“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Who would they affect?
There has been a lot of recent buzz about the idea of a "wealth tax" in the United States, particularly since Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York appeared on "60 Minutes" and laid out a plan that would tax the richest Americans at a rate as high as 70%, nearly doubling the current 37% top rate. Additionally, 2020 Democratic Presidental candidate and Massachusetts senator, Elizabeth Warren, is reportedly working with UC Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman to design a proposal to levy a wealth tax on Americans with fortunes over $50 million. While these numbers may seem difficult to grasp, the kinds of wealth taxes democrats are proposing are not only not as extreme as they sound, but already practiced successfully in other parts of the world.
Firstly, it's important to keep in mind that America operates on a progressive tax system, meaning, as Business Insider puts it, "as a person earns more and progresses through tax brackets, their tax rate increases for each level of income." So while many people balked at the idea of a 70% flat tax rate, Ocasio-Cortez clarified "Once you get to the tippy-tops, on your 10 millionth dollar, sometimes you see tax rates as high as 60% or 70%," she said. "That doesn't mean all $10 million are taxed at an extremely high rate. But it means that as you climb up this ladder, you should be contributing more." Essentially, the rich would not suddenly be destitute under this proposed plan; they would merely have to contribute an increasing amount as their fortune grew. So it wouldn't be the entirety of their $10 million fortune that would be taxed at 70%, but their 10 millionth dollar. While under Warren's proposal, the US would adopt a progressive wealth tax that would levy a 2 percent tax on fortunes worth more than $50 million, and a 3 percent tax on fortunes worth more than $1 billion, meaning billionaires would contribute amounts that are negligible in the context of their total fortune.
This would be similar to France's wealth tax policy, which is triggered at €1.3 million, but only the first €800,000 of this amount is tax free, and taxpayers pay between 0.5% and 1.5% on anything over this each year. This tax has worked successfully in France, despite it being applied to significantly lower amounts of wealth than Elizabeth Warren is proposing. Meanwhile, in Denmark, the highest tax bracket sees about 15% taxation, and citizens report great satisfaction in terms of quality of life and government services. In summary, wealth taxes are a simple and effective way to ensure that wealth does not become too heavily monopolized by a few people, while also ensuring that the poorest people are taken care of by the state.
But some don't see it that way, with many on the right reacting strongly to suggestions of an American wealth tax. House Republican whip Steve Scalise called Ocasio-Cortez's idea a "leftist fantasy program," while more moderate voices didn't react quite as strongly, but still suggested that while income tax laws definitely need to be reformed, a wealth tax is not the way to do it.
But to truly understand the argument, one has to compare what a wealth tax would mean to a real life billionaire, vs. what it would mean for the country. For example, with Warren's plan, only an approximate 75,000 families would be minorly affected, but the United States would earn an additional $2.75 trillion over a 10-year period. If you take the $57 billion fortune of Mark Zuckerberg, and apply this tax idea, he would only be taxed $1.7 billion, and then close to $0 in the following years if his fortune didn't continue to accumulate. For him, $1.7 billion is a small number that would in no way affect his quality of life. But if you think of the social services that would benefit from that $1.7 billion, you would undoubtedly see widespread effects improving the lives of the poorest Americans, making it difficult to argue that an American wealth tax would do anything but help the state of the nation.