This Is What Happens When I Have Too Much Time

A little background: a friend of mine in California posted a viral video titled “Wealth Inequality in America” on her Facebook timeline last week. It’s a neat video summing up in graphical detail the United States’ disturbing level of wealth and income inequality:

Cue the dissenting voices — an obviously conservative-leaning woman and a libertarian guy with a Milton Friedman fetish. Cue evocations of “government waste” and “fiscal responsibility”. With nothing better to do, I decided to wade into the fray. After an impassioned exchange, the libertarian concluded with: “Anyway, clearly we disagree- just had to cap off with my two cents. There must be some voice of individual independent thinking in this area of heard [sic] mentality liberalism.”

I wasn’t satisfied with leaving it at that. I didn’t want this to become just another partisan flash in the pan, with both sides talking past each other, convinced of the rightness of one’s own views. So I tried something that Jonathan Haidt recommended in his book, The Righteous Mind, which is all about the fascinating psychology of morality and politics. I looked for common ground. Doing so engages the other side and opens them up; going out guns blazing tends to make the other side automatically shut down and go on the defensive.

Below is my final response reproduced in full. It’s a full-throated affirmation of my political worldview. I thought I might as well put it out into the blogosphere (having spent an inordinate amount of time putting it down in writing), rather than letting it languish on a timeline thread that no-one will ever read again. In retrospect, it is very long. This is what happens when I have too much time.

I’d like to do better than just agree to disagree. It’s easy to caricature and dismiss the other side but hard to find common ground but I’m going to try…

Firstly I think we both cherry-picked some items and tried to show that somehow that trumps the other side – however, I would say we both raised correct but incomplete truths. I acknowledge that of course governments can be wasteful, sometimes massively so. But that doesn’t mean that therefore the answer must be to prevent it from ever getting any extra revenue (after all, there’s a lot of good that it does too…) The US is a democracy and not some perfect society, of course there will be waste and inefficiencies. We should be cracking down on wasteful spending (not just conservative bogeymen like foreign aid and welfare on deadbeats, but also heaps and HEAPS of corporate giveaways), not throwing the baby out with the bathwater by denying government the revenue it needs for the general maintenance of society.

I also accept what you say about the fact that many being taxed in the higher tax bracket are small businesses trying to get by and not greedy millionaires, and that the tax burden does hurt businesses. But try to look at it from the other side too – for every genuine small business doing it tough, how many people are there who earn 6-figure plus salaries, with wealth in the millions, who’ve had millions shaved off their tax liabilities since 2001 (contributing over a trillion dollars, with a T!, to the deficit) and simply banked/offshored/played the market rather than contributing to actual job creation or the good of society? Local business is important, let’s separate them out for special attention. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to fix the broken taxation system and raising rates on the highest earners.

Basically I’m against absolutism – generally the real answer is more complicated than a black and white view. I will speak out against mindless calls to raise taxes just as I will speak out against stubborn calls to never raise taxes ever, or that personal responsibility is the sole cause of a person’s station in life, or that government is bad bad bad. “Individual independent thinking” is no guarantee to provide the right answer, just as “herd mentality liberalism” is no guarantee to provide the wrong answer.

We should be basing our views not on rigid ideology but facts, and here are the most pertinent facts as I see it: 

(1) The US is in the midst of an economic downturn that has resulted in a large proportion of the population struggling to get by, and even seen their income decline (through no fault of their own) over the past 2 decades

(2) Meanwhile, the richest 10% (and especially the richest 1%) have seen their incomes skyrocket, as their tax rates hit historical lows and inequality hit historical highs

(3) The soaring income has come partly from the benefits and giveaways and tax cuts that resulted from the 1%’s influence over and lobbying of government, including the deregulation of the banking sector that led to the complex financial wheeling and dealing which precipitated the GFC and impacted the lives of so many other people

(4) In the short term, millions of people are suffering, out of a job, while the government further cuts both vital and discretionary spending. In the long term, the deficit will become a problem due mainly to the cost of providing healthcare to an increasingly aging population.

None of the above can seriously be doubted. So what’s my view on what should happen? I guess here I am showing my “liberal” colours.

(5) An individual succeeds due to a combination of their own effort, luck, the people around them, and society as a whole that provides them with the resources, education, safety and opportunities that make it possible for them to flourish

(6) Therefore everyone should contribute (in the form of taxes) to the running and maintenance of a well-functioning society, with each contributing according to their ability (in the form of progressive taxation)

(7) Furthermore, there are also those who have tilted the rules of the game in their favour, by being powerful enough to influence policy making – their riches are not just “self-made”, but also perpetuated by a system biased towards them. At the same time, those on the rungs below them are essentially trapped – no amount of personal responsibility and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps will get them out of their predicament. (In stark contrast to the popular view that the US is the “land of opportunity”, the ability of people in a lower class to rise to a higher class is among the worst in major industrialised countries)

(8) The situation has gotten so bad and so unfair that it clearly makes sense to ask those at the top to pay more than what they are paying today, and to redress the political system that only preserves the unfairness.

Happy to receive any thoughts on where you think I’m wrong or have made wrong assumptions. But please do read it and think about it first.

I’m happy to report that this went down pretty well. Libertarian guy agreed with me about absolutism and the need to compromise. He also agreed that “the smaller the gap the better.” Next time you’re locked in a partisan argument, try to find common ground. You might be surprised at how reasonable the other side can be, and how much you can learn from them.