Unequal Opportunities

The number of words that have poured forth after Romney’s gaffe about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay taxes (the “Obama supporters”) makes me somewhat reluctant to add my two cents worth. This is especially so since I have already addressed this issue. But that has never stopped me before, so I will push ahead!

Any number of commentators have mentioned that the 47% of Americans who supposedly don’t pay taxes do, in fact, do so — including payroll, sales, excise, and property taxes; the benefits they receive, such as social security and medicare are from money they paid in when times were better. The people who don’t pay taxes, relatively speaking, are the wealthy folks like Mitt Romney who have a smaller percentage of their income taxed than do the folks like you and me. But that being said there was the other part of Romney’s speech that was equally troubling. I speak about the conviction of Mitt Romney and the wealthy in general that they made it on their own — you know, born on third base convinced they hit a triple. That of course is hogwash. No one makes it on his own and studies have shown that those who make it big time in this country are the ones who had a foot up at the start — the rich just get richer. This is no longer a country of equal opportunity, though the Romney camp would insist that the poor are simply lazy and could make it if they just got off their collective butts and borrowed $20,000 from their parents to open their own business. [He actually said that and please note his assumption that the average young person out there can simply ask Mom and Dad for $20,000! This tells us a great deal about the world Mitt Romney lives in.]

One of the people to shed the most light on this subject is Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who wrote the following paragraph as part of a lengthy rebuttal of Romney’s speech to well-healed Republicans:

…, many of those receiving benefits are our young — providing them education and health (even if they or their parents don’t pay taxes) are investments in our future. America is the country with the least equality of opportunity of any of the advanced countries for which there is data. A child’s life prospects are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in these other countries. While the American Dream may have become a myth, it doesn’t have to be that way. Children shouldn’t have to depend on the wealth of their parents to get the education or health care they need to live up to their potential.

This is an important point in my mind. I have remarked before about the death of the Horatio Alger myth but wasn’t aware of the studies Stiglitz refers to. We need to think about the fact that this country was conceived as a community of persons brought together by common interests and hopes. We need to take care of one another when we are down and out — not turn our backs on each other. The founders deeply believed in the notion of “public virtue” which takes us outside of ourselves and leads to selfless acts of kindness — all of which strengthen the community as a whole.

But by 1816 Thomas Jefferson, for one, was already beginning to worry about the lack of public virtue in the form of narrow self-interest exhibited by the increasing numbers of corporations hell-bent on making as much money as possible. He hoped “that we shall take warning and crush at its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of the country.” To which Mitt Romney replies: “Corporations are people too.” In any event, those who run our largest corporations are the immensely rich who do not care in the least about community and would insist they made it to the top of the pyramid on their own.

However, if someone makes it big he assuredly owes it to those — in addition to his parents —  who made it possible. To turn one’s back on others who fall on hard times and ignore them as lazy and unmotivated is to ignore the fact that as a community each of us depends on others along the way. Romney’s attitudes, reflected in numerous comments he has made (in or out of context) reveal him to be a man with no sense of history and no awareness of the innumerable people who have helped him get where he is today.

What’s It Worth?

A man sits next to an attractive women at a bar and offers to buy her a drink. She accepts with a smile and while they’re waiting for the drinks they start chatting. At one point he asks her if she would sleep with him for $5,000.00 and she laughs and says she probably would. After the drinks arrive and they have had a few sips he asks her is she would sleep with him for $1,000.00. After a pause she smiles and says “probably I would, after a drink or two.” He than asks if she would sleep with him for $500.00 and she responds angrily: “Of course not, what do you take me for, a whore?” He quietly responds: “We’ve already established what you are. I am just trying to determine what your price is.”

A joke, to be sure. But it reflects the fact that in this country, as the popular movies tell us, “everything has its price.” In fact Nicholas Kristof has recently written a review of a book in the New York Times that develops this idea  in an interesting way. Everything in our culture, increasingly, does seem to have a price. As Kristof notes, Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist, . . . argues that in recent years we have been slipping without much reflection into relying upon markets in ways that undermine the fairness of our society.

Kristof notes the bizarre case of a woman in Utah who agreed to have the logo of an online casino tattooed on her forehead for $10,000 in order to have enough money to send her son to college. The U.S. sells visas for half a million dollars to would-be immigrants. Massachusetts recently considered selling the naming rights to its state parks to corporations. And we don’t need Kristof to tell us that schools and school buses have corporate logos prominently displayed and the school halls are filled with machines dispensing unhealthy foods; TVs broadcast news, complete with commercial messages, to the classrooms.  And we all know ball parks, athletic fields, and civic arenas now bear the names of corporations as well. Athletes sell out to the highest bidder and coaches regularly jump contracts for a better deal — and they are widely applauded: “who wouldn’t?” Kids leave college and “turn pro” for millions of dollars, thereby undermining their future prospects. In fact, there seems to be no limit to the number of things that have a price tag — including our integrity. And that’s the point. Kristof and Sandel wonder if there are limits, as do I.

We moan about the economic problem in this country, and well we should. The infamous 1% of the obscenely wealthy (who number among themselves virtually all of the members of the Senate and most of the members of the House of Representatives) now control 40% of the wealth in this country — more than the lower 90% put together. In effect, they own the country. The remaining 9% aspire to become part of the 1%. The country, as Joseph Stiglitz has been saying for years, has become radically split between the very wealthy and the growing number of poor and it increasingly resembles a third-world country — while a number of those countries, ironically, struggle for greater economic equality. We worry aloud about the national debt, the number of people unemployed, the homeless, the undernourished, and the rising costs of the things we need; we might do better to ponder the real economic problems in this country.

They are twofold: (1) the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, and (2) our increasing willingness to sacrifice morals for money. As our preoccupation with money grows — perhaps as a consequence of the disparity mentioned in point #1 —  our sense of morality wanes. As Kristof asks, quoting his source, Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy? The obscenely rich want to keep it that way — in the name of “free markets,” or more accurately “market fundamentalism.”

This issue goes to the heart of fairness in our country. There has been much discussion recently about economic inequality, but almost no conversation about the way the spread of markets nurtures a broader, systemic inequality. It has been called “market fundamentalism,” which is . . . the dogma that helped lead to bank deregulation and the current economic mess. And anyone who honestly believes that low taxes and unfettered free markets are always best should consider moving to Pakistan’s tribal areas. They are a triumph of limited government, negligible taxes, no “burdensome regulation” and free markets for everything from drugs to AK-47s.

Call it “systemic inequality,” or “market fundamentalism,” or “free markets.” By any name it is a crass materialism that puts a price on everything under the sun. Indeed, I would argue that this is not only the major economic problem in our country; it is a serious moral problem as well.