While the South Dakota Legislature tinkers with our fundamentally regressive sales tax and considers changes to our property tax that tie farmers' tax bill to their potential wealth rather than their real ability to pay, the mostly progressive and sensible federal income tax reaches its 100th anniversary.
South Dakota's Congresswoman wishes we could turn the clock back to before that onerous federal tax... because she longs for the days when her robber-baron donors could concentrate wealth unchecked by regulation or concern for the common good. Robert Reich reminds us that the ratification of the 16th Amendment, which authorized Uncle Sam to tax income, was a crowning achievement of the Progressive movement to protect economic opportunity and democracy for all Americans:
The 1880s and 1890s had been the Gilded Age, the time of robber barons, when a small number controlled almost all the nation’s wealth as well as our democracy, when poverty had risen to record levels, and when it looked as though the country was destined to become a moneyed aristocracy.
But almost without warning, progressives reversed the tide. Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901, pledging to break up the giant trusts and end the reign of the “malefactors of great wealth.” Laws were enacted protecting the public from impure foods and drugs, and from corrupt legislators [Robert Reich, "Today, an Anniversary of America's First Progressive Revolution," blog, 2013.02.03].
Reich sees obvious parallels to today's threats to democracy and hope for a proper restoration of power to the people:
A progressive backlash against concentrated wealth and power occurred a century ago in America. In the 1880s and 1890s such a movement seemed improbable if not impossible. Only idealists and dreamers thought the nation had the political will to reform itself, let alone enact a constitutional amendment of such importance — analogous, today, to an amendment reversing “Citizens United v. FEC” and limiting the flow of big money into politics.
But it did happen. And it will happen again.
Conservatives cloak their support for regressive taxes and concentration of wealth in false cries of duty and individual responsibility. Don't be fooled: the income tax is good for liberty and democracy.
Dang, now where's my W-2?