Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Year's resolution for the rich

I don't normally link to the Huffington Post, but this column by Sam Harris is too good to pass up:
While the United States has suffered the worst recession in living memory, I find that I have very few financial concerns. Many of my friends are in the same position: Most of us attended private schools and good universities, and we will be able to provide these same opportunities to our own children. No one in my immediate circle has a family member serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, the only sacrifice we were asked to make for our beloved country was to go shopping. Nearly a decade has passed, with our nation's influence and infrastructure crumbling by the hour, and yet those of us who have been so fortunate as to actually live the American dream--rather than merely dream it--have been spared every inconvenience. Now we are told that we will soon receive a large tax cut for all our troubles. What is the word for the feeling this provokes in me? Imagine being safely seated in lifeboat, while countless others drown, only to learn that another lifeboat has been secured to take your luggage to shore...

Note that he includes himself as one of the rich, though I've never seen him on Forbes' list of the wealthiest billionaires on the planet. It's kind of refreshing, isn't it? Normally, we see the wealthy - in the top 1 or 2 percent in America - screaming about how they're struggling,... compared to even wealthier people they know.

And, of course, they've got to put the kids through private school. And that mortgage on the vacation home isn't paying for itself. And then there are the expensive cars, expensive meals, and expensive clothes that a family absolutely must buy. How could anyone think that they were rich?

Most Americans believe that a person should enjoy the full fruits of his or her labors, however abundant. In this light, taxation tends to be seen as an intrinsic evil. It is worth noting, however, that throughout the 1950's--a decade for which American conservatives pretend to feel a harrowing sense of nostalgia--the marginal tax rate for the wealthy was over 90 percent. In fact, prior to the 1980's it never dipped below 70 percent. Since 1982, however, it has come down by half. In the meantime, the average net worth of the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled (to $18.5 million), while that of the poorest 40 percent has fallen by 63 percent (to $2,200). Thirty years ago, top U.S. executives made about 50 times the salary of their average employees. In 2007, the average worker would have had to toil for 1,100 years to earn what his CEO brought home between Christmas in Aspen and Christmas on St. Barthes.

We now live in a country in which the bottom 40 percent (120 million people) owns just 0.3 percent of the wealth. Data of this kind make one feel that one is participating in a vast psychological experiment: Just how much inequality can free people endure? Have you seen Ralph Lauren's car collection? Yes, it is beautiful. It also cost hundreds of millions of dollars. "So what?" many people will say. "It's his money. He earned it. He should be able to do whatever he wants with it." In conservative circles, expressing any doubt on this point has long been synonymous with Marxism.

And yet over one million American children are now homeless. People on Medicare are being denied life-saving organ transplants that were routinely covered before the recession. Over one quarter of our nation's bridges are structurally deficient. When might be a convenient time to ask the richest Americans to help solve problems of this kind? How about now?

I've never known a rich person who didn't think he fully deserved his wealth - even when he inherited it. Well, that's just human nature. And plenty of rich people have indeed worked hard. But so have plenty of poor people. I've known poor couples where the husband and wife both worked two jobs, and they barely scraped by. Well, they didn't make much money - maybe no more than minimum wage - and they didn't get overtime in either job. And they had a family to support.

Sure, they didn't go to college, but that's kind of the point. It's unlikely that their kids will ever go to college, either, not with college costs going through the roof. And they couldn't afford private tutors for their kids, or even a private school, if their neighborhood school was bad. Increasingly, we're becoming a society with an aristocracy of wealth, where the poor and middle class have a hard time moving up (while moving down remains a constant threat).

I don't care who you are or where you are, you didn't get there entirely on your own. We've all had help, and some of us have been far luckier than others - luckier in natural abilities, perhaps, as well as luckier in our starting positions and in the help we've received.

But even that is not really the point. The point is, in what kind of society do you want to live? Do you want to live in a banana republic, with extremes of rich and poor? Do you want to live in a hereditary aristocracy were most children face overwhelming odds against success, while the heirs of vast wealth never have to work a day in their lives? Do you really want to live in a society where most children don't have a fair - not equal, of course, just fair - start in life?

And then there's the matter of global competitiveness:
And the ruination of the United States really does seem possible. It has been widely reported, for instance, that students in Shanghai far surpass our own in science, reading, and math. In fact, when compared to other countries, American students are now disconcertingly average (slightly below in math), where the average includes utopias like Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Albania, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia. President Obama was right to recognize this as a "Sputnik moment." But it is worse than that. This story was immediately followed by a report about giddy Creationists in the state of Kentucky being offered $40 million in tax subsidies to produce a full-scale model of Noah's ark. More horrible still, this ludicrous use of public money is probably a wise investment, given that such a monument to scientific ignorance will be guaranteed to attract an ovine influx of Christian tourists from neighboring states. Seeing facts of this kind, juxtaposed without irony or remedy at this dire moment in history, it is hard not to feel that one is witnessing America's irreversible decline. Needless to say, most Americans have no choice but to send their children to terrible schools--where they will learn the lesser part of nothing and emerge already beggared by a national debt now on course to reach $20 trillion. And yet Republicans in every state can successfully campaign on a promise to spend less on luxuries like education, while delivering tax cuts to people who, if asked to guess their own net worth, could not come within $10 million of the correct figure if their lives depended on it.

American opposition to the "redistribution of wealth" has achieved the luster of a religious creed. And, as with all religions, one finds the faithful witlessly espousing doctrines that harm almost everyone, including their own children. For instance, while most Americans have no chance of earning or inheriting significant wealth, 68 percent want the estate tax eliminated (and 31 percent consider it to be the "worst" and "least fair" tax levied by the federal government). Most believe that limiting this tax, which affects only 0.2 percent of the population, should be the top priority of the current Congress.

If you really want to return to the 1950s, maybe we should return tax rates to the 1950s, too. But, of course, most of the right-wing wants to return to an idealized past, not the real one. Their fantasy tends to be of a pure white, 100% Christian, "Leave It to Beaver" kind of nation - with themselves on top, of course.

Well, as a nation, our ignorance of history is only matched by our ignorance of science. And perhaps by our ignorance of economics. Of course, education is expensive. It's far cheaper - in the short-term - to just believe what we want to believe. And who cares about the long-term, huh?

1 comment:

Tony Williams said...

Reminds me of an old but true saying:

"Nostalgia isn't what it used to be"