Uncommon Sense

April 23, 2021

Greed, Capitalism, and Fixing It

I will start by quoting myself:

The Achilles Heel of capitalism is that there is no limit to greed. (Me)

This is hardly a novel position. As evidence I offer:

“No bound is set on riches for men” (Solon)

“Money is like sea water: The more you drink, the thirstier you get.” (a Roman proverb)

“Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10)

The problem at the core of this problem is that wealth translates into political power. People with great wealth can use their wealth to buy political attention to their needs. Those needs always address their interests, the primary of which is maintaining and expanding their wealth.

So the big question is: “How do we fix this flaw” in the grand American experiment in self-governance? If greed results in the collapse of our society, as history shows that it will, how do we address it?

At first I was thinking of a bottom-up solution constructed of social pressures. One idea was that when people earn certain levels of wealth we would slap titles on them. Say, one a millionaire we would refer tot hem with the title of A Really Big Deal or Fat Cat. As their wealth increased with would come up with more and more disparaging titles that we would use publicly. Maybe at the ten million dollar wealth plateau, they would be Rich Assholes. At the Jeff Bezos level, maybe Filthy Rich Money-grubbing Obnoxious Asshole.

I have decided this won’t work as people have the attention spans of gnats nowadays and would be distracted by Brittany Spears news or something equally irrelevant, and stop following through.

There is a method that has worked for us and could work again and that is progressive taxation. During World War 2 the highest income tax bracket was close to 100%. Now, to clarify, that taxation rate was on earnings over $100,000 dollars when the average worker was making about $1885 per year (1942 figure). So, two points: this tax rate didn’t kick in until one had made $100,000 and only applied to the money earned after that $100,000 was earned. And $100,000 represented 53 times what the average worker made!

We generally craft tax brackets so there are small jumps in the tax rate between any two categories but that isn’t necessary. It could be 39% and then after $250,000 it could jump to 95%.

The consequences of doing this were made obvious when we had this system deployed. One consequence was that CEO salaries were about 20 time that of the average worker in their corporations instead of the 250-350 times we see now. And, instead of paying their CEOs ever more money, stock options, etc. They were treated with the trappings, or as they called them the perquisites, of their offices. They had lavishly decorated offices, with very expensive art work on the walls. They had company cars and trips on company airplanes, clothing budgets, and on and on. Many of these are now necessary to be declared as “income” for tax purposes, but they were not necessarily back then.

Of course to change the tax codes along these lines we would need to take back control of our Congress, but no matter what solution we come up with that task will be at the core, otherwise the wealth of the rich will result in laws undermining any system we set up.

And as part of the results of that “natural experiment” in economics that were our progressive tax rates after WW2, we found out that American corporations could be lead by leaders to become pre-eminent in the world without making 200 times or even 50 times, what their average worker made. CEOs have gamed the system to their benefit, not their corporations and not ours.

And, as you might not know, President Franklin Roosevelt brought the “captains of industry” and their ilk to the White House to strong arm them into accepting the high marginal tax rates with little to no protest using the scare of the Socialist Party of America, then one of the the largest socialist organizations in the world, and Labor Unions to make his point. They had to be given something otherwise labor chaos would result. (No business type likes labor chaos.).

Of course, priority one for the fat cats after WW2 was the destruction of the Socialist Party of America, which ceased operations on December 31, 1972 (and not because their goals had been met—Note another Socialist party rose from the ashes, in 1973, but it was and still is much smaller and almost entirely without political influence). And, as you probably know, union jobs in the US have shrunk from about a third in the 1950’s to around 7% today. This is due to a concerted effort on the part of the rich to de-fang labor unions, Our neighbor Canada still has the same level of union jobs as they had in the 1950’s, likewise about 33%, but they had no organized political effort to disempower their unions.


  1. All very true, of course. There were considerable advantages to society as a whole from having those kinds of tax rates. Especially when you consider that the way that kind of wealth is accumulated is generally through screwing over not just one’s employees but also the consumers buying the products, small investors and just about everyone else involved. With tax rates that high, there was less of an emphasis on “enhancing shareholder value”, CEO bonuses, etc, so that money was often ploughed back into the company in research and development of new products, improving efficiency, etc.

    Then, of course, there are the massive tax loopholes, ways of sheltering income, etc. The entire tax code in this country was devised primarily to allow the wealthy and large corporations to avoid taxes.


    Comment by grouchyfarmer — April 23, 2021 @ 10:51 pm | Reply

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