On a Friday night last month, I moderated a debate in Manhattan about whether we should scrap capitalism. It was organized by the socialist magazine Jacobin; defending capitalism were editors from the libertarian publication Reason. Tickets for all available 450 seats sold out in a day. So Jacobin moved it to a venue that holds around twice as many. The extra tickets sold out in eight hours.
When I arrived, people were lined up for blocks; walking to the door, I felt like I was on the guest list at an underground nightclub. Most attendees appeared to be in their 20s and 30s, part of a generation that is uniquely suspicious of capitalism, a system most of their elders take for granted.
The anti-Communist Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation was alarmed to find in a recent survey that 44 percent of millennials would prefer to live in a socialist country, compared with 42 percent who want to live under capitalism. For older Americans, the collapse of communism made it seem as if there was no possible alternative to capitalism. But given the increasingly oligarchic nature of our economy, it’s not surprising that for many young people, capitalism looks like the god that failed.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the wretched tax bill passed by the Senate in the early hours of Saturday morning, which would make the rich richer and the poor poorer. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, the bill directs the largest tax cuts as a share of income to the top 5 percent of taxpayers. By 2027, taxes on the lowest earners would go up.
Millennials, a generation maligned as entitled whiners, would be particularly hard hit. As Ronald Brownstein argued in The Atlantic, the rich people who would benefit from the measures passed by the House and the Senate tend to be older (and whiter) than the population at large. Younger people would foot the bill, either through higher taxes, diminished public services or both. They stand to inherit an even more stratified society than the one they were born into.
Here’s one example. The Senate bill offers a tax break for parents whose children attend private school. But it cuts deductions for state and local taxes, which could make it harder to fund the public schools where the vast majority of millennials will send their kids.
There is no coherent economic rationale for what Republicans are doing. Academic economists are basically unanimous that the Republican tax plan would increase the United States’ deficit, which Republicans used to pretend to care about. With unemployment low, many experts say the economy doesn’t need a stimulus. The tax cuts are likely to increase the trade deficit, which President Donald Trump purportedly wants to reduce. Republicans often say they want to simplify the tax code, but as accountant Tony Nitti argues in Forbes, the tax bill would make much of it more complex.
How to explain this smash-and-grab legislative looting, which violates all principles of economic prudence? Part of it is simple greed, but there’s also an ideology at work, one that sees the rich as more productive and deserving than others. Louise Linton, wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, spelled it out on her Instagram feed in August, responding to an Oregon mother who had the audacity to criticize Linton’s use of a government plane: “Lololol. Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country?”
Lest you think that’s just the sputtering of a modern Marie-Antoinette with poor grammar, consider what Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told The Des Moines Register about the need to repeal the estate tax, which falls only on heirs of multimillionaires and billionaires. “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies,” he said. By this logic, Linton, or Trump’s children, are more socially useful than anyone irresponsible enough to live paycheck to paycheck.
Not to be outdone, the next day, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, argued that Congress still hasn’t reauthorized the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which he helped create and still claims to support, because “we don’t have money anymore.” He went on to rant against the poor: “I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves – won’t lift a finger – and expect the federal government to do everything.” It was unclear whether he was talking about the nearly 9 million children covered through CHIP or their parents.
After the fall of communism, capitalism came to seem like the modern world’s natural state, like the absence of ideology rather than an ideology itself. The Trump era is radicalizing because it makes the rotten morality behind our inequalities so manifest. It’s not just the occult magic of the market that’s enriching Ivanka Trump’s children while health insurance premiums soar and public school budgets wither. It’s the raw exercise of power by a tiny unaccountable minority that believes in its own superiority. You don’t have to want to abolish capitalism to understand why the prospect is tempting to a generation that’s being robbed.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for the New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @michelleinbklyn.