Saving scrap metal. Buying war bonds. Gathering around the radio for a fireside chat after a simple but nutritious Mom-cooked meal made from rationed ingredients. It can’t really have been much fun to work in a munitions plant while worried to a frazzle about your son or sweetheart overseas, but the domestic front of World War II has entered our collective memory as a safe and happy place full of solidarity, adventure, a sense of purpose and an egalitarian spirit. If you think about it, many of our favorite American stories have that poor-but-happy feel: Walden, Little Women, the Little House books, the Waltons, even Huckleberry Finn.
Real life is something else again. World War II was just about the last time Americans accepted the challenge of sacrifice in pursuit of common goals. As many have noted, Jimmy Carter was mocked and scorned as a cardigan-wearing wimp when he gave a fireside chat of his own in 1977, declaring the energy crisis "the moral equivalent of war" and calling for a massive panoply of conservation measures. No wonder George W. Bush urged us to go shopping after 9/11 and in the wake of the BP oil disaster, President Obama has suggested vacationing in the gulf region. Pundits love to summon us to tighten our belts—practically every week Tom Friedman calls for raising the federal gas tax—but they don’t have to get elected.
I would gladly pay higher taxes to prevent layoffs of teachers, cops and firemen; to improve our schools and universities; keep libraries open; expand public transportation; and put unemployed people to work repairing our tattered infrastructure, building public housing, maintaining our parks, staffing childcare centers. And what about that green technology Obama used to talk about—wind power, solar power, high-speed trains? There is no shortage of important work that needs to be done, and the costs of not doing it are very high. Unfortunately, the same leaders who fear asking us to sacrifice by paying higher taxes have no qualms about spending the money we already give them—and borrowing more—to pay for wars, war toys and prisons, while organizing the tax structure around the greed of corporations and the richest sliver of the population. The lavishing of treasure to pay for our militarized, increasingly unequal society is the sacrifice most of us are already making. Is it any wonder that people respond to calls for sacrifice with defensiveness and cynicism?
Adding to the difficulty of selling the public on sacrifice is that the salesman is usually a very rich and successful person who will barely feel the pinch of the policies he proposes. "Americans have become masters of ‘sacrifice avoidance,’ " intones Eliot Spitzer in his Slate column. This immensely wealthy man, who spent more than $100,000 on prostitutes and thereby cost New York its best shot in a generation at a functioning state government, tells me to read the Gettysburg Address and be inspired to "a greater sense of national purpose"?
Multimillionaires who argue for raising taxes should start by proposing taxes on themselves that would actually lower their standard of living. Until then, they’re not really sharing the sacrifice they want to impose on the rest of us.