Throughout history, wealthy and successful members of societies have taken it upon themselves to provide sustained, mature guidance of their society’s future. That is, at particular times, these members used their power and position to enhance the prosperity and security of the entire nation, or group or city. Their actions rose above immediate desires and addressed long-term issues that were critical to the entire society’s well-being.
In societies where a leading group – the ruling group, the power elite, the aristocracy – can organize itself in this way, there can be rapid social progress that benefits everyone. For example, many historians believe that this kind of societal leap occurred in the Roman Republic during the third and fourth centuries B.C.E. when old social barriers were broken down and the small city-state grew rich and powerful. Leading citizens worked to ensure that growth led to greater prosperity and to advances in the political and civil liberties of the average person.
A similar period of growth, change, and equality occurred in the United States after World War II. Led by the New Deal Democratic Party, major corporations reached a relative truce in their conflicts over the fruits of productivity with U.S. workers and we enjoyed a period of relative equality – what economist Paul Krugman has called “The Great Compression.”
During that period, from 1946 through 1973, the great U.S. middle class was formed and was the focal point of political and economic developments. At first it included millions of white blue-collar workers; then, in the 1960s, the New Deal Democrats tried to expand its reach, using Great Society programs to bring people of color, the disabled, and seniors into the sweep of middle class prosperity. During that period of social purpose, giant corporations, corporate foundations, multi-national banks, and elite universities worked closely with the party, seeing themselves as guiding participants in an age of progress.
That was more than 50 years ago, and the idea of mature guidance, of leadership, among the wealthy residents of this country has flickered and gone out. Nowhere is this more evident than in the frantic haste with which the business community and the Republican Party are pursuing a giant tax cut. At a time when corporations are pulling in record profits and the top one percent of households have 39 percent of the nation’s wealth, who thinks that the wealthy and the powerful desperately need $1.5 trillion in tax cuts?
Elizabeth Warren points out that this selfish impulse turns its back on pressing social needs. We could use those dollars to reduce student loan debt, secure the social security trust fund, invest in infrastructure projects, and slow down global climate change.
In this light, the Trump tax cuts symbolize more than greed; they are an abdication of social leadership. The U.S. middle class and all other sectors of society need to seek new forms of leadership and develop new social principles that transcend the free market/business profits model that we have followed since the Reagan era. Our very survival depends on it.