Sunday, May 22, 2022

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When things seemed fairer and better for most people


For decades I’ve thought of myself as pretty much a liberal. I favor empowerment of average people, the right of all individuals to decide their own value system, a living wage for working people, no discrimination in law and employment on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and other similar categories, and a progressive tax structure – you get the idea.

The nation, and the state, have come a long way toward those ends in some respects. Civil rights are surely in better shape now than decades ago, for example. The computer and the internet, for all their faults, have improved technology for everyone and increased the means of problem-solving.

But I’ve been thinking about conservatism. Not the kind of conservatism that discriminates. Instead, the kind of conservatism that seeks to preserve the good stuff in our society. The kind of conservatism that hearkens back to an earlier time, when things seemed fairer and better for most people. 

For me, that time is the early 1970s – 50 years ago. Using those years as the comparative base, I’m a conservative. Here’s why:


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Iowa was a national leader in education. Teachers who were educated at colleges and universities in Iowa had their pick of states in which to teach – they were hired immediately. The Iowa Legislature provided a relatively high percentage of the costs of Regents universities. It was a given that state tax dollars went to the public schools. All home-schooled students had to meet state educational standards. Teachers felt free to teach hard facts about American history as well as the aspects in which Americans took pride.

Wealthy Iowans paid a state income tax of over eight percent, and the state’s income tax structure was progressive – the well-to-do paid a higher percentage of their income in state income tax than did those struggling to stay above water financially.

Speaking of water, Iowa’s rivers and lakes weren’t pristine, but most of their contents remained relatively safe.

Voting in Iowa was an easy process, and absentee ballots were easy to obtain and return. County auditors handled the voting process with very few problems.



Our proud lead in education has vanished, with our student test scores now falling in the middle of the pack nationally. The Iowa Legislature has cut funding for the Regents universities, and state funding for K-12 schools falls woefully short of keeping up with inflation. State government is considering using state tax money for private school students. Iowa teachers are fearful of enlightening their students about the history of American racism. It’s growing increasingly difficult to fill vacant teaching positions.

State government has now adopted a flat 3.9 percent state income tax for all taxpayers, wiping out the principle of progressive taxation. When the new law fully kicks in after four years, the state’s annual revenues, now about $9 billion, will drop by $1.7 billion. Meanwhile important needs of Iowans, such as adequate education funding, state park upkeep, and public safety costs, will go unmet.

Hundreds of Iowa’s streams, rivers, and lakes are now significantly polluted because the state’s voluntary program to reduce agriculture-based nitrogen and phosphorus is failing to do its job. Iowa continues to contribute a large share of the pollutants that feed the Dead Zone just beyond the Mississippi River Delta off Louisiana.

New voting rules complicate the absentee voting process substantially, shortening the absentee ballot period, adding new requirements, and severely restricting who can return an absentee voter’s ballot to the auditor’s office. The new strictures were adopted despite almost no instances of voter fraud in Iowa.



Incomes of the nation’s wealthy were taxed at a marginal rate of 70 percent, and big corporations paid a 48 percent tax rate. 

News outlets generally deserved and received respect, and most of the U.S. population was tuned into the same information stream. People and legislators made their policy decisions on the same set of facts provided to them by reputable outlets.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 required states with a history of restricting the vote for racial reasons to get federal approval before adopting new voting requirements.

Climate remained relatively unchanged from what it had been in previous decades, and icecaps and glaciers retained their shape and water content. 



Income inequality in America has burgeoned, with a mere handful of individuals now owning half the nation’s wealth. Despite that fact, the top marginal tax rate in the United States now stands at 37 percent, just a little over half what it was 50 years earlier. The top corporation tax rate is just 21 percent, and efforts are underway to reduce it even more.

Public faith in the news media has dropped precipitously, a trend closely tied to the sharp political divide in the country. Unverified social media information exacerbates that problem.

The Supreme Court a few years ago gutted the Voting Rights Act, and now many states are adopting impediments to universal suffrage, making voting more difficult for millions of Americans, particularly non-whites and those of limited financial means.

Research reveals fast-moving climate change around the world, with rising temperatures threatening to melt ice caps and endanger coastal areas where billions of people live.



I know this sounds like doom and gloom, and I guess that’s accurate for now. But things have a way of cycling – what’s the case today wasn’t always this way, and doesn’t have to be in the future. Iowans, and Americans, can roll back unfair breaks for wealthy taxpayers, put a higher premium on first-rate public education, remove impediments to streamlined voting procedures, and slow down climate change.

It’s all possible. It’s just a matter of deciding we want and need to return our state and nation to the values we held 50 years ago. It’s my kind of conservatism. ♦

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