Malcolm Gladwell: Taxes Were High and Life Was Just Fine

Mal­colm Glad­well, the best­selling author of The Tip­ping Point, Blink, and Out­liers, has lost some friends late­ly among geeks (term used lov­ing­ly, if not self-ref­er­en­tial­ly) and con­ser­v­a­tives. First came the sug­ges­tion that Twit­ter has­n’t made human change agents obso­lete. We still need MLKs and Gand­his to change the world. And then, speak­ing at The New York­er Fes­ti­val ear­li­er this month, Glad­well had to remind us of an incon­ve­nient his­tor­i­cal fact. Dur­ing the Eisen­how­er pres­i­den­cy, tax­es on the wealth­i­est Amer­i­cans peaked at 91% (more than dou­ble what they are today). And, even more galling, life in Amer­i­ca was just fine, even down­right good…

Thanks Mary for send­ing this our way. Always appre­ci­ate the good tips.

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Comments (9)
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  • Oschisms says:

    “life in Amer­i­ca was just fine, even down­right good…”

    Not if you were black.

  • Mike says:

    Good point, Oschisms.

    And it rais­es the ques­tion: Were the mid­dle and upper class­es in Amer­i­ca hap­py to sup­port a sharply pro­gres­sive tax struc­ture in the 1950s (before the Great Soci­ety) because they per­ceived that the ben­e­fits would accrue to their own eth­nic group?

  • Paula Hannah says:

    It was­n’t good if you were in any of the minor­i­ty groups, espe­cial­ly if you were black. Lynch­ing were not uncom­mon and the KKK was part of the social fab­ric of the south. Women were expect­ed to stay home, be qui­et and ‘fluff the nest’ for their hus­bands who had total con­trol of the finances. Girls went to col­lege to get their MRS’s. Every­one was fine, down­right good, if they stayed in their place and con­formed.

  • Bill Peschel says:

    It was also the post-war, post-Depres­sion peri­od, when con­sumer demand had been sup­pressed since the 1930s. Keep peo­ple from buy­ing hous­es, cars, radios, what­ev­er for a cou­ple of decades, why be sur­prised that you’d get an explo­sion of buy­ing which spreads mon­ey through­out the econ­o­my and result­ing in a man­u­fac­tur­ing and busi­ness expan­sion to meet it. Result: Good times (well, except for minori­ties, women and peo­ple wor­ried about the atom­ic bomb, Com­mu­nist expan­sion and oth­er small prob­lems).

    Jeeze, was Glad­well born yes­ter­day?

  • Drew says:

    I believe some are get­ting issues con­fused: Glad­well’s speak­ing to a very spe­cif­ic point here. Not Income Inequal­i­ty between dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the pop­u­la­tion, but between the very low­est earn­ers and the very high­est. As the high­est salaries have grad­u­al­ly reached stratos­pher­ic lev­els, that inequal­i­ty has increased. And since the argu­ment is usu­al­ly made that unhin­dered earn­ings are some­how “bet­ter” for one rea­son or anoth­er, I think it’s utter­ly valid and inter­est­ing to look back in his­to­ry in order to decide if it IS, indeed, bet­ter.

  • Mike says:

    I under­stand, Drew. But per­haps the two issues are not entire­ly sep­a­rate. In the 1950s, tax mon­ey did­n’t go toward pro­grams like Med­ic­aid and Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance. When the gov­ern­ment fund­ed the cre­ation of the Inter­state High­way Sys­tem, for exam­ple, peo­ple did­n’t see that as a “redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth.” Much of this cur­rent hatred toward gov­ern­ment stems from resent­ment over this redis­tri­b­u­tion, and when you con­sid­er the demo­graph­ics of the Tea Par­ty, for instance — over­whelm­ing­ly white — it’s fair to ask how much of that is tied to race. My hunch is: a lot.

    By the way, Wikipedia has an inter­est­ing table with a break­down of fed­er­al mar­gin­al income tax rates over the last cen­tu­ry. It seems Glad­well got his fig­ure a bit wrong. The high­est tax rate for the wealthy was actu­al­ly 94 per­cent at the end of World War II. The high­est rate in the 1950s was 92 per­cent. It’s inter­est­ing that, even after Kennedy low­ered tax­es in 1963, the high­est brack­et remained between 70 and 77 per­cent — right up until Rea­gan came along. (And do you remem­ber Rea­gan’s cam­paign rhetoric about “wel­fare queens?”)

  • Martin says:


    Inter­est­ing ide­al about racism being a big part of the dri­ve for peo­ple want­i­ng low tax­es now and where ok with high tax­es then (if the mon­ey only went to whites)

    I would say that back then peo­ple cared more about amer­i­ca and today we are more about self and that maybe a huge fac­tor but I think the issue may real­ly a mix of the fact that peo­ple don’t know that his­tor­i­cal­ly the rich­est amer­i­can are pay­ing pret­ty low tax­es and the fact that the top tax rate mix­es mil­lionares and the upper mid­dle class.

    The lat­er was some­thing done in the 80’s when they changed the tax code and drop a few tax bracets (all on the upper end) and I think it was planned by those who eco­nom­ic view is against tax­es because by tie-ing mid­dle class peo­ple with the rich you have a large group of peo­ple that will get upset when there is talk of rais­ing tax­es on them.

    Now the for­mer is a big fac­tor because peo­ple don’t even know that push­ing for high­er tax­es on the rich is some­thing that could be put on the table when talk­ing about this stuff.

  • Pat says:

    Anoth­er thing, much of this coun­try still actu­al­ly remem­bered the Depres­sion and they remem­bered WWII. The idea of the com­mon good was not as for­eign as it is today. They actu­al­ly knew that we were bet­ter off as a group work­ing togeth­er, great and small. Today, it is all “I’m in, start the car”. (And much of the growth was not the big projects but things like the GI Bill ben­e­fits for edu­ca­tion and home own­er­ship, and the expan­sion of our pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem par­tic­u­lar­ly for col­leges.)
    While I’m not deny­ing racism, it clear­ly exist­ed, I do think that it is a far greater fac­tor in our cur­rent cult of the indi­vid­ual, where peo­ple refuse to rec­og­nize the ben­e­fits they have accrued from gov­ern­ment ser­vices while deny­ing them to unde­serv­ing oth­ers. That brown, black, yel­low, female, gay per­son should­n’t get grants to go to col­lege because then they’ll be com­pet­ing with me for the fif­teen dol­lar an hour no ben­e­fit job at the BMW plant.

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