-mar-lago-trips-cost-3-million

[3] https://www.defensenews.com/air/2017/10/18/b-21-cost-info-to-stay-secret-despite-new-air-force-leadership/

[4] https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/nukes-dollars-and-sense/

[5] And, as noted, there are plenty of examples of poor-boys-make-good in American culture which also undercut hereditary succession, and this is a sort of liberty worth celebrating. At the same time, from a theological perspective, I think it important to remember that grace and gift suffuses even the stories of the boy or girl raised financially poor, who goes on to work their way through college, and works hard at developing a useful product, and finds a financial windfall: even though there may be a great deal of hard work, it’s important to remember that a good work ethic; healthy minds and bodies; access to education at a young age, especially the capacity to read as an elementary aged child; and so on, that all these are still graces and gifts, upon which the poor-boy-makes-good is dependent.

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/04/14/somebody-just-put-a-price-tag-on-the-2016-election-its-a-doozy/?utm_term=.3fd96c314780

[7] http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-richest-people-in-the-world-20160121-story.html

[8] See https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/11/how-is-wealth-distributed-world/ and also “Distributional National Accounts: Methods and Estimates for the United States,” a study which “combines tax, survey, and national accounts data to estimate the distribution of national income in the United States since 1913. Our distributional national accounts capture 100% of national income, allowing us to compute growth rates for each quantile of the income distribution consistent with macroeconomic growth. We estimate the distribution of both pre-tax and post-tax income, making it possible to provide a comprehensive view of how government redistribution affects inequality. Average pre-tax national income per adult has increased 60% since 1980, but we find that it has stagnated for the bottom 50% of the distribution at about $16,000 a year. The pre-tax income of the middle class—adults between the median and the 90th percentile—has grown 40% since 1980, faster than what tax and survey data suggest, due in particular to the rise of tax-exempt fringe benefits. Income has boomed at the top: in 1980, top 1% adults earned on average 27 times more than bottom 50% adults, while they earn 81 times more today. The upsurge of top incomes was first a labor income phenomenon but has mostly been a capital income phenomenon since 2000. The government has offset only a small fraction of the increase in inequality. The reduction of the gender gap in earnings has mitigated the increase in inequality among adults. The share of women, however, falls steeply as one moves up the labor income distribution, and is only 11% in the top 0.1% today.”

[9] http://www.newsweek.com/real-reason-growing-gap-between-rich-and-poor-377662

[10] http://freakonometrics.hypotheses.org/50473. As an altogether unrelated aside, but a fascinating look at the data on numbers of deaths due to World War 2 in comparison to other wars, see this data driven animated video, “The Fallen of World War II”

[11] On this see the recent documentary work illustrating the prescient nature of Eisenhower’s fears: Why We Fight.

[12] Study by Physicians for Social Responsibility, “Body Count: Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror’” http://www.psr.org/assets/pdfs/body-count.pdf, p. 15.   As another source on moneyed interests, the economy, and war-making, see Jacques R. Pauwels here.