Making the case for reforming an American dream

Posted Jan. 13, 2009, at 5:18 p.m.

The current financial crisis is a compelling case for reforming “an” American dream if not “the” American dream. Since the 1980s, the American dream seems to have moved to a focus on money and assets as “the end itself” rather than a means to a better society. This has led to numerous problems from difficulty regulating large business enterprise to fearing the consequences of a large enterprise failure — affecting the lives of millions of people.

I go back to my childhood and what I perceived then to be the focus of most people in my town and neighboring communities. The focus was to work hard and make a significant contribution to society while gaining some ground financially. The primary focus was on making a contribution to society, not just making a lot of money or amassing a collection of valuable assets.

We now have seen several financial disasters in recent years — the Enron failure seven years ago, promoting subprime mortgages to people who were not qualified to repay them, and now the massive failure of investment banks that bought large volumes of risky financial instruments. With a primary focus on money and assets, bad judgments often are made because the judger’s picture of possibilities is tilted toward success by visions of tremendous financial gain “if” things go well.

It is time to return America to a land where discipline prevails and financial gain takes a definite back seat to hard, honest work to move society forward not take it on a wild ride that one hopes will turn out well.

The ultimate question is how we do that.

I believe the fundamental starting point has to be making it unattractive to have large financial holdings and incomes. The American way of dealing with such matters is usually through taxes and fees levied on things we want to discourage and credits given for things we want to encourage.

Income taxes on personal incomes in excess of $250,000 should become much more progressive than they are today. The top percentage rate on taxable income above somewhere between $1 million and $20 million should be 60 percent to 80 percent to discourage people from having incomes that large. Today the rate is about 35 percent. Large incomes still would be legal, but only 40 percent to 20 percent of them would be retainable. A way of lessening the percentage levied as tax is to reduce deductions from gross income to get taxable income. This allows tuning tax policy to affect some enterprises more or less than others; whoever’s ox is gored is going to think the goring unfair, but perhaps the general population would prefer it to more cumbersome wealth regulation strategies.

Many highways and bridges in the U.S. were built with federal government help from the 1950s through the 1970s. Some now are 50 years old and nearing the end of the life span of concrete exposed to the elements. They will deteriorate more and more rapidly in the coming years and require maintenance and replacement. I would like to see this infrastructure continue for the benefit of myself and future U.S. citizens and visitors. Maintenance of infrastructure takes money and would be a good use for extra taxes on huge incomes, to distribute concentrated wealth for the betterment of all. The wealth came from lots of citizens in the first place over a period of time.

I believe America works much better with a more level playing field in terms of incomes. When Americans believe they are getting treated fairly, few tend to seek a special situation and privilege that benefits them, or to engage in illegal practices believing they can “get away with it” and are just as much entitled to the rewards as wealthy enterprises and individuals. This simplifies the governing process with fewer special rules and regulations that have to be enforced and monitored.

Our focus should be on hard work for the benefit of society with adequate financial gain, not just on making money. If the United States continues on its current path, I would not be surprised to see it no longer exist as an independent country beyond the mid-21st century.

Justin Poland grew up Athens, a rural farming community, and lives in Bangor.

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