Big Fish, Little Fish

Big Fish Eat Little Fish, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1557

This engraving done in the Netherlands in 1557 could have been etched as an editorial cartoon about the current Republican tax proposals in Congress. Look, says the man in the rowboat in the foreground to his young child, a few big fish make meat of the other fish. Above the drawing, in Latin, French, and Dutch, the legend: “Oppression of the poor. The rich oppress you with their power.”

The Republican tax plans, in both the House and Senate versions, aim to cut taxes on corporations and on personal incomes, with a strong slant in favor of the uppermost layers.  The rationale is the familiar trickle-down theory, which claims that making the rich even richer benefits the middle class and the poor because the rich will invest in new factories and create jobs.  Never mind the dismal historical record of this con job.  How do things stand at present?

The volume of corporate profits is at all time highs.  Corporations hold literally trillions of dollars in U.S. banks and in overseas tax havens.  If their cash hoards were not enough, they could easily borrow at historically low interest rates.  The wealth of the richest individuals is likewise unprecedented both in absolute volume and as a percentage of social wealth.  If investors had any intention of investing in new factories and other workplaces and creating jobs, no shortage of capital ties their hands.  On the contrary, they have more capital by far than they know what to do with.

There is no conceivable economic rationale for putting more funds, especially public funds, into their pockets.  So irrational is this proposal that a group of more than 400 American multimillionaires have published a statement denouncing it and suggesting that the taxes on their class should be raised, not cut.

But there is a targeted purpose, nevertheless.  A group of wealthy Republican donors  have served notice to Congressional Republicans that if their taxes don’t get cut, they’ll stop donating to Republican politicians.  “Get it passed,” one Republican congressman reports his donors told him, “or don’t ever call me again.”  There’s a quid pro quo here:  politicians pass tax cuts for the rich, the rich pass campaign donations to the politicians who passed the tax cut.  It’s “pay to play” on the national scale, with trillions of dollars on the table. Can democracy get any more venal than that?

What will corporations do with the portions of the tax cut they don’t kick back to the politicians?  Apart from buying back some of their own stock to raise their stock price, and in a few case raising dividends to their stockholders, they’ll use their slush fund to buy out and take over their competitors.  Big fish eating the little fish.  Just like in the Dutch engraving from the year 1557.

The message of the engraving might be seen as cynical or pessimistic.  It is not.  At the center of the image lies a giant fish, its eye wide in horror, as an armored man slices open its gut and a fisherman on a ladder plunges a trident into its back.  The engraving conjures up a day of reckoning when the rich are pulled out of the sea and forced to disgorge their holdings both front and back.  It’s a message of purpose, of justice, and of hope.

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