To Carry the Past Around with You

by Gabriel Winant on June 17, 2015

Citizenship is waning. There are the obvious, brutal signs of this: the police apparently have a free hand to kill and cage certain citizens, more or less as they see fit; the fiscal state is crippled by the ability and willingness of its wealthier subjects to refuse taxation; voters must now share political space with corporations, their new legal equivalents in significant elements of democratic life. In many places, especially poorer places like Greece and Detroit, unelected bureaucracies now explicitly overrule the will of electorates. Then there are the more paradoxical data points indicating the civic crisis. As the value of democratic citizenship declines, for example, those who still have it behave more defensively, throwing up border walls and voting for neo-nationalists. The deportee prison, the mass drownings in the Mediterranean, the rise of Golden Dawn, UKIP, and the National Front: these phenomena signal the dissipation of citizenship as much as the overweening power of the European Central Bank or the quasi-colonial occupation of Ferguson do. When your portion is diminishing, you want to ration it out more stingily. If you’ve only got a little at all, though, what do you do?

This is the question at the core of Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration. What has become of what she calls “the democratic arts”? How can we get our citizenship back?

Allen opens Our Declaration on a comparison of the different ways that her day and night students at the University of Chicago encountered texts. For example, she writes,

Does Toni Morrison want us to believe in the ghosts in Beloved? Does she want us to believe that there are ghosts in our own worlds? Or are they merely symbols? My night students’ lives overran with death—from gunshots and overdoses and chronic disease and battery. They were indeed haunted. My day students, many of them well-heeled and all of them well-insured, were still mostly too young to understand what it means to carry the past around with you.

The encounter between the night students and the Declaration of Independence is the premise on which the book is hung. “As my night students metabolized the philosophical argument and rhetorical art of the Declaration, many of them, and I along with them, experienced a personal metamorphosis. They found themselves suddenly as political beings, with a consciousness that had previously eluded them. They built a foundation from which to assess the state of their political world.” This novel claim—that the Declaration, of all documents, could be a reading in the pedagogy of the oppressed—appears on the back of the book; reviewers open their discussions of Our Declaration with it. It is, in a way, Allen’s warrant to proceed with a new close reading of a document otherwise picked clean years ago.

Allen argues that the Declaration of Independence is a charter for political equality in both its form and its content. Its content is a kind of theoretical model of democratic society: the individual is a sovereign guardian of her own happiness and fate; this guardianship impels her toward a judgment about the state to which she is subject; the realization of this judgment requires mutual recognition of the sovereignty and judgment of other individuals; and the collective institutional result of this mutual recognition, a sovereign state, in turn requires the mutual recognition of other sovereign states. The Declaration’s form—a memo, performing the situation it declares, produced by committee—models the process by which individuals and the representatives they have chosen work through the steps of this process, enacting through conversation the world in which they wish to live. Writing by committee represents a successful performance of democracy, creating by its own process the result it describes.

The obvious criticism of an egalitarian reading of the Declaration is that its authors were tyrants themselves—slavers, patriarchs, genocidaires—and therefore hypocrites. Allen faces this, and grapples with it honestly. “We can change our ideas and our principles a lot faster than we can change our habits. There’s a lot to learn about human beings from studying what it takes to get our habits to catch up to words and principles that have run on ahead. So what are words worth? A starting point. No less. No more.” Allen, in other words, is clear about the limits to the power of language to resolve the contradictions of American society in the 1770s. Declaring that all men are created equal did not, needless to say, make it so.

But historical circumstances did not merely mar the otherwise pristine egalitarianism of Jefferson and friends. The problem is not just disingenuousness. The problem, rather, is that the status of the national founders as petty tyrants enabled their egalitarian declarations. It was precisely because they controlled territory stolen from native people, worked land with slaves, and lived in households maintained by unfree women, that these men were able to make their declaration. The model of republican citizenship that guided the Revolution—arguably Jefferson most of all—posits a fully autonomous citizen dependent on no one and thereby capable of guarding and determining his own happiness. If you do not own land and people, you will of necessity be nested in a network of exchanged interdependencies, equal or hierarchical: on an employer, on lenders, on family, on neighbors, on community, and so on. What it takes to survive as a non-elite person will disqualify you from the founding vision of republican citizenship. That’s why it took another half-century from 1776 even to win full white male suffrage, to say nothing of actually universal suffrage—a chancy proposition, even today.

The American founders were not merely willfully blind to what was under their noses. The oppressive world of colonial America was not a disfigurement of their egalitarian announcements; it was the author. When they argued that the king was making slaves of them, it was less a dazzling exercise in hypocrisy, and more an actual argument: free men are free because they stand at the top of an ecology of unfree dependents. They are equal with each other in the sense that they share this condition of independence, and cannot accumulate more of it by accumulating more wealth or power. It’s a binary system: you’re free and thus equal, or you’re unfree and unequal.

While speech acts are a critical component of political self-assertion, in other words, they are themselves enabled and authorized by a range of forces that they do not transcend easily. Engaging in and with political speech, that is, happens within history. Language alone—whether uttered or received—is an unlikely emancipator if it’s all there is.

It’s of course true that political speech slips the conditions of its creation, and takes on meanings not initially assigned to it by its authors. The place of the Declaration in the canon of national identity makes it a particularly good candidate for this process. And it has long stood as the bold egalitarian counterpoint to the more cautious Constitution. Allen’s work has made me appreciate this point: the document—and the tradition it carries—belongs to all of us now, whether it was intended to at the outset or not. But the effect of this transfer is to empty the Declaration of much of its initial meaning. If there is something useful here, might it be an opportunity for historical usurpation and repurposing, rather than reclamation? This would be a fairly straightforward and defensible position: the Declaration and the tradition it represents are there for the taking. Movements get themselves up in the outfits of their national pasts all the time. Long before the Tea Party donned colonial garb to protest for austerity, Marx wrote of how movements requisition old “names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

But the challenge for understanding and seizing such an opportunity lies in the moment of the reader, not the writer. The meaning of the document is with us, rather than with the Founders. Allen writes that all Americans “should be able to read or listen to the Declaration, understand the work that it is doing, and carry on similar work on their own account, with no more help in unleashing their capacities than can be provided by the example of the Declaration itself.”

This is where I wish Allen had returned more often to her Chicago classroom. We get only a few pages on her democratic night school. I was left with lots of questions: How did it work? What were its difficulties? How did the students relate to each other? Did they talk about bringing the civic empowerment engendered by the Declaration into their daily lives?

I agree with Allen that all Americans should be able to participate in the democratic arts, and to gain access to them through our civic manuals. But almost everything in the life of an individual citizen today—or one on the losing side of growing inegalitarian divides, anyway—tells her that exactly this action is impossible. Documents like the Declaration are probably more likely to seem like exhibits of this disempowerment than like tools against it.

The trouble is a vicious dialectic of individual and structural disempowerment. (We could argue all day—and many have—about which element set the process in motion. But there’s no need here.) Once this process was up and running, it came to work like this: the individual citizen becomes convinced, for increasingly good reasons, that little she can do will have a meaningful impact on her social and political world. Her attention scatters, her expectations fall, her caution accumulates, and her participation diminishes. The forms of democratic collectivity that she helps to constitute—voter in the electorate, member of the party, worker in the trade union—thin out or disappear entirely. The accountability—or better still, willful decisionmaking—that her collectivity is supposed to enforce evaporates. Now unencumbered by organized, enfranchising democratic collectivities, the state comes to respond preferentially to directives issued by more hierarchical forms of social organization, which, by dint of their undemocratic internal structures, prosper from the assault on citizenship. The parts of the state that serve the citizens en masse wither; the parts that serve surviving (and expanding) concentrations of social power grow. Formerly semi-democratic forms of social organization try to remake themselves to resemble their prospering top-down counterparts (e.g. the university). Concentrations of power become more concentrated; mass disillusion worsens; the cycle repeats. The whole thing is slow-moving enough that at any given moment, you can just about pretend it’s not happening. As Allen puts it, in—arguably—another context, “The hard part is this: how do you know when a government is turning into a tyranny?”

What makes a tyranny a tyranny, as Allen might be the first to point out, is that it’s relational. “What happens when we figure out that our boss or someone else with power over us does not want to aid us or is even out to get us—in the language of the Declaration, to ‘reduce’ us?” Allen suggests that it is in the ultimate willingness to face and embrace social antagonism that political empowerment lies. Homo politicus—the treasured, shrinking version of the self as autonomous political agent—is a belligerent. “When, after a long train of abuses, a string of truth-telling actions, we finally recognize that someone else is our enemy, a yoke of necessity . . . falls upon us,” Allen writes.

Allen suggests that it is in the experience of impelled confrontation with the forces of political inequality that the dominated find their voice. This seems true; lots of historiography and social theory bears it out. (As Adam Przeworski famously wrote, struggle about class tends to precede struggle between classes.) But in the current moment all signals intimate to the powerless not to let this process even begin, to avoid it if at all possible, for it seems likely to end in grief. It’s safer to keep your head down. Our Declaration insists that people will defend themselves when forced, but the book itself enacts a version of this avoidance, opening on a diptych of social inequality—between the callow day students and the scarred night students—and then deciding not to linger on it, as if the children of Chicago’s elite and the members of its working class bear no relation to each others’ statuses; as if the University of Chicago does not itself help reproduce the very forms of disenfranchisement that Allen labors to undo in her classroom.

The appeal of grounding confrontational egalitarian politics in the national past has always been that it makes social conflict seem more palatable and less dangerous by linking it to inherited traditions. Movements on the left wing of the English Revolution of the seventeenth century identified themselves with Saxon resistance to the post-1066 Norman rulers; overthrowing the monarchy and socializing property was simply casting off the “Norman Yoke” imposed by William the Conqueror. The Knights of Labor and the People’s Party in the late nineteenth century mixed incipient modern socialism with Jeffersonian agrarianism in just this way. They claimed to speak for an organic American consensus, handed down directly from the founding, and to call into question Victorian liberal verities from an ostensibly older and more legitimate position. One can criticize the ultimate viability of this kind of politics, but it has a respectable pedigree, and has worked many times to provide newly displaced people with a familiar language with which to criticize their antagonists.

This process, though, has always been a collective one. Common experiences might only become articulable in the language of archaic tradition, but if they are not held in common, they will not be articulated at all. The Diggers in revolutionary England emerged from the experiences of enclosure of the countryside’s common lands; the Knights of Labor and the People’s Party from the rise of industrial capitalism and the collapse of artisanal and agrarian ways of life. Allen writes, “Everyone has the capacity to pick up some bit of information, some observation, which is relevant to the whole picture, and which no one else will have noticed.” Can the Declaration alone validate these observations? Surely, we must do so for each other. This, in fact, seems to be the very process that she argues that the authors of the Declaration went through—comparing their experiences and validating shared grievances. I imagine her students must have done the same her Chicago classroom, to achieve the result she describes. I hope she writes that book next.

{ 36 comments }

1

R Cottrell 06.17.15 at 5:57 pm

The American Constitution was devised and written by English yeomen, the ancestors of Wall Street, who favoured slavery. I can’t see what has changed.

Richard Cottrell

2

Lynne 06.17.15 at 6:13 pm

Wonderful post, especially the opening: “Citizenship is waning. There are the obvious, brutal signs of this: the police apparently have a free hand to kill and cage certain citizens, more or less as they see fit; the fiscal state is crippled by the ability and willingness of its wealthier subjects to refuse taxation; voters must now share political space with corporations, their new legal equivalents in significant elements of democratic life.”

As a Canadian, Americans’ relationship to the Declaration of Independence—the need to refer any social changes to it, to get its seal of approval—is not something I can identify with. But this post describes a situation that has happened to some extent here, too. Voters here don’t yet share space with corporations as they do in the States, not quite, but certainly corporations influence politics in a way they shouldn’t.

The disenchantment and disengagement of many citizens is rampant here, too. This post reads as an elegant lament. Thank you.

3

Rich Puchalsky 06.17.15 at 6:23 pm

“Once this process was up and running, it came to work like this: the individual citizen becomes convinced, for increasingly good reasons, that little she can do will have a meaningful impact on her social and political world. Her attention scatters, her expectations fall, her caution accumulates, and her participation diminishes. The forms of democratic collectivity that she helps to constitute—voter in the electorate, member of the party, worker in the trade union—thin out or disappear entirely. The accountability—or better still, willful decisionmaking—that her collectivity is supposed to enforce evaporates.”

This describes one common contemporary process by which people become anarchists. I don’t see what’s wrong with it, since “voter in the electorate”, “member of the party”, and even “worker in the trade union” are all fraudulent, powerless roles in a collectivity that has long since lost any connection with individuals. They are democratic, and give you just as much meaningful impact on the social and political world as any citizen has when they are a meaningless and negligible vote among millions in a democracy.

The writers of the Declaration weren’t merely mini-tyrants, and therefore dismissible as democrats in theory whose practice hadn’t caught up. They were politicians. Their purpose was to confuse their individuality with ours in the same way that people want to do now.

4

Stephen 06.17.15 at 7:13 pm

“free men are free because they stand at the top of an ecology of unfree dependents”.

In late 18th-C America, plausibly true. “Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”

In other places, not obviously true. Maybe other places don’t matter.

5

Barry 06.17.15 at 7:42 pm

Rich: “This describes one common contemporary process by which people become anarchists. I don’t see what’s wrong with it, since “voter in the electorate”, “member of the party”, and even “worker in the trade union” are all fraudulent, powerless roles in a collectivity that has long since lost any connection with individuals. “

At one time, they were not fraudulent, or at least not *as* fraudulent.
Note that the elites really, really, *really* hated trade unions. They only accepted them when forced to, and within a decade had started a long war for their destruction.

Similarly with voting. And with parties – we’ve seen the elites co-opt the parties and take them over (or at least, to a greater extent). They feared political parties which they didn’t control.

6

Z 06.17.15 at 7:57 pm

I am with Lynn, this is truly an excellent essay!

In other places, not obviously true. Maybe other places don’t matter.

Stephen, I don’t think that Gabriel Winant was going for a universal truth. The essay (and the whole seminar) discuss the Declaration of Independence and its contemporary relevance for American politics so whenever the context is implicit, it is probably 1770s America or today’s America.

7

Stephen 06.17.15 at 8:09 pm

Z: of course you’re right, the essay is about today’s America.
Doesn’t mean that it makes sense if applied to today’s non-America, a not totally unimportant area.

8

Stephen 06.17.15 at 8:33 pm

Z: I suppose what I’m trying to say is that, if you blame US-unique conditions for the present unsatisfactory condition of the US, you should not simultaneously (see para 1 of the OP) blame them for unsatisfactory conditions outside the US.

Mind you, anyone who bundles “the mass drownings in the Mediterranean, the rise of Golden Dawn, UKIP, and the National Front” into one whole may not have a very clear notion of events outside the US.

9

LFC 06.17.15 at 8:57 pm

Stephen:
Note that in the context of the preceding sentence it makes more sense:
As the value of democratic citizenship declines, for example, those who still have it behave more defensively, throwing up border walls and voting for neo-nationalists. The deportee prison, the mass drownings in the Mediterranean, the rise of Golden Dawn, UKIP, and the National Front….

The first sentence of the first paragraph is “citizenship is waning.” That’s what the paragraph is intended to argue/illustrate. Haven’t read the rest of the post carefully yet, but as a first paragraph it does not seem incoherent (one might, I suppose, disagree w the para’s thesis, though most CT readers will prob. agree).

10

mpowell 06.17.15 at 10:46 pm


Similarly with voting. And with parties – we’ve seen the elites co-opt the parties and take them over (or at least, to a greater extent). They feared political parties which they didn’t control.

So when a racist southern bloc in Congress composed of members of both parties held a lock on certain institutional veto points for several decades, that was better? People like to complain about conservatives who long for a golden past that never existed but when you start with ‘Citizenship is waning’… aren’t you making the same mistake?

11

Moz in Oz 06.18.15 at 1:43 am

That’s why it took another half-century from 1776 even to win full white male suffrage, to say nothing of actually universal suffrage—a chancy proposition, even today.

Has anyone ever attempted universal suffrage, anywhere? I thought everyone excluded the young, the incompetant, and made up a few other exclusions. Not to mention the dead, the undead, the unborn, the imaginary who have been variously included or excluded depending more on expediency rather than systematic examination. The US right now generally excludes non-citizens and convicted criminals, but includes some imaginary things (corporations, for example).

There have been some interesting discussions of suffrage on Public Address recently, for example “compulsory voting…“. I am a big fan of extending suffrage, at least to people. I’d prefer a definition like “anyone who can be imprisoned can vote, those who can’t be, can’t” or some kind of competancy-based test (“any meat puppet who can sucessfully fill out the voting paper can vote”). I am not even slightly convinced that imaginary things should be allowed to vote, or indeed to participate in the electoral process in general. Elections should be about people.

12

Moz in Oz 06.18.15 at 1:44 am

Sorry, I just found a funny thing I wrote:

If the “right” to vote has to be justified, those who voted for someone later convicted of a criminal offence should never be allowed to vote again. Obviously their judgement is poor and their vote compromises our democracy.

13

Bloix 06.18.15 at 2:34 am

#1 – “who favoured slavery. I can’t see what has changed.”

There is a certain sort of cynicism that is the twin brother of stupidity.

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.””

14

Rich Puchalsky 06.18.15 at 3:12 am

I have to agree with the part about “Citizenship is waning” being called into question by U.S. history. Maybe it’s supposed to be waning after a peak in the … late 70s? Early 80s? The reaction set in very quickly after the Civil Rights Movement, and before that, what was “citizenship”?

I’ll suggest another reading in keeping with what I’ve already written: “citizenship” is “waning” for two reasons. One of them is precisely because those who are citizens no longer get to rule over underclasses. The other is related: as the franchise becomes universal, it becomes more and more apparent that the individual franchisee can have no real effect on the social and political world except through the very means that aren’t universal: extreme wealth and high-powered political connections. People are revolting against a liberal ideal of citizenship not paradoxically because they have less of it, but because they have more of it, and it’s worthless.

15

cassander 06.18.15 at 2:33 pm

Where do you get this stuff?

>the police apparently have a free hand to kill and cage certain citizens, more or less as they see fit;

Damn those useless cops!
https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/06/17/baltimore-police-idle-black-lives-perish/

the fiscal state is crippled by the ability and willingness of its wealthier subjects to refuse taxation;

federal taxation in the US is roughly at the same place it’s been since the korean war. It’s up if you count state level taxes. OECD wide, taxes claim 30-50% of GDP, an enormous sum that has not diminished at all in recent years.

>voters must now share political space with corporations, their new legal equivalents in significant elements of democratic life.

must now share political space? Prior to 2002, corporations could donate as much money as they liked to political parties, but not candidates. Today, they can donate as much money as they like to “independent” groups, but not candidates. unless you think 2002-10 was some glorious golden age free from corporate influence, nothing has changed.

>In many places, especially poorer places like Greece and Detroit, unelected bureaucracies now explicitly overrule the will of electorates.

When electorates vote to spend money they don’t have, what exactly do you think should happen? Particularly when the officials those electorates elect go begging those unelected bureaucracies for more money?

> As the value of democratic citizenship declines, for example, those who still have it behave more defensively, throwing up border walls and voting for neo-nationalists.

excellent doublethink! who knew that efforts to defend citizenship were proof that the concept was dead?

>the quasi-colonial occupation of Ferguson do.

Have we really defined colonial occupation so broadly that the term now includes towns where the majority of the population simply doesn’t bother to vote?

I assume that you didn’t actually consider these cliches individually, that they’re just standard boilerplate. And I get it, we all use such language. But every time I write “to better adapt to the realities of the information age” or some such pablum, I at least feel guilty about it. This is just shameless.

16

Plume 06.18.15 at 2:40 pm

Cassander,

Americans are effectively taxed the least of all OECD nations. If you combine all levels, local, state and federal, we’re taxed the least. And our rich are taxed radically less. It’s not at all close. Effective taxation. The listed percentages are irrelevant.

Yes, you can say that as a percentage of GDP, the total has fluctuated roughly between 15% and 21% for a long time, but that overall percentage has always been among the lowest, or THE lowest, in the OECD.

17

Plume 06.18.15 at 2:43 pm

Speaking of occupations and police brutality, the Guardian is doing a count (and a series) on murders/killings by police in America.

The Counted.

It takes years for most countries to match the numbers our police kill in days.

18

cassander 06.18.15 at 5:18 pm

@plume

>Americans are effectively taxed the least of all OECD nations. If you combine all levels, local, state and federal, we’re taxed the least. And our rich are taxed radically less. It’s not at all close.

Even if this were true, and it isn’t, the US is not less taxed than in the past. And it is not taxed less progressively than in the past. In fact, it is taxed more progressively. so even if you are right that the US is some plutocratic hellhole compared to Europe, it’s still a plutocratic hellhole moving to the left, not the right, contrary to Gabriel Winant’s claims.

19

Z 06.18.15 at 5:39 pm

Allen suggests that it is in the ultimate willingness to face and embrace social antagonism that political empowerment lies.

I think this is completely correct.

Allen suggests that it is in the experience of impelled confrontation with the forces of political inequality that the dominated find their voice.

However, if this is really Allen’s thesis, then I disagree. Certainly, that experience is a necessary condition, but hardly a sufficient one. One needs in addition some form of solidarity, grounded in a shared belief (whether religious, national, ideologic is largely unimportant), uniting dominated but also relatively dominated swaths of society. Without this, the dominated remain powerless, largely by definition.

This process, though, has always been a collective one. Common experiences might only become articulable in the language of archaic tradition, but if they are not held in common, they will not be articulated at all.

Yes, precisely.

I imagine her students must have done the same her Chicago classroom, to achieve the result she describes. I hope she writes that book next.

Ha, but do her students (either the day and night ones or even within each group) have such a uniting belief? And what happens of citizenship if they don’t?

20

Plume 06.18.15 at 5:52 pm

Cassander,

I’ve seen various accounts of this, with a small range, but the highest of them puts us at 4th from the bottom. As in, from the least taxed in the OECD. I haven’t found any comparative study that puts American taxation above that. I’ve also seen them put us at the very bottom. That’s basically the range. From the least taxed to the fourth least taxed. For some reason, it’s very difficult to find consensus on this.

Just two other countries with lower taxation

and directly from OECD stats, historical charts:

http://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?DataSetCode=REV

As for being less taxed than in the past. Of course we are. Come on. This is common knowledge and easily found. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the highest bracket was never less than 70%. It was 91% for most of that time. Reagan knocked it down to 28%, and it eventually settled in at 35%, until Clinton raised it to 39.6%. Bush lowered it again, and Obama raised it again, but since he kept all of Bush’s tax cuts for everyone’s first 400K, increasing the income threshold, he effectively lowered taxes from Clinton levels.

Capital gains taxation is far lower than it used to be. Corporate taxes were in the 52% range until Reagan. And we have far more tax credits, subsidies and loopholes now than ever before, including the carried interest monstrosity.

Taxation, especially for rich Americans, is near record lows and far, far lower than it was from the 1930s until Reagan. Radically so compared with the presidencies of FDR, Truman, Ike and Kennedy. Johnson lowered it to 70% but also cut loopholes. Corporate tax was 52% for him and capital gains twice what it is now.

21

cassander 06.18.15 at 6:09 pm

>I’ve seen various accounts of this, with a small range, but the highest of them puts us at 4th from the bottom.

I was unclear. the US is less taxed that most OECD countries, though the gap narrows considerably if you include tax expenditures. But while the US is taxed less, it is taxed more progressively. on this, agreement is universal. the US has a less generous welfare state that is largely paid for by the rich. the european states have more generous systems paid for by everyone. the difference between american and european levels of taxation is largely made up by lower taxes on those not in the top 20-40%.

>As for being less taxed than in the past. Of course we are. Come on. This is common knowledge and easily found.

common knowledge and wrong. Reagan made lots of changes to the code, but the net result was largely revenue neutral or a slight decrease. the pre-86 code had even more deductions and exemptions than the modern which mitigated the effect of its high marginal rates. for example, today, we have the mortgage interest deduction. prior to 86, all interest paid was deductible, because when the code was originally written in 1913, it was assumed that interest payments were business expenses. Taxes from 1950 to 80 averaged about 17.5% of GDP, the average from 80-2010 was the same.

>And we have far more tax credits, subsidies and loopholes now than ever before, including the carried interest monstrosity.

no, we don’t: http://www.amazon.com/Showdown-Gucci-Gulch-Alan-Murray/dp/0394758110

>Taxation, especially for rich Americans, is near record lows and far, far lower than it was from the 1930s until Reagan.

I just showed you the CBO saying exactly the opposite of this. in 1979 the richest 20% made 45% of income and paid 55% of taxes. today, the figures are 52% and 70%. and those taxes are about 17.5% of GDP, exactly the average since the korean war.

22

Plume 06.18.15 at 6:31 pm

Cassander,

Wrong. The rich in America pay far, far less in taxes than they did in the era I mentioned. It’s not close. The rich in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s paid in the 55% range effectively. Today, it’s in the 20-30% range. And for the super-rich, it’s even lower. Romney was a good example when he deigned to provide one tax return which had him paying 14% on 15 million.

That doesn’t happen in those earlier eras. Ever.

23

cassander 06.18.15 at 8:22 pm

@Plume

>The rich in America pay far, far less in taxes than they did in the era I mentioned.

You’ve presented no evidence for this claim. the CBO, by contrast, says that in 1979, when the top rate was still 70% and the tax code largely unchanged from the Johnson years, the rich paid less.

>That doesn’t happen in those earlier eras. Ever.

It happened all the time, which you’d know if you’d bothered to read anything about the 1986 tax reform. But why sully your beautiful theories with anything as sordid as evidence, right?

24

Plume 06.18.15 at 9:30 pm

Cassander @23,

The CBO didn’t make the claim you said it made. Not even remotely close to it. You’re talking apples and oranges, not actual percentages of taxes paid per individuals, effectively and via official marginal rates. In both cases, they were staggeringly higher in the past than now. Are you honestly trying to suggest that a rich person during Ike’s presidency, with its 91% marginal rate and far, far fewer ways of massaging the tax code, paid less or the same as today’s wealthy?

Nonsense.

Prior to Reagan, rich individuals most certainly paid radically higher percentages of their income in taxes — both from salaries and especially capital gains. No one who knows anything about tax history denies this.

The evidence is mountainous to support what I said about taxes. It doesn’t exist to support your fairy tale about the poor, persecuted rich.

25

Plume 06.18.15 at 9:35 pm

26

Plume 06.18.15 at 9:40 pm

And another handy tool for this.

http://qz.com/74271/income-tax-rates-since-1913/

You can pick an income and see the marginal and effective rates per year.

27

Plume 06.18.15 at 10:22 pm

And last but not least, Cassander,

It’s disingenuous of you to cite the 1986 tax reform act. First of all, it’s six years into Reagan’s term. Second, he was forced into it because of his early slashing of taxes for the rich, which led to massive, record deficits. He had to raise taxes and fix some loopholes. He actually ended up raising them 11 times after his initial corruption on behalf of billionaires. But even then, the rich still paid, effectively, far less than they did under the presidents I mentioned.

Also, the issue here is what individuals pay. Show me the data that says an individual, Joey Richguy, pays more now than his peer 40, 50, 60 years ago. You can’t. It’s sophistry and deflection to try to spin cumulative totals of tax burdens, primarily because of the radical change in inequality over the last forty years. Naturally, cumulative tax burdens for the upper strata will go up when they hoover up ever larger percentages of total income.

Stick with apples to apples. One rich person then and now. Compare, etc. What did/do individuals pay as an effective rate?

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cassander 06.18.15 at 11:24 pm

>Are you honestly trying to suggest that a rich person during Ike’s presidency, with its 91% marginal rate and far, far fewer ways of massaging the tax code, paid less or the same as today’s wealthy?

I have repeatedly explained that deductions in the past were larger, not smaller. I’ve linked you to books on the subject. Repeating falsehoods does not make them true, plume. Rich people under the 70% rate paid a lower share of taxes relative to their income than they do today under a 40% rate. That is not a suggestion, that’s hard mathematical fact straight from IRS data.

>You can pick an income and see the marginal and effective rates per year.

no, you can’t, because you aren’t looking at deductions.

>It’s disingenuous of you to cite the 1986 tax reform act.

no, it’s disingenuous of you to ignore it.

>First of all, it’s six years into Reagan’s term.

why does that matter?

>Second, he was forced into it because of his early slashing of taxes for the rich, which led to massive, record deficits.

since the 86 reform was explicitly designed to be revenue neutral, no he wasn’t. You would know this if you’d read anything about the period. but let’s say you were right, reagan cut too deeply and had to raise more money. how does that have any bearing on the claim I made, that taxes haven’t gone down? I suppose you could claim that they went down from 82-86 and then back up again (they didn’t), but so what? I have always talked about the net effect of all of reagan’s tax changes.

>But even then, the rich still paid, effectively, far less than they did under the presidents I mentioned.

the CBO says they didn’t. but I’m sure you know better.

> Show me the data that says an individual, Joey Richguy, pays more now than his peer 40, 50, 60 years ago.

I did. You ignored it in favor of talking about marginal rates that are meaningless without talking about deductions. this is particularly rich while talking about the income tax, since the top 20% pays a staggering 92% of that. It’s almost mathematically impossible for the income tax to be more progressive than it is today, but you claim that it was not just a little bit more so, but massively so.

>It’s sophistry and deflection to try to spin cumulative totals of tax burdens, primarily because of the radical change in inequality over the last forty year

It would be, which is why I didn’t do it. I specifically mentioned the wealth distribution, which frankly has changed a lot less than you act. The top 1%’s share has grown dramatically, true, but mostly at the expense of the rest of the top 20%. overall, the richest 20%’s share has grown from 45% to 52%, hardly earth shattering. meanwhile their share of taxes has grown from 55% to 70%. And that is all taxes, including capital gains, another red herring you keep throwing out. Look, I know that you treasure your image of yourself as boldly fighting back against the ever victorious forces of reaction, but in this case the fable you’ve told yourself is mathematically falsifiable.

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Plume 06.19.15 at 12:12 am

Cassander @28,

You have repeated the claim about larger deductions in past years, but you never provided evidence for it. Because you can’t. It’s not at all true.

You linked to one book, which proves nothing. I don’t know what the book says. You didn’t even offer a quote from it. Sorry, no dice. Again, you’ve failed to support your absurd contention regarding taxes.

And this:

Rich people under the 70% rate paid a lower share of taxes relative to their income than they do today under a 40% rate. That is not a suggestion, that’s hard mathematical fact straight from IRS data.

No. There is absolutely zero data supporting this contention, and it defies common sense and mathematics. You haven’t presented it, and you can’t. It doesn’t exist. Remember, we’re talking about individual tax payers. Their individual returns. Their actual tax payments. How one rich individual back then compares to one rich individual now. They paid a far, far higher percentage of their income back then. It’s not at all close, and I provided the supporting evidence above.

Again, please present evidence that proves that someone in the highest tax bracket in 1940, say, paid less in taxes as a percentage than a person in the highest tax bracket pays now. Try after Johnson lowered the rate to 70% as well. Try it anywhere between 1933 and 1979, say. In no case will you be able to find persons at the top tax bracket paying a lower percentage in taxes than they do today. And I’m talking again about actual tax payments, on the individual level.

Your figures for inequality are incorrect as well. The massive rise in income inequality for the top 1% didn’t come at the expense of the top 20%. It came at the expense of the bottom 60%, primarily. As this chart shows, the second, third and fourth quintile appear to have the worst growth.

Income changes by income group.

And you can add this to the list of regressive taxation. Notice how much less the rich pay as a percentage than the middle class or the working poor:

Payroll taxation

30

cassander 06.19.15 at 3:10 am

>You have repeated the claim about larger deductions in past years, but you never provided evidence for it. Because you can’t. It’s not at all true. I don’t know what the book says. You didn’t even offer a quote from it.

Your refusal to read evidence is not my refusal to provide it. I’m sorry if the truth is too complicated to fit into convenient sound bites.

> Remember, we’re talking about individual tax payers. Their individual returns.

No, we aren’t. Not me, and not you. We are talking about the average rates paid by different swathes of people. I have explained why your preferred metrics are inaccurate. you have responded by saying “nu-uh” and repeating your same argument.

>As this chart shows, the second, third and fourth quintile appear to have the worst growth.

which does not prove your point.

>And you can add this to the list of regressive taxation. Notice how much less the rich pay as a percentage than the middle class or the working poor:

I don’t have to, because the figures I quoted include all federal taxes, not just the ones cherry picked to make my argument look good. Those figures are as irrelevant as quoting just the income tax figures.

31

dax 06.19.15 at 11:20 am

@plame. Yes marginal rates are much lower. But that doesn’t mean that the taxes paid by individuals are lower. For instance the marginal rates you mention don’t include taxes on capital gains. It doesn’t include estate taxes. It doesn’t include deductions. There’s a whole pie out there, and to concentrate exclusively on marginal rates doesn’t get you to where you want to go. You need is to look at the total income (in the large sense, so including capital gains) of the top x%, the total taxes paid by these same, in years y and z. I believe you’re right, and I believe the data is there (although I don’t know where), but to reason just from marginal rates won’t get you there.

32

Plume 06.19.15 at 1:23 pm

Cassander,

No. Nowhere have you provided evidence that deductions were greater in the past. They don’t exist in any of your posts, and everyone here can see that.

Why can’t you?

Yes. I’m talking about the percentage paid by individual taxpayers, then versus now. If you’re talking about overall percentages paid by the highest strata, then you’re playing silly games, completely irrelevant games, massaging stats to try to make your absurd point. It’s pure sophistry of the worst kind, again, because when the concentration of money skyrockets — as it has — so, too, will the concentration of tax burdens. The only way to truly prove your original nonsensical point is to show that a rich individual today pays more in taxes today, as a percentage of their income, than a rich individual in the past.

You haven’t done that, because we both know you can’t. We both know full well that the actual tax burden for the rich in America has been slashed drastically from Reagan on. We both know full well that at worst, a rich person today pays the IRS half as much as they did under FDR, Truman, Ike and Kennedy, and no worse than 60% of what they paid under Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter. From Reagan on, including today, no rich person comes close to what they paid in taxes prior to Reagan. It’s. Not. Close.

All the rest is just you trying desperately and unsuccessfully to muddy the waters and escape reality.

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Plume 06.19.15 at 1:25 pm

Dax @31,

Capital gains taxes were far higher then as well. Reagan slashed them. Clinton cut them too. Estate taxes were far higher before, with a much lower threshold, and the GOP is trying its best to eliminate them altogether. Corporate taxes were far higher. They were 52% versus 35%. I’ve taken all of that into account.

34

Anarcissie 06.19.15 at 2:44 pm

It is vacuous to argue about taxes. Anyone can look around and observe the general changes in relative income, wealth, and power over time. The details of the elaborate games played around this matter can be interesting, but they don’t change the overall facts.

In regard to the OP, I too would like to see the second book which Mr. Winant imagines. After people have been awakened to the possibilities of political agency, what do they do? Is the revolution about to emerge? If not, why not, given the advertised potency of the Declaration?

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cassander 06.19.15 at 7:31 pm

>Yes. I’m talking about the percentage paid by individual taxpayers, then versus now.

You keep mentioning them, but you have cited no figures about them beyond marginal rates, which are meaningless.

>No. Nowhere have you provided evidence that deductions were greater in the past. They don’t exist in any of your posts, and everyone here can see that.

I have explicitly mentioned some examples. here are many more, as well as the budget score they got back then. There are more in Gucci Gulch.

>Capital gains taxes were far higher then as well. Reagan slashed them.

No, he didn’t.

Will you continue to cling to your demonstrably wrong facts?

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John Quiggin 06.21.15 at 7:04 am

Going back to the OP, the position of the Founders (at least the Southern slaveholders who prevailed over genuine democrats like Franklin and Paine) is a simple restatement of the position of Locke, also the owner of American slaves, who wrote both the Treatises on Government and the Constitution of the Carolinas (enshrining the absolute power of slaveowners) almost a century earlier.

Locke’s famous denunciation of slavery refers to the “enslavement” inherent in submitting to the absolutist government of the Stuarts. When he comes to actual slavery, he repeats the standard justification of slavery as an extension of the natural state of war.

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