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January 11, 2004 - Why punish the successful and reward those with no ambition?

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Class Warfare and Questions of Character
Why punish the successful and reward those with no ambition?



I have a good friend, a Wall Street attorney but hardly an I'm-rich-and-you're-not-Ha-Ha Republican, who is uncomfortable with Howard Dean.  He's been toying with the idea of doing some work for Wesley Clark.  Heck, he has been toying with the idea of running for office himself.  Forgive him, he chats too often with his advisor from law school, Peter Rodino of Watergate fame.  But I can see why he likes Clark.

Monday the 5th Wesley Clark laid out his tax plan.  The Dean folks were pretty stunned, and more than a few political writers have urged Dean and the rest to jump on board and get behind this plan as the official party position.

Under the Clark proposal, called "Families First Tax Reform," families of four making less than $50,000 would pay no federal income tax and all families with children making under $100,000 would get a tax cut.  The tax cuts would be paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes and by increasing by five percentage points the tax rate on income exceeding $1 million.

As he says, "This year alone, the richest Americans - those making more than $1 million - are getting an average tax break of $128,000.  So, while working families have seen their bank accounts shrink, the president has been working overtime to help the richest Americans get richer.  That's not right."

Under his plan, fewer than half of families would have to file tax forms and the rest would find their taxes easier to file than they are now - "With this new system, you can figure out whether or not you need to pay taxes just by filling out three lines.  The first line is your income.  The second line is your marital status.  The third line is the number of children you have.  And if it all adds up to $50,000 or less and two children or more, then you should put away your checkbook, because you won't owe the government a dime in income taxes."

Details are here:
Clark unveils tax plan
'Karl [Rove], I want you to hear me loud and clear'
CNN, Monday, January 5, 2004, Posted: 6:03 PM EST (2303 GMT)

Now of course I do have a conservative friend out here that says, if we must have taxes at all of any kind, we should have a flat tax.  His position is that those who succeed should be rewarded, not penalized.  They should be able to keep what they earn, and not be forced to subsidize services provided to people who would rather play victim and do nothing to become successful. 


The idea is that flat taxes - everyone paying the same fixed percent of income - would act as an incentive for people to get a positive attitude, accept personal responsibility, and make something of themselves, instead of expecting those who do things and succeed to underwrite their slothful whining.  If they did that then they too would be able to keep what they earn - not ninety percent of twenty-grand, but, if they apply themselves and quit complaining, ninety percent of each year's millions.  Otherwise they're just taking his money - the money he worked for so hard.  It's not fair.

Clark says lowering taxes for the rich isn't fair.  Its a matter of character.  One doesn't do things that aren't fair.  Making someone with low income pay the same rates as someone with high income, and then making tax breaks unavailable to them, is "not right." 


Maybe so.

My conservative friend says raising taxes on the successful - those who don't whine and don't play victim and who actually make things happen in this country - isn't fair. 


This too is a matter of character.  We destroy people's character by making them think they deserve subsidies, when they do little to make this country great and could be rich too if they only applied themselves.  We make them behave like victims, when they really need "tough love."  Why punish the successful and reward those with no ambition?

Class warfare is in the air.

Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor, knows it.  Everyone knows it.  And it should be an interesting campaign.

My Wall Street friend likes Clark, not so much for the tax plan but for Clark's comments when he explained it.  Clark said this:

"If Karl Rove is watching today, Karl, I want you to hear me loud and clear: I am going to provide tax cuts to ease the burdens for 31 million American families - and lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty - by raising the taxes on 0.1 percent of families - those who make more than $1,000,000 a year.  You don't have to read my lips, I'm saying it.  And if that makes me an 'old-style' Democrat, then I accept that label with pride and I dare you to come after me for it."

Let the fun begin.


Phillip in Georgia had this to say:


You bring up your conservative friend's perspective often, and it clearly vexes you.  You know that the "whiny" downtrodden are not unsuccessful because they chose to work at Denny's or become machinist in a plant that got closed or whatever instead of become self motivated real estate salesmen or software writers all because they are losers and deserve misery.  The variables in the algebraic equations of their lives twisted a circumstance here or produced a bad result there and created a frustrating lot in life that feeds on itself.  It's like thinking that if you can't play a musical instrument you must have a birth defect, or be an impatient coward, or raised by trashy parents. 


"Throw them off the boat to the sharks" is a self-centered cruel perspective of the narrow minded, epidemic with conservatives.  The argument is easy to unravel if you can get a word in edgewise to the right, but why bother?  Let pissheads be pissheads.  The point is only swallowed by gullible suckers or the self-centered.  The same series of conclusions was reached by learned men who thought the black man was genetically inferior to the white man.  Arguments and evidence abounded enough to write books about it, even though it was dead wrong scientifically and morally.


Enlightenment comes from an open heart, exclusionism comes from somewhere else.  Selfishness about excess money (is there such a thing in a place where there is so much to want and buy) is all to be expected from this poker game of life where random cards are drawn and played sometime well sometimes not so well, and then there is the power of the bluff that can yield so much.  It's like the possibilities in the spiral helix that makes up that building block of life - so many probabilities.


On a point less ethereal Clark's announcement was good.  It set the format for all sorts of things.  First a solid issue instead of the tired "Where's the WMD" argument.  Here's a practical alternative - no taxes if you make less than 50K, more taxes if you make a million or more - you have extra so get over it - pay to be privileged. 


The big strategic remark (though it had a hint of a pro-wrestler ringside comment) was to point out that Dubya is being led by a sleaze ball ("human filth" as Al Franken calls him) Karl Rove.  It is a soft spot that is not exploited enough.  I wonder when the jabs about his inarticulate lack of persuasiveness and detached insight about the working poor will be pointed out.  Or the way he is rushed away when the questions get so hard he becomes "professor backwards" and the staff who puts words in his mouth can't help him. 


He's only a leader because of the silver spoon syndrome and the strings that wrinkle his forehead like an articulated puppet.  The man is so intellectually vulnerable, yet his weak spots aren't exploited.  I will vote for who ever the goofy nerds at the Democratic Convention nominate, despite their fake straw hats.   Hell. I even voted for Mondale though I thought he was a dork.


Chip Carter, my friend and neighbor, is on the Dean campaign, and I will ask him what that camp thought of the announcement from Clark.  I see real strategic problems with Dean I'm not sure I can put my finger on.  His head must be swimming with his opponents ganging up on him and endorsements coming from some others.  I really like Kucinich, though I don't know his name well enough to spell it right.  Lots of spunk. 


All will be footnotes with GW's money and the mean machine behind him.


Perhaps so. 


But for the rest?  I suppose the conservative position vexes me perhaps because I have been feverishly applying for work since mid-August of 2002 - and have been unemployed since the start of March of last year.  Well, actually I have had long fits of feverishly looking for work but lately have been basically resigned to things as they are. 


In the back of my mind I always wonder if the problem is not the economy, or my industry, or Bill Gates or whatever - and I wonder if it's me.  Is this my failing?  So the conservative argument - that people are where they choose to be for no other reason than they choose to be there - plays to my insecurities.  In spite of my many degrees and years of experience and all I have learned and can do... well, is the fault in me?  My conservative friend, like Bill Gates and most every other CEO, has no college degree and is a bit dismissive of those who do.  And he really doesn' keep up with what's happening in the world.  Why should he? 


I chose the wrong path?  Maybe so.


And I have heard the argument that we really are at full employment.  Those who do not have jobs have refused to do what is necessary in term of attitude and personal responsibility.  Being unemployed is a choice you make.  And so on and so forth.


The odd thing is that I agree with what is said above, intellectually.  Yeah, it's not personal failing nor any simple conspiracy of bad guys out to get me.  Life is more complicated than that.  I get it.


I get it intellectually - but something "feels" wrong. 


Hell, I'll get over it.


As for arguing with the conservatives, once could, I suppose, say "more taxes if you make a million or more, you have extra so get over it, pay to be privileged."  But there's where the real issue is.  A rich conservative will tell you he or she is NOT privileged at ALL.  They made themselves into something from nothing - not much education, no curiosity about the world, no experience with reading or travel or the arts or other cultures - just a positive attitude and ambition, and no whining. 


Now Bush may be the exception here as he did have every door opened for him, and his stupidity and dumb-ass mistakes covered up quietly.   On the other hand everyone knows he's a tool - actually a rather blunt tool - of the new Republicans and is hardly acting on his own.  But he's still an exception. 


Tell any other millionaire Republican he or she is "privileged" - or even worse, "lucky" - and you'll get a really puzzled look.  He or she will claim to be just ordinary folks with no special talent, just a hard worker who didn't give up.  This hypothetical millionaire Republican really will be puzzled.  How odd.


And then I got this from an American friend who is now living in Chambery, deep in France, having left all this behind.  Think of what Ezra Pound said when he got to Paris: "I have weathered the storm and beaten out my exile."  Anyway, JT adds this:


You paraphrased the conservative viewpoint thusly:

"His position is that those who succeed should be rewarded, not penalized.  They should be able to keep what they earn, and not be forced to subsidize services provided to people who would rather play victim and do nothing to become successful."

I must point out just how loaded with assumptions of moral value this position is. To wit:

"...those who succeed."  "In what?", I ask.

Why, in "enriching themselves, regardless of whether or not they have created any real benefit to society or anyone in it other than themselves" you might reasonably reply.

I fail to see what's so laudable about that.

Far from begrudging others their "success" I am a prime example of this.  I have certainly enriched myself at the expense of others less fortunate than I, performing activities that provided no real value to anyone, save myself.  This has involved everything from computer software, trading stocks and supply chain management to film production.  At least I don't have to hide behind a delusion of moral superiority.  I know what I've done to get what I have, and I have no trouble looking it in the eye.

Okay, so the "successful" are those who "make things happen" in the world.

Would it be too flip to reply, "Yeah, so did Pol Pot"?  Perhaps.  But it would be naive to overlook the fact that most of what is made to happen it the world is little real use, only slightly and temporarily amusing or distracting at best, horribly destructive at worst.

And so I find it amusing that the truly "weak" - "successful" though they may be, have to kid themselves with a lot of self-congratulatory nonsense like the above.

Well, I feel better already.

Then Phillip Raines shot this over to our friend in eastern France from his laptop somewhere near Atlanta:

I couldn't agree with you more.  The illusion is that the "successful" are the only ones who work hard and make the right choices.  A talk show host makes a million a year but doesn't work as hard as a ditch digger or do as much good as a nurse's aid who cleans up the elderly on the late night shift.  There is no reason the prosperous should be smug and since they generate such surplus, or why they should be greedy and cold-hearted.  If you have a million and loose a couple of hundred thousand to the social welfare, you still have more than plenty. 

This consistent flaw to the argument is right where a reasonable mind can't get a word in edgewise, or the core issue gets skewed.  It's an argument game at that point. 

One little factor can change the luck on prosperity.  If, for example I was southern, and black, I know I couldn't be as successful as a dilettante art mason.  I would have never had the chance to earn money as a guest speaker at conventions, or paid as a designer, all because of a pigment difference.  Preconceptions would be reached and doors would be slammed in my face.  No, really, really, I mean it.  It is dead wrong to say we are achievers, and you are losers.  It is simply short-sighted and conceited.

Luckily us - the somewhat more enlightened have a much richer sense of satire to accompany our insight, maybe that is our wealth for being in the dumb-luck church.

Well, I agree with Phillip.  Looking over the political landscape here, and not deep in France, one might see the opposing armies massing in their self-righteousness.  On one side is a group with their banners - "We got ours because we didn't whine and didn't ask for anything from anyone, so go get your own stuff and stop trying to steal our stuff!"  On the other side of the battlefield the banners read differently "Hey!  Play Fair!  People are hurting and you can help.  We're all in this together.  And remember, there was an element of chance, of lucky circumstance, that got you where you are.  And things can change."

It should be an interesting year in American politics.  We shall see the contradictory elements in American culture fight it out - rugged individualism versus community spirit - and standing alone and independent versus standing together dealing with hard times. 

As Americans we say both are good, but it seems the two cannot easily exist together, if at all.


A bit later this arrived from our friend in France:

Apropos of this, if you haven't seen it already, I highly recommend a viewing of Lars Von Trier's "Dogville".  Infuriating, but the payoff brilliantly depicts a critical liberal fallacy from which I have myself long suffered.  Perhaps, as the film suggests, an unflinching forgiveness is perhaps the greatest arrogance of all.


As for the success issue, the thing that I have seen in common among those who are really "successful" is that they think of little else than their insatiable appetites and self-glorification.  I understand that I will never meet the worldly standard of success because I just don't care enough for the respect of others, I don't derive any satisfaction from making others dance to my tune, and my appetites are, by Californian standards of success, pretty modest.  Tant mieux.

So shall we give Rick Brown, the former news guy in Atlanta, the final say on this?  Here he responds to our friend in France, and to his neighbor Phillip in Atlanta.


Im not a conservative (in fact, so far, I'm leaning toward Dean, yatta yatta, although that may change with time) but let me lend a slightly conservative slant to this discussion: Just maybe you're contributing value to the world because someone is willing to pay you cash money for what you do.


This, of course, is not "my final answer," as they used to say on that TV show.  Maybe you're a crack dealer in a schoolyard, or worse yet, Pol Pot, in which case you shouldn't use that formula.  Or, on the other side, maybe you write really good poetry that you give away for free, and some poor person reads it and gets inspiration for it and produces something good from his thoughts.  So once again, you can't rely on that formula in the first graf as the end-all, be-all.


So what lesson?  Maybe this: Do good, and do it well, and if you get paid for it, fine!


And if all you do is make a living getting paid to give something that someone wants from you, and it does no real harm to anyone, don't sweat it.  That may seem complicated, but not so complicated for anyone with a brain and/or a conscience.


Just now, my wife and I were listening to Sting singing "Englishman in New York," a wonderful song with a great beat and sense of humor and a nice bunch of sax (soprano sax, I think) riffs on it, which is on his CD called Fields of Gold, the title song of which is probably an even more wonderful song, which is one of those tunes that makes you wish you could get in a time machine and go back in time and record it first.  ("But that," reportedly in the words of Richard Nixon, "would be wrong!")


I'm pretty sure Sting is rich.  Do I care?  No.  But more to the point, should I?  No.


And where does Alan's [conservative] friend fit into all this?  I don't know... .  But somehow I sense that, although he and I may disagree on lots of stuff, he wouldn't necessarily have a problem with any of this.


Well put.