Maybe it's time for a new set of Fourth of July orations. Only at first blush is there silliness to the idea of the United States--the nation of the Minutemen, John and Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson--becoming a hereditary economic aristocracy. When you think about it, there is evidence for serious concern.
More than a decade ago, the United States passed France to have the highest inequality ratios of any major Western nation. More and more of the country's richest clans have been setting up family offices, captive trust companies and other devices to manage and entrench their swelling fortunes. The elimination of the inheritance tax being sought by the Bush Administration will only make that entrenchment easier.
Politically, we already have a dynasty at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: the first son ever to take the presidency just eight years after it was held by his father, with the same party label. This dynasticism also has its economic side: both Bushes, père et fils, having been closely involved with the rise of Enron, another first for a presidential family, more on which shortly.
If we lack an official House of Lords, there are Bushes, Tafts, Simons, Rockefellers, Gores, Kennedys and Bayhs out to create a kindred phenomenon. Laura Bush is the only wife of a 1996 or 2000 major-party presidential nominee who has not yet entertained seeking a US Senate seat in her own right. The duchesses of Clinton, Dole and Gore have already considered (or acted).
A soft, blurry kind of cultural corruption has all but muted discussion. Dynasty is no longer a bad word, and in the wake of this semantic revision, the inheritance tax supported by Presidents from Lincoln to FDR has been renamed the "death tax" by George II and may be heading toward extinction. Small-business men from Maine to San Diego are already dreaming of founding personal dynasties, built on lobsters-by-mail or Buick dealerships.
Progressive taxation--only a memory for most--died in the 1980s as regressive FICA taxes replaced income levies as the heaviest tax paid by a majority of American families. The First Amendment to the US Constitution, in turn, is not far from being twisted by the courts to include fat-cat political donations within the protection of free speech. Cynics might suggest that George Orwell set his book 1984 two decades too early.
But democracy is being eroded more by money and its power than by skilled semantics. For want of insights and data often unobtainable from the corporate media, the public opinion vital to US democracy has trouble remaining vigorous and informed. Many politicians are themselves part of the national economic elite, and others depend on that elite for campaign funding. History tells us that America overcame kindred problems in the Progressive era a century ago. The national will to do so again, however, is hardly clear.