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.


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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

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The “Two Unprincipled Parties” System

A lot of noise is made from time about how our so-called two-party system is what makes America strong. That might be so. But I wonder if it works the way people think.

The first thing I notice as I think about this issue is that we don't have two parties. We have a number of them. But it's true that there aren't a lot of people voting for these other parties, and voters pretty quickly learn that under the present rules (I'll blog about the virtues of preference-order voting another day), a vote for a third-party candidate is just a wasted vote. If you do vote for such a third-party candidate, you'd better be happy with the most popular of the big two candidates because you're throwing away your right to vote for the other of those two.

But my personal theory is that what's really useful about our system is not that it's about two parties, but that it's two unprincipled parties. Ok, perhaps I'm slightly stretching the meaning of the term “unprincipled” because I really don't mean “without any principles” and I'm not even meaning to say they're “hypocrites.” But I do mean “without specific and unchanging principles.”

I hear murmuring out there in the audience, but you can spare me. The Republicans are not the party of fiscal conservatism, small non-invasive government, patriotism, etc. I might have been a Republican myself long ago if something as simplistic and reliable as that described that crowd.

And before you get too comfortable, because I know this forum is mostly full of Democrats, the Democrats have their share of deviations from alleged principle, too. I don't see Obama talking about how he wants to give all gays the right to marry, for example.

What people will say or refuse to say is market driven on both sides. At any given time, both parties usually have an articulated platform, but over long periods of time, that platform shifts. And I claim that's mostly a good thing.

In fact, the opinion of Rush Limbaugh and the Rightwing Talk Media to the contrary, changing one's mind as one gains experience can be good. It's called learning, and it's good for us.

[Picture of scales]

So I think it's no accident that the two parties enjoy almost exactly the same coverage and that some elections are right around 50%. I think what happens in many elections is that the party that perceives itself as being behind gives up just enough ground in terms of its' alleged principles in order to get people to cross the aisles. They don't want to give up more than they have to because they each perceive themselves as principled and they perceive shifts like this as being done somewhat under duress, in order to save the party from being permanently locked out.

I used to listen to Rush until I decided I was just tired of him and couldn't bear it any more. It wasn't his ideology that drove me away—I enjoy hearing people who think differently than me. It was his attitude and tactics that drove me away. The same with O'Reilly, Hannity and Colmes, and the rest of the Fox line-up. It's just re-runs after a while, with nothing new to learn, so I gave up.

One thing I remember Rush saying was that people who are middle of the road in their politics are without principle—in effect, that “moderate” is not a substantively meaningful description of a political position, that it represents unprincipled compromises between legitimate political positions. Cynically, I think he said this because he wants to drive his opposition to the far Left, or even just wants to pretend his opposition is already to the far Left, because it's just easier to make a case against extremists than against moderates. So it serves him to believe that that's all there are in the world: extremists, who are either himself (on the correct end), bad guys (on the wrong end), and people who have no legitimate positino at all.

I don't buy that there aren't legitimate positions in the middle; I think they're just not well characterized. It's more like the question asked Dorothy early in the Wizard of Oz, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” It may indeed be that there is no legitimate other kind of witch, but that fact doesn't mean there isn't some third position for Dorothy to take, it just means the choices are not offered in a very useful way.

One of the reasons I think Nature has been so successful with Evolution over so many years is that I don't think it worries a lot about labeling itself. It just goes with what's working and doesn't fuss about how an animal or whole species is named. Survival is what counts, not labeling. And I think that while the Democrats and Republicans try to impose a lot of naming as a matter of tactic, the engine driving the political system as a whole, and the two major parties in particular, is more organic than is commonly acknowledged, and is interested more in surviving than in adhering to any fixed set of principles.

In fact, if you look around the globe at other countries that have more parties, you'll see there are serious obstacles to any of those parties growing substantially. The problem isn't the number of parties, it's the principled nature of the parties. Being principled holds them back. Because to change parties, the people within them have to give up their principles! And who wants to do that? Whereas since being Republican or Democrat really doesn't mean anything, it may be difficult but it's not impossible for at least those people who view themselves as living comfortably in the middle to wander back and forth, creating the market stresses that force the parties to change from time to time.

The situation right now is a perfect example. A lot of people who thought themselves Republicans realize they are not well-served so have crossed the line. For someone who grew up self-identifying as a Republican, it may be weird or annoying to be called a Democrat. But it doesn't mean saying “Ok, I'll be a liar.” or “Ok, I'll stop caring about fiscal responsibility.” Indeed, part of what they're doing is realizing these parties are capable of shifting and that theirs has shifted out from underneath them. But things will shift back toward the middle, or even sharply back to the Republican field, if the Republican party changes to be more like what is needed to woo voters back or if the Democratic party fails to offer what people are seeking. Each party represents room for change, and a vacuum won't last long there.

So three cheers for people having the principles and political parties not having them. It's what keeps things working.


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

These ideas are something I've thought about for quite some time. The decision to write about this today was by a desire to respond to Greg Randolph's article The Implosion of the Republican Party. Thanks, Greg.

The public domain graphic came from freeclipartnow.com.

Originally published October 28, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): planks, plank, platform, unprincipled, principled, principles, third-party, political parties, two political parties, two-party system, 2008 election, politics

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The URLs of the Mind

I moved a lot growing up,
so I didn't like throwing things away.
I liked collecting things—until finally
they made things stamped “COLLECTIBLE.”
The day of collecting was past.

I still collected things, but
I came to seize those days where
I caught myself throwing something out
that I hadn't expected to.
Dropping everything,
I'd furiously rush to throw away more,
before the packratishness returned.

Some things I couldn't get rid of, though.
They were reminders of times past,
pointers into a tangled web of human memory,
the URLs of the mind.

To lose them would be to lose the memory,
or perhaps just to lose the opportunity
to accidentally click through—
revisiting times past.


It's why we're all so confused when someone dies.

Their things seemed so important the day before.
Now we want to treat them reverently,
but we can't.
There's nothing left to access.

The value was within the person,
a human being,
human experiences.
Once open for service,
now finally closed forever to visitors.

These artifacts of experience
performed their function
only for the one (or the few) who participated
in the memory's creation,
and to whom it had been entrusted.

Gone the site of our memory,
the possessions we amass
are but 404 URLs.


Packrat that I am,
it's sometimes been
that I could let the thing go,
keeping just the picture.
A tinyurl.

So after traveling on business for years,
I felt sure that I was destined
to open up a little shop
to sell all those little hotel soaps
and little hotel shampoos.

I finally had to let go of that idea.
They were taking up too much space!
But first, I took a snapshot
to remember.

Table full of hotel soaps and shampoos

Such images,
though sometimes art themselves,
as keys are ephemeral.

Only I
have the password
to the protected site
where the memory lingers.


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

Originally published October 7, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): poem, poetry, memory, remembering, photos, photographs, death, net, internet, url, tinyurl, 404, hotel soap, hotel shampoo