After passing back weekly US History quizzes on World War I, I paused a few minutes for the “whad-ja-gets” - students asking each other about their scores.
When they were done I said, “I have a good idea.”
“What?” said a girl.
“Many of you are doing well on these lately, getting hundreds and nineties, but others are still doing poorly - getting only thirties and forties.”
They all knew that after the whad-ja-gets.
“I’m thinking about redistributing grades - taking thirty points from those of you who got hundreds, and giving them to the students who got thirties. That way, the kids with hundreds would still have seventies, which is a C- and not that bad a grade, while those with thirties would then get sixties, which is D- and passing. This way, things would be more equal. How does that sound to you?”
Several looked at me blankly. Some had their mouths open. Students I knew had been studying extra hard were wincing.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said one.
“Okay,” I said. “Does anybody like the idea?”
Only four raised their hands.
“Who else doesn’t like it?”
All the rest put their hands up.
“Alright, why not?”
“We worked for those grades,” said a boy. “It’s not fair to take our points and give them to someone who didn’t study. They shouldn’t get points for not doing anything.”
“Yeah,” said a girl. “If you did that, those kids who don’t study won’t ever do anything. They won’t have any reason to.”
“Plus, other kids wouldn’t want to work so hard if the points they earned were just going to be taken away and given to someone else,” said another boy.
“Well,” I said. “It’s just an idea at this point,”
“Not one of your better ones,” said a boy.
“I haven’t made any decisions yet and I’ll let you know when I do. Meanwhile, would you open your books to page 888 please?”
“I’d like someone to read the 16th Amendment, ratified in 1913 - almost a hundred years ago. Any volunteers?”
A boy read aloud: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”
“Thank you,” I said. “There had been a temporary income tax during the Civil War and a few times after, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, so passage of the 16th Amendment was necessary to resume it. The tax was only on people who earned the most money - an amount that would be equal to around $80,000 per year or above today. Soon it turned into something called a “graduated” or “progressive” income tax.”
I drew charts on the board illustrating that with a flat tax of 15%, someone making $10,000 per year would pay $1500 in taxes while someone making $100,000 per year would pay $15,000. So the wealthier would pay more, but the percentage would be the same. Then I explained how under a “graduated” or “progressive” tax structure, the percentage went up enormously for wealthier taxpayers to the point where government took most of what they made above a certain amount. In the 1940s, 50s and 60s, government took over 90% of their earnings. I passed out charts showing the top marginal tax rates since 1913.
“Wow,” said a boy. “There would be no point in working hard if the government takes it all away.”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“This is what you were getting at with the quiz grades, right?”
Finally, I explained that the top half of American workers paid just about all the income taxes, while the bottom half paid almost nothing, or government gave them money under something called the “earned income tax credit.”
“That’s like what the communists did in Russia,” said a girl. We had watched “Dr. Zhivago” to learn about World War I, the Communist Revolution in Russia, and the rise of the Soviet Union.
“Similar,” I said, “but not as drastic. There are other taxes the bottom half of Americans pay so nobody escapes paying some kind of tax, but the rich pay for most of what the federal government does. And - the bottom half figured out that they can vote in congressmen and senators who will give them things somebody else has to pay for.”