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Massive Income Inequality

Robert La Follette

I received an email from Bernie Sanders today. Well, from his campaign. I receive at least one each day, which is very persistent, given that my donations to his campaign amounts to $40. But I’m a fan nonetheless, as anyone who reads what I write must know.

Bernie’s message this time (besides a donation request) was to tell me that “I am introducing the Loan Shark Prevention Act in the Senate. This plan will cap credit card interest rates at 15 percent so that we can stop financial institutions from extorting the American people.” This seemed a perfectly good idea. As Bernie said, some people are paying 30% on their cards, and that’s a lot, considering that banks are paying around 2.5% for certificates of deposit. On the other hand, it certainly didn’t sound radical, unlike some of the ideas launched in past elections.

Consider Robert La Follette (June 14, 1855 – June 18, 1925), “an American lawyer and politician. He represented Wisconsin in both chambers of Congress and served as the Governor of Wisconsin. A Republican for most of his career, he ran for President of the United States as the nominee of his own Progressive Party in the 1924 presidential election. Historian John D. Buenker describes La Follette as "the most celebrated figure in Wisconsin history."

Can you imagine any candidate today – including Bernie Sanders – calling for a national referendum before a president could declare war?

Yes, he was a Republican. But a Republican so radically liberal that people these days might find it hard to imagine he really existed. In the 1924 election, he abandoned the Republican party and helped to start the Progressive Party. His opponents, Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis, were both corporate conservatives. La Follette’s candidacy was endorsed by the Socialist Party. His “platform was based on many of the issues that he had been campaigning on throughout his political career. He called for government ownership of the railroads and electric utilities, cheap credit for farmers, the outlawing of child labor, stronger laws to help labor unions, more protection of civil liberties, an end to American imperialism in Latin America, and a referendum before any president could again lead the nation into war.”

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Can you imagine any candidate today – including Bernie Sanders – calling for a national referendum before a president could declare war? Or calling for government ownership of a large segment of the economy? Or calling American foreign policy in Latin America “imperialism”? Let alone a man who had been elected to Congress and a governorship. Remember, too, that this happened during Prohibition, surely one of the more conservative ideas ever put into law in America. We’ve staggered a long way downhill when the ideas coming from a Republican politician 95 years ago appear radical. La Follette got 16.6 percent of the national vote and won his home state of Wisconsin, as well as coming in second in 11 other states.

What has happened to the Republican Party? Trump would dump on the idea of taking government ownership of railroads and electric companies. But he should remember that the Republican Party enacted the Homestead Act of 1862, “one of the most important pieces of Legislation in the history of the United States. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln after the secession of southern states, this Act turned over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens. 270 millions acres, or 10% of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this act.” This was probably the most socialist law ever passed in the United States. Can you imagine someone today saying that we should give away federal land and not being called a socialist? (Of course, the government gives $20 billion annual to the fossil fuel industry. But that’s not socialism (??))

So let us celebrate the Republicans of Lincoln’s time for their socialism. And let’s stop calling transfers of money or property from the government to individuals “socialism.” If money needs to be transferred, it should be done. Giving money to corporations should not be allowed while transfers to impoverished individuals are denied. Let us consider why we are doing things and feel free to act when it will better our society.

michael hertz

Michael T. Hertz