Tax Rates and Obscene Displays of Privilege

Today Paul Krugman makes a simple but important point about the obscene displays of wealth and privilege so evident even during the Great Recession: it didn’t used to be that way a generation ago or even two (as evidenced in a Fortune profile of “top executives” in 1955), but it was if you look further back. Why? Well, tax rates went up and then down:

In celebrating America’s sober, modest business elite, Fortune described this sobriety and modesty as something new. It contrasted the modest houses and motorboats of 1955 with the mansions and yachts of an earlier generation. And why had the elite moved away from the ostentation of the past? Because it could no longer afford to live that way. The large yacht, Fortune tells us, “has foundered in the sea of progressive taxation.”

But that sea has since receded. Giant yachts and enormous houses have made a comeback. In fact, in places like Greenwich, Conn., some of the “outsize mansions” Fortune described as relics of the past have been replaced with even bigger mansions.

And there’s no mystery about what happened to the good-old days of elite restraint. Just follow the money. Extreme income inequality and low taxes at the top are back. For example, in 1955 the 400 highest-earning Americans paid more than half their incomes in federal taxes, but these days that figure is less than a fifth. And the return of lightly taxed great wealth has, inevitably, brought a return to Gilded Age ostentation.

Conservatives often present themselves as wanting a modest return to the tax policies of the Reagan administration or the cultural standards of the Eisenhower years. They’re actually promoting neither, but rather a return to the days before progressive taxes and social programs ruined everything, and being rich was made so much less fun.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.