On making America great again

To the editor:

Well, another International Day of Older Persons (Oct. 1) has come and gone, the last one before I soon entered my 80th year. Mine has been a generally happy and blessed personal life. But, with each passing year, my despair over the country I love continues to deepen. There are many serious problems facing the United States as it struggles to confront political dysfunction, societal conflicts, environmental disruption, technological surprises and international challenges. These prompt geezers like me to reflect on where we may have gone wrong over the past decades. Clearly, there have been many bad choices in selecting the paths we have followed; finding the right way forward will not be easy.

When I think back to the years of my youth, I remember a far more coherent society characterized by high levels of trust in government and in fellow citizens. To be sure, these recollections come from a white male largely insulated from racial and gender discrimination. Nevertheless, the sense of the common good was far more characteristic than it is today. As I reflect on earlier years, I find myself asking whether there are lessons to be learned from the social and political practices from an earlier era in order to identify the policy tools for creating a stronger and healthier American society in the 21st Century. A recent discussion by two economists suggests one possibility.

In their exploration into “The Rise of Income and Wealth Inequality in America,” Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman document how serious economic inequality in the U.S. has become. To be sure, the authors are not alone in making the case, and the academic paper in which the findings are reported may be considerably more technical than the average reader might wish to follow. But, the analysis shows that during the 1946-1980 period, the years of my youth, income growth was evenly distributed among all income groups. By contrast, from 1980 to 2021, the growth in incomes diverged widely: the bottom income groups experienced low growth, the middle classes saw mediocre growth, while upper-income groups saw explosive growth, as can be seen in the remarkable following graphic

In addition, during the latter period, tax policies changed in ways that favored those whose incomes made the astonishing gains noted above. As the following figure shows, the progressive tax policies in the post WWII decades, during which the top income earners faced much higher tax rates gave way to tax policies which reduced the tax obligations of the wealthy significantly.

Lest I not be misunderstood, I recognize that some degree of inequality is inevitable and indeed desirable in a vibrant, technologically progressive, capitalist society. I also recognize that unraveling the many causes of inequality is no simple task. Nevertheless, I suspect that our current high level of inequality serves as a telling indicator of the range of complex societal problems that now threaten our future. While taking on the inequality problem is not a shortcut to curing the many ills which afflict us as a society, the experience of the earlier post-World War II era suggests that greater equality in the growth of wealth, and fairer taxation, contribute to a society with a stronger sense of common purpose. As we began to face new election cycles, American citizens should be asking themselves whether they wish to continue to live in a society of such manifest inequality.

Richard P. Suttmeier

Keene Valley


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today