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A Dickens of a Dichotomy

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"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."

Charles Dickens opened A Tale of Two Cities, his 1859 novel about the French Revolution, with that litany of antitheses.

Today, this can be said about the United States. Yet the only thing that's revolting is our sense of civility. Could it be the oppressed feel nothing pressing? Could it be they cannot be bothered with overthrowing anything that requires ammunition larger than a smart phone, TV remote or a can of Red Bull?

The national motto of France, which had its roots in the French Revolution, is "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite." And how is that working for us here in the U.S.? Our liberties are being threatened by right-wing power grabs and over-reactions to threats of terrorism. Our sense of equality has been totally dashed by the obscenely unequal division of wealth. Our idea of fraternity went out with the art of compromise and National Brotherhood Week.

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance, who moved to New York from Paris four decades ago. For some reason, he's a Republican. The only thing moderate about him is his income. Yet he continues to vote against his own self-interest. He favors the Bush tax cuts. Why? Because he thinks one day he will be rich. "Right," I said, "With our economic forecast, the day you'll be rich is the day an elected official can actually be held responsible for the price of gasoline."

French compatriots, economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have done a decade-long study of American incomes and found that the top earners have gouged a financial gap that hasn't been seen since the Great Depression.

"The United States Is getting accustomed to a completely crazy level of inequality," said Picketty. "People say that reducing inequality is radical. I think that tolerating the level of inequality the United States tolerates is radical." They found that such inequality cannot be brought down unless the tax rate on the rich is brought up. Right now, the talk in DC is a 30 percent rate, the Buffett Rule proposal. The pre-1986 Reagan tax rate was 50 percent. However, Picketty says, "Thirty percent is three times smaller than the 91 percent of (Franklin D.) Roosevelt. And inequality is greater than in the time of Roosevelt."

My French Republican believes Romney when he says higher taxes on the top earners will slow the economy even more and believes the Fox News pundits who claim trickle-down economics will provide jobs. If the rich have always had tax cuts, why are jobs disappearing and not being replaced?

According to the Boston Globe, when multimillionaires save a fortune in taxes, the only economy they're spurring is their own. Paul Egerman thinks he's typical of his benevolent class of rich CEOs. He made his fortune with eScription, a digital medical transcription company, and says the Bush tax cut saved him roughly $10 million over the last decade. He asserts the money helped no one but himself. "It's not like I took the tax cuts and went out and hired people." Arnold Hiatt, the former chief executive of StrideRite shoes, agrees with Egerman. "When we created jobs at StrideRite, it wasn't because I earned more money. It doesn't trickle down, unless you're talking about private jets and Rolls-Royces for executives."

But my French Republican says on the web he can find fat cats with the opposite opinion. After all, you can find anything on the internet. All the more reason it's not to be trusted as a prime purveyor of correct information, anymore than Fox.

Furthermore, on the web, for every yin, there's a yang. Pundits and respondents cancel one another out. Did you ever check out customer review comments? A hotbed of polarization. If that's the basis for your decisions, you wouldn't choose anything. Like a restaurant. How many times have you found a variation of the following?

"It was the best food, it was the worst food, its atmosphere was highly romantic, its atmosphere was highly toxic, the room was rosy, the room was noisy, the party at the next table was traveling on honeymoon, the party at the next table was traveling to divorce court, the service was from heaven, the service was from hunger..."

A Dickensian Yelp? A Tale of Two Civilities?

Or as the great mystic Donovan once sang: "First there is a mountain. Then there is no mountain. Then there is."