The Tax-Free American Aristocracy
PARIS — The Republican vision for America’s future keeps popping up in old movies.
My latest flash of GOP déjà vu came unexpectedly, while I feasted with friends in a tiny Italian village. As we ate, the television unspooled a 1955 German movie dubbed in Italian. The only face I recognized was Romy Schneider as the title character, “Sissi,” who was — as best I could guess — princess of Austro-Hungary. I tried to ignore the TV. But the sheer spectacle, in vibrant, tear-inducing Agfacolor, kept pulling me back into the charming, although completely incomprehensible life story of the woman I later learned was Elizabeth, Empress of Austro-Hungary from 1854-1898.
The film, “Sissi,” lacks two elements whose absence works together to attain a sort of transcendent tedium rarely seen in non-German cinema. The film, as far as I could tell, has no dramatic tension. Its shimmering characters float through velvet-draped rooms in a silken castle atop an inaccessible mountain. They are beautifully, elegantly, opulently oblivious to any events that might be going on in the outside world— which is the movie’s other absent element. The universe is a sound stage steeped in luxury.
In “Sissi,” the richest .0001 percent of the people in the empire have no physical or social contact with the subjects they’re supposed to be in charge of, except for a handful of blank-faced servants who rush off-camera as quickly as their legs can carry them.
Were there poor people in Austro-Hungary in the19th century? Was there hunger? Was almost everyone illiterate? Was there injustice? Did as many as half of newborns die before reaching the age of three? Did the royal family of Franz-Joseph tax the poor, and squeeze tradesmen, to underwrite their masked balls, their boar hunts and their psychosomatic ailments? Was Austro-Hungary the corrupt relic of Europe’s parasitic feudal past? Was Austro-Hungary, in fact, the reactionary cesspool of incestuous aristocracy and lese majesté that triggered World War I, annihilating a generation of young men and spawning the bad seed that became Adolf Hitler?
Well, probably. But who knows? From this movie, you couldn’t get a clue that there was carbon-based life anywhere in Austro-Hungary outside the castle — where every room was pretty and everyone was happy. And why shouldn’t they be happy? These folks had so much money and power that they never had to think about money. They were so high up the mountain, in the upper rooms of the tallest building in the empire that, even if they looked out and saw ordinary people, those people seemed like ants.
As I watched director Ernst Marischka’s idyll of good-old-days Austro-Hungary, it occurred to me that my very own countrymen have been working tirelessly, over the past 30 years, to turn America into the same movie. Indeed, Republican progress toward re-creating the court of Franz-Joseph in the land of the free is outright awesome. Although the U.S. has never really been a model of financial equality, we are now the second least-equal democracy on earth, just behind Switzerland. We stand on the brink of creating our very own crowned and castled upper crust, suitable for filming.
In the last 30 years, tax policy and spending priorities have made America a little more Austro-Hungarian every day. Our median household wealth, for instance, has dropped 36 percent just since 2007. In other words, most of us have lost a third of what we had just four years ago! Sixty percent of American households earn less than they earned in 1979, the year before Ronald Reagan (the Franz-Joseph of the GOP) told us it was “morning in America.” Today, more than 24 percent of U.S. households have no marketable assets. In other words, a quarter of us own, literally, nothing. This is the highest percentage ever recorded. Three decades of upward wealth redistribution, promoted by Republicans and enabled by Democrats, is creating a sea of silent peasants. We wash up against but never disturb the sound stage where Romy Schneider floats from ballroom to throne-room in organdy and petticoats, and has babies who magically appear without requiring her to even drop her lace knickers or suffer through childbirth.
Of course, if the future consigns most of us to peasanthood, a few of us will have to be the Romy Schneiders. So far, this is working out real good, too. Between 2006 and 2007, average income for the 400 richest Americans soared 31 percent — in one year! — from $263 million to $345 million. This was before Congress extended the Bush tax cuts for the aristocracy and showered them with even more welfare.
And those top 400 — the ones who can afford to build castles so high up that all the rest of us seem like ants —are due for another big windfall, as soon as the Republican Congress zeroes out the estate tax. This tax cut will only serve six-tenths of one percent of Americans, but — in a direct handout from us peasants to Romy Schneider — it will upwardly redistribute $100 billion a year.
Today’s debt-ceiling battle represents a possible breakthrough in the crusade to enrich the uber-rich and disenfranchise the never-franchised. A GOP victory might finally turn our underloved Top 400 silver-spooners into a glistening court full of inbred royals and waltzing dandies, reminiscent of Sissi, Franz-Joseph, and Strauss’s Vienna.
Picture it! When we see one of our new aristocrats pass in a limousine, tossing a jujube out the window for our children to fight over, we’ll know that our taxes went directly to paying for those solid-gold bumpers and that $24-a-quart gas.
And when one of our princesses appears on TV — in designer gown and diamond-hung décolletage — to generously bestow a month’s supply of day-old bread on the soup kitchen where we eat every day, we’ll know that dazzling lady would not have that perfect nose and those perky snow-white breasts if not for our sacrifices.
Best of all, whenever we consider the far-distant lives of our tax-free American aristocracy — whose villas, tennis courts and airstrips will be, of necessity, in places beyond America— we’ll know they know nothing of us, nor will they be troubled by anyone else’s troubles. We’ll be consoled with the assurance that these iconic creatures have no idea of the deprivation — from sea to shining sea — that makes conceivable a handful of lives lived without dramatic tension.