Howard Zinn on taxes and class war
Friday, October 24, 2008
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TEXT ON SCREEN: Howard Zinn is an American historian, political scientist, social critic, activist and playwright. He is best known as author of the best-seller ‘A People’s History of the United States.’ Zinn has been active in the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements in the United States.
Taxes and class war
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the next segment of our interview with Howard Zinn. And we’re talking about taxes. So, Howard, where we left off in the last segment, we were talking about the great religious principle of no taxes, as seem to be part of the fundamental American psyche. How did it get to be like that? It’s not like that in most other places in the world. How did "taxes" become such a dirty word in America?
HOWARD ZINN, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR: Well, I think "taxes" became a dirty word because the media and our educational institutions [inaudible] following the lead of our politicians, as too often they do, and all of them seem to be conspiring to prevent the American people from understanding that taxes are a class phenomenon. And when you keep class out of the tax discussion, what you end up with is candidates saying, "I will raise taxes" or "I will lower taxes," and you have the media saying, "Well, so-and-so suggests higher taxes, so-and-so suggests lower taxes," and not asking, "Taxes on whom?" You can’t just talk about will we raise taxes or lower taxes.
JAY: But the most honest moment of this was, I think, in the final presidential debate. Obama’s been talking about the middle class, the middle class, the middle class, which presupposes there must be some other classes. If there’s a middle class, there’s got to be a lower class and an upper class at the very least. And McCain kind of said, "Well, you’re talking about class war." Now, he’s trying to, obviously, be provocative, but there’s something in it: if you’re going to defend the middle class, then you’re going to have to tax somebody.
ZINN: It’s interesting. Whenever a candidate dares to say anything that suggests that there are classes, the opposition comes up, "Oh, you’re inciting class war," which is really an absurd statement. We’ve always had class war in this country.
JAY: You’re just not supposed to talk about it.
ZINN: That’s right. Always had class war. We always had rich and poor; we’ve always had uprisings of the poor against the rich; we’ve always had the rich taking the helm of government and doing what they wanted for themselves. The tax structure has always been based on who do we tax. In the 1920s, Andrew Mellon, secretary of the treasury, started taxing people at the lower elements, leaving the upper classes untouched. What we need at this point is for some candidate—and Obama may be getting close to it when he talks about, well, he is going to relieve the bottom 90 percent of the population of taxes—need somebody to say, "I am going to raise taxes," but then go beyond that and say, "I’m going to raise taxes on the super-rich. They have made trillions of dollars in taxes." I mean, I saw a statistic which told me that the richest people in the country, the billionaires, as a result of the tax structure, have made $300 billion dollars in the last few years. Now, raise taxes on the super-rich, cut taxes on the people at the bottom, and you will have enough money by raising those taxes to pay for free health care for everybody in the country. And so far no candidate, well, including Obama, although he’s getting close to it, has made this point, which is a point about the class nature of taxation.
JAY: With the need for the American state to defend Treasury bonds in the global financial system and the role of the US dollar, it would seem reality is going to force something, ’cause you can only borrow and print money for so long. Eventually there has to be some taxation to back up the dollar, or someday people are going to give up on the dollar.
ZINN: Yes, there has to be taxation, and the money is there to be taxed. I mean, we have an enormous amount of wealth accumulated at the very top of the economic ladder. And a large part of this accumulation has been done not just in the eight years of the Bush administration but even in the decades before that, because the tax structure since World War II has moved consistently in the direction of lowering the taxes on the richest part of the population.
JAY: Now, there are some members of the elite who also say this. You can hear an argument like this from Soros; you can hear it from a Buffett. There seems to be sectors of the very wealthy who see the kind of almost self-destructive nature in this no-tax craziness. But are they just a couple of anomalies? Or is there really some history to a section of the elite that understands this?
ZINN: Well, there’s always been a small section of the elite that sees the longer picture, "the longer picture" meaning that they realize if they don’t make concessions, if they’re not willing to make some small sacrifice now, they may face rebellion, disaster later on. And I think that was some of the thinking behind the rich people who backed the Roosevelt administration; they thought that, "Yeah, these reforms are necessary, because this country’s in turmoil, and this country could be getting close to revolution." So there have always been people in the upper classes, some people, a small minority. But it’s helpful to have them.
JAY: You see it also in—I know you’re in touch with them—there are a lot of celebrities who have done very well, but are taking very openly progressive positions right now on the war, but also on economic issues. I mean, and the last time we saw something like this was the ’30s. I mean, does this have a bit of a ’30s vibe, to use a more modern term?
ZINN: Oh, I think it does. And I think we have a situation like the ’30s, in that we’re desperately in need of not just working people to organize—we need that, we need working people to organize, but we need people in the other classes, and people in the professional classes, and people who are doing very well to create an alliance with the people at the bottom in order to bring about change.
JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the deepening economic crisis and how it might affect US foreign policy. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Howard Zinn.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.