Five months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a radio address that has unfortunately faded into obscurity. Embedded within that 1942 speech, Roosevelt laid the ideological foundations for establishing a cap on the annual income that the wealthiest Americans should be allowed to earn, and which structurally comes at the expense of everyone else.
His argument was summed up in a single quote:
Indeed in these days, when every available dollar should go to the war effort, I do not think that any American citizen should have a net income in excess of $25,000 per year after payment of taxes.
The context is important here: America was in the middle of fighting World War II and still struggled with the lingering socioeconomic trauma of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s goal was to keep the cost of living down, and he advocated a number of measures to achieve this. In addition to establishing a cap on income, he also wanted to increase corporate taxes, establish price and rent ceilings, ration essential commodities and stabilize wages, among other things. The immediate objective was helping Americans economically survive the crises of global war and economic catastrophe, although as he made clear in his 1944 State of the Union address, he also wanted to lay the foundations for protecting Americans’ economic rights over the long term.
This brings us to 2020. Right now, America is facing the worst economic setback since the Great Depression, one that has exposed the structural flaws of capitalism in ways unimaginable mere months ago. While many of America’s problems were exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s incompetent governing, there are underlying systemic issues that would have existed regardless of who occupied the White House in 2020. Income inequality has gotten worse year after year. Global warming is presenting humanity with an impending existential calamity that will make the ongoing pandemic pale in comparison. And the ongoing economic setback is likely to lead to chronic unemployment for millions of people long after the “depression” phase of this crisis has subsided.
In other words: Between global warming and the pandemic, the depression and structural income inequality in general, it is clear that America lives in a state of existential crisis that impacts every citizen in ways analogous to the threats that existed during World War II. The question is, would Roosevelt’s proposed income cap — which, adjusted for inflation, would equal just under $400,000 today — be helpful in the modern era? And given its mainstream attention then, is it really so radical an idea?
Read the rest of Matthew Rozsa’s article here at Salon