Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Right and wrong still matters in policy

So this Felix Salmon post isn't the sort of thing you don't read on economically-oriented policy blogs very often:
The latest CBO report on income trends says nothing particularly surprising, although it does underline quite emphatically what we already knew about the 99% and the 1%. In particular, the key message, both in charts and text, is all about the 1% and how they’ve torn away from the rest of the population in the past 30 years.

And in the wake of the 99% getting tear-gassed in Oakland by their own municipal government, I’m going to get personal for a minute here: I am the 99%. I have an absolutely wonderful life in my favorite city in the world, protected by a large and prosperous centuries-old democracy. I have enough money to eat and to travel just about anywhere I want. My home is filled with fabulous art and features a small collection of equally fabulous wine; I suspect it might even be worth more than I paid for it. I love my job, which pays extremely well, and affords me a huge degree of professional freedom. I have the kind of transferable skills which are in demand by multiple potential employers. I get to wonk out with some of the most interesting people in the world, and I also get to ignore the bores. I have a gorgeous wife, we’re both in good health, and we’re blessed with wonderful friends. In short, I have the kind of life which would be the envy of well over 99% of anybody who’s ever lived, and well over 99% of anybody alive today.

And yet — I’m still in the (upper quintile of the) 99%, and if you boil things down to just their income and wealth numbers, the 1% is as far away from me as I am from a struggling working family with an onerous mortgage and a highly uncertain employment outlook. And there’s no need for them to shower themselves with that kind of money. From me on out, it’s pure avarice. Which is human, and natural, and probably even helps in terms of economic growth. But given the amount of misery and poverty in America, it’s simply unconscionable that I and the people earning vastly more than me — including all of the 1% — are getting such an enormous share of the income and wealth so desperately needed elsewhere.

All of which is to say that my taxes are too low. If my taxes went up and the money was used to reduce poverty and unemployment in America, my standard of living would still be glorious — and millions of lives would be improved. And as for the 1%, their taxes could double and they would still be fabulously well off. I’m not proposing that as a policy solution. But I am trying to put things in perspective here. I’m not in the 1%, and I can and should be giving back much more to the society which is supporting me and making my lifestyle possible. The people who are in the 1% are the most fortunate of the fortunate. The least they can do is pay as much in taxes as, say, I do.
Okay, so it's probably poor form to just copy and paste Felix's entire post. I did it anyway because I think it really hits at a key element of the income inequality problem. You can make all sorts of economic arguments for and against taxing high-earners, but at the end of the day, it's very difficult to look at the wealth gap, and the many miseries inflicted by poverty, and think that lives couldn't be improved by moving some of that money around. We can debate the particulars, of course -- there are a lot of mechanisms for wealth redistribution, and certainly those who believe that government intervention only exacerbates preexisting divides. But there are also people who look at the status quo and think this is the way things should be -- that there's something intrinsically fair about income inequality. People who believe that individuals with money simply deserve that money more than anyone else. It's hard to argue policy with those people -- they're starting from a different point than me and it's natural that they'd end up at a different point as well. There's really no choice but to do what the post above is doing: attack the dismal morality of their position instead. Policy types are generally pretty averse to talking about issues in moral terms -- it's too black-and-white and too subjective -- so I think it's fairly courageous of Felix to write what he did. Everything doesn't always come down to efficiency and functionality: sometimes, simple notions of justice matter too.

No comments:

Post a Comment