John Nichols on rainbow pusher Merle Hansen; Richard Kim on April’s “queer quake.”



Just in time for April 15, the folks at the

Institute for Policy Studies

have released a report that documents the stunning generation-long reversal of progressive tax policies and offers seven concrete proposals for restoring basic fairness to the IRS’s methods–and hundreds of billions in lost revenue to the Treasury. Their report,

Tax Day 2009

, notes that America’s most affluent 1 percent–taxpayers who averaged $1.3 million in income in 2006–saw a federal income tax rate of 22.8 percent. In 1986 that same cohort averaged $507,520 in inflation-adjusted income and paid 33.1 percent of it in taxes. Over the past twenty years, this elite 1 per- cent saw their share of the nation’s income double, from 11.3 percent to 22.1 percent, but their tax burden shrank by about one-third.

A look back at 1955 reveals an even starker transfer of wealth and responsibility. In 1955 the richest 400 reported an average of $12.3 million in income (in 2006 dollars) and paid 51.2 percent of it in taxes; in 2006 the top 400 averaged $263.3 million in income and paid a mere 17.2 percent of it in tax. In other words, the wealthiest 400 saw their incomes multiply by about a factor of twenty over the past fifty years but now pay taxes at a rate three times lower. If the IRS taxed the wealthiest 400 at the rate it did when

Dwight Eisenhower

was in the White House, the Treasury would collect $35.9 billion more.

Expand this pool to include those who make more than $2 million–about 139,000 taxpayers–and the boon to the government’s cash flow becomes formidable. In 1955 those who made more than $2 million (in 2006 dollars) were taxed at just over 49 percent; by 2006 their tax rate had fallen to just 23.2 percent. Restoring 1955’s tax rate would generate an additional $202 billion in revenue, or about 25 percent of President

Barack Obama

‘s stimulus package.

In addition to taxing the wealthiest Americans at a higher rate–50 percent for those who make over $2 million–the institute’s report includes six other proposals: reversing

George W. Bush

‘s tax cuts for the wealthy, a small tax on financial transactions like stock sales, eliminating tax preferences for capital gains and dividends, instituting a progressive estate tax, ending overseas tax havens and closing loopholes on huge executive-compensation packages.

Total increase to federal revenue: $450 billion. Having a fair tax system: priceless.


Merle Hansen

, who died on March 27, taught farmers to be progressives, and he taught progressives to fight for farmers. Arguing that the same forces of economic injustice that were shuttering factories in the nation’s cities were forcing farmers off the land, Hansen convinced the

Rev. Jesse Jackson

to take his 1984 presidential campaign to the countryside and to paint rural Americans into the

Rainbow Coalition

. When Jackson’s almost 500 delegates–including a contingent of rural activists–arrived at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, Hansen seconded his candidate’s nomination with a reed-voiced expression of prairie populism the likes of which had not been heard since the passing of

William Jennings Bryan


It was a natural connection; a Nebraskan like Bryan, Hansen came of age among veterans of the Populist movement who forged the Farmers Holiday movement of the 1930s. Inspired by the success of organized farmers, Hansen embarked on a lifetime of activism, first as a backer of former Secretary of Agriculture

Henry Wallace

, then as an organizer for the National Farmers Union and, during the hard times in the 1970s and ’80s, with the proudly militant American Agriculture Movement and the North American Farm Alliance. Hansen’s commitment to building coalitions that crossed lines of race and region took him to Africa and Central America, where he forged alliances opposing globalization, which favored agribusiness rather than farmers and consumers. His legacy lives on in the work of the

National Family Farm Coalition

and the

Nebraska Farmers Union

, led by his son John.   JOHN NICHOLS


On April 3, when the

Iowa Supreme Court

unanimously struck down a law banning same-sex marriage, Republican Congressman

Steve King

warned that his state would become a “gay marriage Mecca.” He needn’t have worried. Just four days later, the Vermont Legislature passed a bill legalizing gay marriage, overriding Republican Governor

Jim Douglas

‘s veto, thanks in part to a timely switch by Democratic Representative

Jeff Young

, who had originally voted against the measure. That same day, the

Washington, DC, City Council

voted 12-0 to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

With April’s queer quake, the list of states that recognize same-sex marriages–what began in 2004 as a club of one, Massachusetts–now includes not just Vermont and Iowa but also Connecticut. New York, like DC, recognizes gay marriages from other states, and legislation there to legalize gay marriage outright has gained serious traction. California, which saw a flurry of gay nuptials last year, eagerly awaits its Supreme Court’s final word on the legality of Prop 8, the ballot initiative that ended the Golden State’s brief experiment with gay marriage; most gay activists predict a loss. But still, other victories loom on the horizon: New Jersey, Rhode Island, Maine, Minnesota and New Hampshire (where a same-sex marriage bill has already made it past the House) may soon join the gay team.

But what comes next? After these campaigns, the road for gay marriage advocates becomes much steeper. That’s because they’ll have to overturn twenty-six state constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage, support for which runs highest in the Deep South. According to stat-man

Nate Silver

, who correlated support for gay marriage bans with variables like church attendance and the presence of white evangelicals, states like Oklahoma, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi may not overturn their bans until 2024. Some gay activists are already analogizing this situation to the free state/slave state split–a melodramatic comparison, for sure, but one bolstered by an increasingly bifurcated geography of gay marriage laws. And looming over this schism is the question of federalism–will the US Supreme Court require same-sex marriages performed in one state to be recognized by all the states? It won’t take a Civil War to find out, just a long, expensive culture war.   RICHARD KIM

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