(cross-posted to the daily kos)
When Democrats like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Max Baucus of Montana join Republicans (such as T.R. fan John McCain) by voting to repeal the Estate Tax in a time of war, as they are poised to do this week, I wonder what Teddy Roosevelt would say.
It was Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, after all, who introduced the idea of an inheritance tax in his speech The Man with the Muck-Rake, given exactly 100 years, one month, and eleven days ago today.
As TR told the people on April 14, 1906, "In Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress' you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake" who only looks down and rakes the vile and base that is beneath him, never looking up. "The men with the muck-rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward to the celestial crown above them, to the crown of worthy endeavor," TR said.
It was a time of sensationalist journalism, and polarized wealth. An "hourglass" economy, as it were. As TR denounced those in the press who raked nothing but muck, he also recognized the economic realities, and their political implications, of his day:
At this moment we are passing through a period of great unrest--social, political, and industrial unrest. It is of the utmost importance for our future that this should prove to be not the unrest of mere rebelliousness against life, of mere dissatisfaction with the inevitable inequality of conditions, but the unrest of a resolute and eager ambition to secure the betterment of the individual and the nation. So far as this movement of agitation throughout the country takes the form of a fierce discontent with evil, of a determination to punish the authors of evil, whether in industry or politics, the feeling is to be heartily welcomed as a sign of healthy life.
If, on the other hand, it turns into a mere crusade of appetite against appetite, of a contest between the brutal greed of the "have-nots" and the brutal greed of the "haves," then it has no significance for good, but only for evil. If it seeks to establish a line of cleavage, not along the line which divides good men from bad, but along that other line, running at right angles thereto, which divides those who are well off from those who are less well off, then it will be fraught with immeasurable harm to the body politic.
It is important to this people to grapple with the problems connected with the amassing of enormous fortunes, and the use of those fortunes, both corporate and individual, in business. We should discriminate in the sharpest way between fortunes well-won and fortunes ill-won; between those gained as an incident to performing great services to the community as a whole, and those gained in evil fashion by keeping just within the limits of mere law-honesty.
Of course no amount of charity in spending such fortunes in any way compensates for misconduct in making them. As a matter of personal conviction, and without pretending to discuss the details or formulate the system, I feel that we shall ultimately have to consider the adoption of some such scheme as that of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount either given in life or devised or bequeathed upon death to any individual--a tax so framed as to put it out of the power of the owner of one of these enormous fortunes to hand on more than a certain amount to any one individual; the tax, of course, to be imposed by the National and not the State Government.
Such taxation should, of course, be aimed merely at the inheritance or transmission in their entirety of those fortunes swollen beyond all healthy limits. Again, the National Government must in some form exercise supervision over corporations engaged in interstate business--and all large corporations are engaged in interstate business--whether by license or otherwise, so as to permit us to deal with the far-reaching evils of overcapitalization.
As you might imagine, such an idea did not sit well with the Wal-Mart dynasties of TR's day. In the April 16, 1906 version of the San Francisco Chroncile (yes two days before the greate quake and fire), there was this report:
PRESIDENT'S NEW IDEA CREATES A FUROR
Public Men Startled by the Suggestion of a Progressive Tax on All Inheritences.
PROPOSAL OF GREAT MOMENTOUS IMPORT
Roosevelt Could Not Have Caused Greater Astonishment Had He Proposed to Abandon Rate Legislation
Special Dispatch to the "Chronicle."
NEW YORK, April 15. -- A special to the Sun from Washington says President Roosevelt's suggestion of a progressive tax on inheritances, made in his speech about "Man With the Muck Rake," at the laying of the corner stone of the House of Representatives office building yesterday, has created a profound sensation among public men in Washington. It came with startling suddenness, and it is no exaggeration to say that those among the Nation's great ones, whose judgement and opinion are regarded as worthy of consideration, are bewildered over a proposal of such momentous import.
The present occupant of the White House has made many remarkable announcements and advocated policies that have caused conservative members of his own and other great political parties figuratively to gasp for breath, but he could not have caused greater astonishment, even to those who are prepared not to be surprised by anything he does, had he proposed abandoning railway legislation or suggested the removal of the National Capitol to some other part of the country.
Little else than his new propaganda was discussed by Senators, Representatives and other public men today. Could the comment of all of them be printed there would probably be considerable curtailment of the list of those who are welcome at the Executive offices.
Some Republican Senators who recalled that Eugene Debs had been nominated on a platform which advocated practically what the President suggested in his "Muck Rake" address were very bitter over Roosevelt's course, and made comments which will undoubtedly be greatly toned down if these Senators should undertake to utter them publicly.
A tax that was introduced to great furor and public debate one hundred years ago, could be quietly repealed in an under-the-radar Senate vote this week (it already passed in the House,) while local elections occupy the attention of americans who might care about this sort of thing.