Angle and the Dead Millionaires Society

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One morning in July, I met a man on Wells Avenue in Reno who’d lost his white-collar job. Now he was homeless, pushing a shopping cart. His skin was fair. He was angry, not a useful attribute for a panhandling pro.

“This town kicks you when you’re down,” he told me. “I’ve been robbed. I have diabetes. I need my meds. People think I shouldn’t have problems getting a job because I speak well. I have applications in everywhere.”

Nevada’s safety net is full of holes. Reno’s homeless shelter’s full. Tent City’s packed. At night, unlucky extras overflow onto Record Street sidewalks and the banks of the Truckee. They wrap in blankets like corpses.

Can we ignore this? Justify it? “Slacker bums who’ve made bad choices,” we say. “Not my problem.”

Maybe human kindness kicks in and we dole out $5. Bring grub to Tent City. Write a check to the Gospel Mission.

None of the above responses provides a long-term fix.

It’s time to think bigger, to public policies that control how wealth trickles down to needy humans. What our elected officials do in Reno, Carson City and Washington makes a difference on the street.

Example: Recent debate over estate taxes. For decades, the estates of the very wealthy (first $3.5 million was exempt in 2009) were taxed when those folks died. The Bush administration named 2010 a tax holiday for dead rich people, about a quarter of a percent of Americans. Election year. Surprise.

Taxation can be evaded through charitable contributions. But not this year. In news reports, Washington tax policy expert Roberton Williams estimates the 2010 estate tax holiday could mean $3 to $9 billion less for charities.

The estate tax repeal was a one-year deal. In 2011, revenue from dead millionaires will roll back in unless Congress makes the cut permanent. That’s around $1.3 trillion in lost revenue from 2012-2022, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Nevada Republican Sharron Angle, running for U.S. Senate against Harry Reid, wants to make estate tax breaks permanent for dead millionaires. Not a wise plan. Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 were supposed to help the economy. Now economists calculate that the cuts have cost the public $2.3 trillion in publicly held debt, according to a report in the New York Times.

Why didn’t tax cuts lead to economic development? The extremely wealthy save more money than they spend. Investment is risky. Wealth must increase, even if that means cutting jobs and worker benefits to force profits. Millionaires sit on their assets while our nation crumbles.

Private enterprise won’t solve joblessness alone. In the 1930s, F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created public programs to employ those looking for work. “Relief for the unemployed and poor” was the New Deal’s first goal. Without a for-profit corporate agenda, government programs can employ thousands. No giveaways. Paychecks in the hands of those willing to work.

Harry Reid has pledged to reinstate the estate tax. He supports extending unemployment benefits to out-of-work Nevadans. As Senate majority leader, Reid has the clout to create change.

Angle believes wrongly that relief for the poor begins with more cash in the hands of the rich. It’s not surprising that Angle gets support from the Tea Party, an organization funded by oil billionaires David and Charles Koch, and promoted by Rupert Murdoch, billionaire owner of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.

The Reid-Angle race for Nevada’s U.S. Senate seat is close. What happens on Nov. 2 matters to Nevada, the nation and the unluckiest among us.

I spotted shopping cart man a few weeks later, sitting on a riverside bench. His face was ruddy, peeling, bug-bitten. He stared at the river and didn’t respond to my greeting.