A reader writes:
“To many on the right, this inequality is a non-issue, and in an abstract sense, I agree. Penalizing people for their success does not help the less successful.”
How could you write that with a straight face after a paragraph citing bank bailouts and mega-bonuses? I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but many of the über-successful got that way because the deck was stacked in their favor by the government they bought. Bailouts, tax-subsidies, toothless regulation, government engineered barriers to entry, and favorable legislation of every kind all operate to their benefit. If the playing field were really level, most of the “successful” who whine about their tax burden would be mediocrities at best.
I know, because I’m one of them. Were it not for helpful congresspersons, my stock options would have been worth squat. I worked hard, but not any harder than a schoolteacher, and my net contribution to society was likely less. Penalize them by taking away the fix and then see how they do. If they still manage to make a bundle, I’ll cheerfully agree that they can keep 65% of it.
"Penalizing people for their success does not help the less successful"? Of course it does. It provides the tax dollars from the rich that help the middle and lower classes with Pell Grants, or nutrition supplements for the poor, or hundreds of other programs that want to be cut by Tea Party radicals claiming "we're broke."
Those cuts will inflict long-term damage to the poor and less advantaged in American society. You should say instead, "Requiring the rich to give back a little more due to their success will help the less successful and even out the playing field of American society, providing a stable, equitable environment in which the truly talented will continue to get ahead."
At a time of real sacrifice, it does seem to me important for conservatives not to ignore the dangers of growing and vast inequality – for political, not economic, reasons. And by political, I don't mean partisan. I mean a genuine concern for the effects of an increasingly unequal society. Last night, we watched "Winter's Bone" about meth-fueled social collapse in the heartland and then clicked over to watch "The Real Housewives Of Orange County. It was a bracing summary of where America increasingly finds itself.
But what exactly are the dangers of vast inequality? For all the talk about why we should care about income inequaltiy, this is rarely spelled out. You mentioned the dichotomy of meth abuse in the heartland versus a coastal elite living it up, but what does one have to do with the other? Are people doing meth because others are able to afford liposuction and third homes?
As for the disappearing middle class, let's ask ourselves why this is occurring (assuming, in fact, it is taking place). What if it is because more members are exiting to the upper class? Is that something to be concerned about? If I get a raise of $5,000 and my boss gets a raise of $20,000, our income inequality has increased yet we are both better off – why is that a problem?
Look, if the poor and middle class are stagnating because the rich are getting richer, then that's a problem – but I have yet to see evidence that this is the case. I don't think anyone out there is struggling because Warren Buffet or Steve Jobs are doing well financially.
Lastly, as for this notion that income inequality is a problem because it could undermine societal stability, I don't buy it. I think people become angry and resentful not because someone else is doing well, but when that person is doing well because of unfair advantages. People get angry when they think the deck is stacked against them. This is why I am sure you can find lots of ire out there against those on Wall Street who received a taxpayer funded bailout, but I think most people don't begrudge Steve Jobs for becoming rich as a reward for producing useful products.
If the left wants to have a conversation about ways of eliminating barriers to letting the poor and middle class succeed, then by all means let's have it. I would welcome it. That conversation could consist of things like providing school vouchers to provide access to better education and reducing red tape and regulations that make starting up a small business more difficult. We could talk about eliminating the minimum wage so that the poor can more easily find jobs (why rich kids can sell their labor for free in exchange for experience through unpaid internships while the poor are prohibited from working for $5/hour is beyond me) or letting employers conduct intelligence tests, so that poor autodidacts can avoid the expense of college in order to prove themselves and get on the career ladder. We could also entertain various proposals for shrinking government in order to crack down on crony capitalism … the possibilities are almost endless. But this conversation is a different one from discussing income inequality for its own sake.
(Photo: A man looks out at the New York Stock Exchange on February 15, 2011 in New York City. By Spencer Platt/Getty.)