The First Progressive Revolution

Exactly a century ago, on February 3, 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, authorizing a federal income tax. Congress turned it into a graduated tax, based on “capacity to pay.”

It was among the signal victories of the progressive movement—the first constitutional amendment in 40 years (the first 10 had been included in the Bill of Rights, the 11th and 12th in 1789 and 1804, and three others in consequence of the Civil War), reflecting a great political transformation in America.

The 1880s and 1890s had been the Gilded Age, the time of robber barons, when a small number controlled almost all the nation’s wealth as well as our democracy, when poverty had risen to record levels, and when it looked as though the country was destined to become a moneyed aristocracy.

But almost without warning, progressives reversed the tide. Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901, pledging to break up the giant trusts and end the reign of the “malefactors of great wealth.” Laws were enacted protecting the public from impure foods and drugs, and from corrupt legislators.

By 1909 Democrats and progressive Republicans had swept many state elections, subsequently establishing the 40-hour work week and other reforms that would later be the foundation stones for the New Deal. Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 presidential election.

A progressive backlash against concentrated wealth and power occurred a century ago in America. In the 1880s and 1890s such a movement seemed improbable, if not impossible. Only idealists and dreamers thought the nation had the political will to reform itself, let alone enact a constitutional amendment of such importance—analogous, today, to an amendment reversing Citizens United v. FEC and limiting the flow of big money into politics.

But it did happen. And it will happen again.


With all due respect, the assertion that "it will happen again" strikes me as an unsupported conclusion and more than a little wishful thinking.

If Professor Reich believes this to be so, he should present evidence to support his case.

If there's one thing that's clear, the manipulators, for want of a better word, learn from their mistakes and are in it for the long haul. Just like Reagan and his claque learned from the mistakes of Richard Nixon that lead to his near-impeachment and his eventual resignation (maintain "plausible deniability" and pardon anyone who has the potential of turning "state's evidence"), so have the fat cats who hold the true levers of power.

The 40-hour work week is a thing of the past with the colonization of the home and putative leisure time with computers, cell phones, whatsitpads, and all of the beeping and blinking gadgets that keep us tied to our workplace on a round the clock basis. The "progressive" tax is a bitter joke, rife as it is with loopholes, exemptions, and, where necessary, outright evasions.

I have a great deal of respect for Dr Reich (in my opinion, the wrong Rhodes Scholar got elected President in 1992) but in this case, I believe that sans further evidence, he is talking through his hat.

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