Thursday, October 30, 2008

Redistributing Burden

McCain's near-spastic surge of emotional hotbutton issues is hard to follow, but among the spread spectrum of ideas he's been frequently hopping between is his allegation that Obama is a “socialist” seeking to “redistribute wealth.”

A number of people are already doing a pretty good job of shedding sunlight on McCain's confused use, or cynical abuse, of the term “socialist.” For example, Stephen Colbert recently interviewed Brian Moore, socialist candidate for US President in the 2008 election. In the interview, he asks Brian Moore whether Obama could pass for a socialist.

I wanted to make a different point, though... that is, if you're done watching the video. Hello? Is this microphone still on? Ah, there you are. I thought for a moment I'd lost you. I should know not to put myself in deliberate competition with the likes of Colbert, especially to illustrate what I don't want to talk about!

What I really wanted to talk about is the notion of redistributing wealth. I want to suggest that's a bad paradigm for viewing the question, and suggest a way to reframe the discussion. I want to discuss “redistributing burden” instead.

To start, let's look for a moment at the process of summarization. There are a lot of ways to summarize an issue, even something that seems so simple you can just count it up. Depending on what you count or how you count it, the answer can be different. For example, we have a Senate and a House of Representatives in part because one of them counts up what states think, and one counts up what people think. It was believed by our founders, and I think they were right, that sometimes one of these is the right way to count, and sometimes the other. But the point is that they're different, even though they're at some level both counting up the same thing, that is, “how much will the nation has on an issue” or “how much need the nation has.”

So it is with wealth and burden. For some things where money is involved, wealth may seem an inverse measure of burden. That is, if you have a lot of wealth, you have less burden. But the problem with that is that it sounds like it's all proportional. Wealth uses words like “more” and “less.” People who claim they have no wealth at all are rarely sympathized with, even though the use of the word is probably correct, but rather they are quibbled with. “What are you talking about? You have a family. Isn't that a form of wealth? You live in the richest country in the world. Isn't that a form of wealth?” (Given our debt burden, I'm not sure I'd call this the richest country in the world, by the way, but you still hear people say it.)

Sometimes the word wealth is a relative measure. We cannot all be wealthy because we don't all live in Lake Wobegon (“all the children are above average”). It's a necessary fact of relative wealth that for some people to have it, others don't. Now, it's certainly true that there is another kind of wealth, an absolute kind, that says that if you have more than you need to survive, you're also wealthy. And that kind of wealth we could theoretically all have at the same time. We just don't. We have many people who have enough to survive, and more, while we have many others who don't have enough to survive, to care for their families, to address medical issues, etc.

So when it comes time to pay the nation's taxes, the question is what the burden is on them to give up a little of their money to help with that cause. The answer is pretty plainly right now that there are people who are barely getting by, if at all, who are being asked to pay money they don't have in order to help with that. For example, for Sally making $30,000 to pay $3000 in taxes while Bill making $1,000,000 pays $100,000 might seem a simple issue of scale. Both pay 10%. But the $3000 that the Sally is giving up might have been just enough to afford some critical expense, perhaps a health care plan. While at his income level, Bill is at no serious risk of not being covered by a health care plan. So it's not that there is a proportional burden. Sally's basic needs are not met and Bill's are. It might not even be the case that Sally's needs were met with no taxes at all. $30,000 is not much to scrape by on, especially if she has a family. But I'd argue Bill could still manage to raise a family even if he paid $103,000 dollars in taxes, so that Sally had to pay none. Or even if he paid $130,000 dollars in taxes, so that ten Sally's had to pay none.

I hear murmurs of “he's redistributing wealth” but that's my point. I'm not necessarily redistributing burden. At least, I'm not creating a burden on anyone that didn't have it; I'm just removing it from someone who did. If Sally pays no tax, so keeps all $30,000, she's not made rich, she just fails to be quite so impoverished. And if Bill pays only 3% more in taxes, which is $30,000, he's not impoverished by that. He's just slightly less rich. Before the change, 10 people might have been struggling and 1 surviving (well). After the change, 11 people might be surviving. That's a big benefit. The mathematics of burden redistribution are very different than the mathematics of wealth redistibution. Speaking in terms of wealth rather than burden can muddy things a lot by focusing on things that don't matter at the expense of things that do.

“But,” I hear you protest, “she doesn't have to pay taxes and he does.” Not so, I claim. She pays a tax. She is poor. Being poor is a tax. (On another day, I can perhaps even explain that might be quantifiable. But today you can just assume I mean that being poor is no fun, and that Bill won't trade places with her if he has the chance. So saying Bill is enduring an inequity in this arrangement is disingenuous.)

And yes, we can argue where the line is between rich and poor, but we should not argue that there is no such line. Surely there must be some amount of money beyond which if you have it, you're set. Just as surely is some amount of money below which if you don't have it, you're in bad shape. The precise amount may differ with time and geography and other factors, but we shouldn't let that uninteresting fact distract us from admitting that are real effects worthy of discussion.

And please note well—I'm not saying that the wealthy need to just give all their money to the poor. The capitalist system is about the hope that the opportunity to get rich will cause people to work hard for that goal so that others will benefit. But we need to watch that in fact the others do benefit. If we allow the one person (or a small number of people) to get rich at the expense of the others, then capitalism hasn't done what it set out to do. Those who have succeeded under our system need to remember that this is a society in which the populace, by majority vote, chooses how we run things. And if that group gets things to the place where a majority of voters think they're not doing well, they should expect that such an unhappy majority has good reason to start pulling plugs on the process. That's what I think is in play right now, and what will continue to be in play until a basic fairness to the original premise that we should all benefit to a reasonable degree from the success of the few.

A bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of the rich would go a long way just now. Holding firm to the “it's mine and you can't have it” line is not going to serve the rich well when talking to people headed for the ballot box.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published October 30, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, economy, wealth, burden, needs, basic needs, health care, food, redistribution, redistribution of wealth, redistribution of burden, income redistribution, tax, taxes, taxation, regressive tax, tax fairness

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