Will Rogers, self-made millionaire, was no leftist radical. He was a cowboy, a humorist, and America’s most beloved wit and sage in the Great Depression.
One out of every three Americans, forty million people, read Rogers’ newspaper articles. What Will Rogers said was pretty much what America thought.
And what Will Rogers said back in 1931, as the Depression was in its second year and only getting worse, might surprise a lot of Americans today.
Faced with a Republican president, Herbert Hoover, and a Republican Congress, who were adamant that government spending to aid the unemployed was socialism, and un-American, Will Rogers began a soft-spoken but pointed critique of this idea.
Rogers focused on the notion that rich Americans needed to pay higher taxes to support public works programs for the unemployed.
Rogers argued in his famous October 18, 1931 radio broadcast, Beans and Bacon and Limousines, that the only problem facing the nation was unemployment, and not, as Republicans then and now have argued, cutting spending to balance the budget:
“Now we read in the papers every day, and they get us all excited over one or a dozen different problems that’s supposed to be before this country. There’s not really but one problem before the whole country at this time. It’s not the balancing of [Secretary of the Treasury] Mellon’s budget. That’s his worry. That ain’t ours…The only problem that confronts this country today is at least seven million people are out of work. That’s our only problem.”
And then Rogers told Americans that unemployment was a symptom of the fundamental inequality of wealth distribution in the USA:
“[We must] see that every man that wants to is able to work, is allowed to find a place to go to work, and also to arrange some way of getting more equal distribution of the wealth in the country.”
And, beating Elizabeth Warren by eight decades with this particular observation, Rogers noted that the poorest person in the USA had contributed in some way to the fortunes of every millionaire, and that America’s rich owed the unemployed and the poor a helping hand in a terrible economic crisis, a crisis Rogers noted that had been caused by the rich, and not by the working class:
“You know, there’s not a one of us that has anything that these people that are without it now haven’t contributed to what we’ve got. I don’t suppose there is the most unemployed or the hungriest man in America that hasn’t contributed in some way to the wealth of every millionaire in America. It wasn’t the working class that brought this condition on at all—it was the big boys themselves who thought this financial drunk we were going through was going to last forever. They over-merged, and over-capitalized, and over-everything-else. That’s the fix that we’re in now.”
Earlier in 1931, in an article entitled “Let’s Give Every Man a Job That’s Out of Work!” Rogers specifically addressed the Republican criticism that forcing the rich, who were in fact paying a much higher tax rate in 1931 than now, to pay higher taxes would cost jobs:
“Course the big man’s argument, and all the heavy Taxpayers’ alibi is that when you take too big a slice from a man as taxes it takes that much more out of his investments and might cut down on money being put into enterprises. But it didn’t work that way after the war, and during it why income taxes run as high as seventy percent on every dollar earned, and yet there was more money being made and put into things than there is now.”
Rogers then offered a simple reasoning that was a common view in 1931:
“If your Income Taxes go to help out the less fortunate, there could be no legitimate kick against it in the world. This is becoming the richest, and the poorest Country in the world. Why? Why, on account of an unequal distribution of the money.”
Rogers concluded his article
“Now that we got that settled all we have to do is get by Congress and see if the Republicans will vote a higher Income tax on the rich babies. It might not be a great plan, but it will DAM sure beat the one we got now.”
The Republicans did not vote the “tax on the rich babies”. The next year the American people voted in Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats, who began enacting the kind of programs Will Rogers had called for.