Ressentiment

 

{One of my blog buddies, Lisa Palmer, made the following comments in response to something I said on her blog. It rang a small bell and inspired me to go back to find a previous post where I addressed her concerns; it expands the brief response I made to her comment, which I thought well worth thinking about and hope my response is appropriate and helpful.}

Most of the Trump supporters I have actually had conversations with (not anonymous internet interactions, which are rarely productive) honestly seem to believe he is a savior of sorts. They all seem to buy into this elaborate conspiracy theory where Trump (sometimes working with a hidden military shadow government) is trying to take down the elite. When confronted with the actual wrongs he has done that affect them negatively, they respond with certainty that “it’s all part of the plan!” Any day now, arrests are going to start occurring and all of the corrupted evil-doers in government and business (including all of the liberals and democrats who are the worst offenders) will be taken down. Once his “job” is accomplished, Trump will resign, and the hidden military shadow government will take over, dismantling the Federal Reserve and the banking system, and resetting things in favor of the middle class…

The story is sadly consistent. When I try to discuss specific wrongs he has/is doing, I am told immediately that none of it is true; it’s all part of the liberal press’ agenda to villianize Trump because the elite are so afraid of him. When I ask why no progress appears to be being made, as the “soon” they discuss has never wavered, they tell me that the liberal fascists keep fighting him, but he’s almost got everything ready.

Most of them agree he is a terrible person, “but he’s the only one who could get the job done!” And the saddest/scariest part for me, is that the number of Trump supporters (those who believe some version of this tale) are growing, or at least growing more vocal…

Despite the fact that I swore never to read or write about this man out of my very genuine concern that it raises my blood pressure, I do think it worth a moment’s reflection. I suggest that it is what the French saw in the eighteenth century as they experienced the reign of terror that was their revolution, a time when the rise of what they called “sansculottism” — an extreme form of republicanism* that roused the very poor against the aristocracy and the wealthy who refused to pay their way in France, shifting the entire financial burden onto the shoulders of the poor and disenfranchised, thereby making them and their country weak and sickly. The word used to describe the mind-set of those who rose against the power-mongers is the French word “ressentiment,” which we loosely translate as “resentment.”

Ressentiment is an ugly beast and it grows and festers within the heart of those who see around them others who have what they think they ought to have. It is not simply jealousy, though it is certainly akin to that most ugly passion. It breeds a form of hatred that is directed against those around them who have the power and the wealth and seem to lord it over those who are not in their privileged position. The French aristocracy knew the country was on the brink of starvation and insurrection and that an increase in their own pathetically small tax burden — which was a joke — might bring about some sort of balance or at least quiet down the growing unrest among those who suffered deprivation. But they refused and the resentment grew until it finally erupted in the reign of terror directed against those with wealth and position who remained in France — those who had not already fled in fear.

Clearly, there is no exact parallel between the French in the eighteenth century and today’s Americans. But there are broad areas of resemblance as those who regard themselves as deprived of power see around them wealthy men and women who ignore them and who refuse to bear any of the political burden, except in so far as it increases their own wealth and prestige. Indeed, the power-brokers seem to find new ways to shift that burden to the shoulders  of those who can least afford it while at the same time increasing their own wealth. And in this atmosphere there appears a man who is full of bloat and rhetoric, but who seems somehow different — like them, a womanizer, a crass fellow with bluster who promises them a piece of the pie that has been denied them for so long. The things this man does that horrifies many of those around him endear him to those who would be like him, arrogant, proud, domineering those around him, and abusing those who differ from him. He is their savior.

In a word, one might have expected something like what we are at present living through if we had thought about it a bit. It is really not all that surprising and it will not end until or unless those who have been denied access to the halls of power can somehow find themselves within those halls and portioned at least a small share of that power. This is the only way they can possibly gain some semblance of self-respect and cool down the passion of ressentiment that festers within their hearts.

It is doubtful, though certainly possible, that a revolution will be the alternative; the passion doesn’t seem to have reached a fever pitch (though the embers smolder there), but there will be continued attacks on liberals, the intelligent, the wealthy, those who seem to have what others lack, and those who pull the strings of power that makes life a burden for so many who are chronically deprived. And folks like Our Leader will continue to bask in the glow of popularity cast by those who see him as The Answer, one of Them, one who will lead them out of the mud that surrounds them.

 

*[the ideology which at that time sought the establishment of a true Republic as opposed to an Aristocracy] 

 

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The Filthy Rich

A recent story on AOL News is worth pondering:

Many conservatives have accused unemployment insurance of creating a population of slacker, couch-bound stoners (several states have made drug tests a requirement of benefits). But an analysis by Bloomberg has found that the ultimate pinnacle of hard work and success — millionaires — raked in almost $80 million in jobless benefits during the recession.

At its 2010 peak, the country paid out $150 billion in unemployment benefits, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And $29.9 million of that went to millionaires, according to Bloomberg. That year, almost 3,200 households that reported an adjusted gross income of more than $1 million received unemployment benefits, with an average take of $12,600. That’s 56 percent more than the $8,050 received by the average household filing for benefits, unsurprisingly so since jobless insurance is hitched to past salary.

At a time when there are thousands of folks in this country who don’t know where their next meal will come from and worry that they will soon be forced out of their homes and on to the street (if they haven’t been already), there are so many unsettling aspects to this story it is hard to know where to begin. It’s bad enough that the filthy rich continue to exploit their fellow humans as well as the earth in their single-minded determination to accumulate more money than they can spend in a lifetime. It is also disturbing to realize that these are the same people who complain that the lazy and unmotivated poor (as they see them) are the ones milking the governmental cow until it is dry when, in fact, they are filling their pails as fast as they can! These folks also complain about higher taxes at a time when the taxes for the wealthy in America are historically, and comparably, low — thanks to “trickle-down” economics. Further, these are the people who want to dismantle the EPA and other regulatory agencies so they have a clear path to more and more wealth while many of them are hiding their filthy lucre in Swiss bank accounts and planning to leave the country and live elsewhere when the bottom finally falls out.

In a word, many of the very people who complain the loudest and are the most aggressive in pressing Congress and legislators around the country to let them have their way are the ones who are doing everything they can to eliminate the middle class and cripple the economy that has made them wealthy. It’s time for Dante to come back from wherever he is spending eternity and write an updated version of The Inferno. It’s clear that these people will be there, it’s just not clear what their punishment will be. My suggestion is that they be forced to climb a tall mountain of hot lava in bare feet with heavy bags of gold on their backs only to reach the top and be required to go back and climb again. Forever.

Is Romney Slipping?

Depending on whom you read — and whether or not you listen to Mitt Romney himself — the Republican candidate is not doing well in the race for the highest office in the land. He spends a great deal of time these days taking his large foot out of his mouth and trying to unsay the stupid things he either did or did not say. He seems inept on such a large stage. As some wag recently noted, it’s remarkable that even with the golden spoon he was born with in his mouth he still finds room for his foot.

In any event, a recent editorial in the New York Times was speaking to this point when it mentioned in two key paragraphs what seem to be the central issues in Mitt’s slippage.

To some extent, Mr. Romney’s diminishing stature is because of two recent statements that revealed his deficiencies to a newly interested audience. He falsely suggested that the Obama administration was sympathetic to the violent Muslim protests in Libya and Egypt, illustrating his ignorant and opportunistic critique of foreign policy. And he was caught on video belittling nearly half the country for an overreliance on government handouts.

These moments, though, were not fumbles or gaffes. They were entirely consistent with the dismissive attitude Mr. Romney has routinely shown toward non-Americans or the nonrich. Now even long-undecided voters are starting to catch on and dismiss him.

The two points referred to in the first paragraph have received a great deal of attention, as well they should. But it is the reference to the “dismissive” attitude that caught my interest. I think this is right on. Apologists for Romney have been quick to explain that Romney’s comments have been taken out of context and that may well be the case. But the attitude that is reflected in the comments doesn’t require a context: it reappears in numerous off-the-cuff remarks and even in prepared statements and they reveal a man who really doesn’t care about those who are different from him and his wealthy friends. Such people don’t seem to appear on his radar — except as something to avoid as much as possible. And this is deeply disturbing.

We cannot expect politicians to be compassionate, I suppose, or to care for all of the people in this country — given the extreme heterogeneity of our teeming masses. But one can expect that a man or a woman who runs for the highest office in the land would include under the umbrella of his or her concerns large numbers of the people who will make up their constituency. I speak about the poor and disadvantaged. And the president assuredly must also be vitally interested in and knowledgeable about those in other countries whose fate is closely woven into the interests of the country he or she hopes to lead into a shrinking world. One would like to think that even politicians can show concern for people different from themselves.

But Mitt Romney does seem to give off the aura of a man who has led a protected life with all the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy in this country — with his tunnel vision focused on jobs and the economy and his delusions about how the rich make it on their own and the poor must lie on the bed of their own making.  And this despite the fact that he likes to present himself as one who worked his way through college and knows how the other half lives. If in fact Romney is slipping in the polls and in the end he loses this election, this editorial comes as close to anything I have read to an explanation as to why the undecided voters in this country are finding it hard to cozy up to this man and think of him as the one  they want leading their country in uncertain times. And this despite the fact that a weak economy has historically meant a change in leadership in this country. We seem to be witnessing something new in American history.

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.

Foot-In-Mouth Disease

As though Mitt Romney hasn’t heard enough about his gaffe dismissing the 47% of the people in this country as chronically poor and lazy to boot (and therefore not worth his time), there has come to light another comment from the same talk that has caused ripples in the press. The man does seem to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease! He also claimed in the same speech at the infamous Republican fund-raiser that “95 percent of life is set up for you if you’re born in this country.” The story reported in Mother Jones and picked up by Huff Post goes on to note:

If 95 percent of life is set up in this country, however, it certainly doesn’t reach 95 percent of the people. The U.S. poverty rate has hovered at or near 15 percent for the past few years. Moreover, the same 15 percent of the population is not constantly poor. In fact, recent research suggests that only 15 percent of Americans will not experience some type of economic insecurity in their lives. . . .

Fully 85 percent of Americans by age 60 will have experienced unemployment, sharply lower income, poverty or the use of welfare for at least a year of their adult lives, according to a 2012 longitudinal analysis by Mark R. Rank, the Herbert S. Hadley professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis.

In a word this man just doesn’t get it. If he really believes what he is saying and isn’t just telling people with fat wallets what he thinks they want to hear, then he lives in a golden-gated community somewhere removed from the world around him watching his wife’s horses go through their paces; he is simply unaware of what is going on in the real world. Indeed, he is so out of touch with the realities of this country one begins to wonder if he suffers from dementia. He certainly isn’t presidential material — even if he were more astute when it comes to foreign affairs where has shown himself astonishingly inept.

It is tiresome to repeat what is clear to anyone whose mind isn’t closed, but the poor in this country are not a static group. As suggested in the quote above it is ever-changing and it includes some of our friends and neighbors. If it doesn’t at present it may very well  in the not-too-distant future. Note the comment in the quote above — only 15% of the people in this country will NOT experience “some type of economic insecurity in their lives.” Think about that while reading Mitt’s comments about how 95% of the people in this country can make it as he did. And, of course, he would have us believe he made it on his own. He and his ilk remind me of what the wags used to say about George W. Bush: he was born on third base convinced he had hit a triple!

This is a remarkable country, but the Horatio  Alger myth has become just that. If you aren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth — as Romney assuredly was — then chances are better than even that you won’t make it rich. And if you don’t make it you may end up hoping your government will help you out, as well it should. Because the vast majority of those in need sincerely need our help. As a fellow blogger who works with struggling people on a daily basis said in this regard,

Using our homeless families we help as an example, out of about 200 families we helped during the last year, 84% had employment. The remaining 16% were employable, but the economy limited their hiring opportunities. These 84% are teachers, teacher assistants, nursing assistants, bus-drivers, retail and restaurant workers, etc. Their median family wage is $9.00 an hour. It should be noted, in my area, a living wage for a single person is $9.67 per hour while a living wage for a one adult family with one child is $17.68 per hour. These people are making less than is needed to support housing, utilities and food for their family. What we do is help them climb the ladder to self-sufficiency. What we have found is lack of education is key to their circumstances. So  is lack of health care. They are living beneath paycheck to paycheck, meaning the check is not covering the bills. Yet, they work hard and are not irresponsible.

The poor are assuredly not the lazy bums wealthy people like Mitt Romney would make them out to be. But aside from that, given Romney’s proclivity for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time the truly astonishing thing to me is that the race for the presidency at this point is neck and neck. Aren’t people paying attention? Barack Obama isn’t perfect, heaven knows. But at least he lives in the same world you and I live in and that’s rather important, it seems to me. I just don’t get it. Nor does Mitt Romney, even though he somehow manages to persevere even with his mouth full of his own feet.

Cold-Hearted Politics

In a “secret” taping of a speech to a group of fundraisers which everyone and his dog has heard about by now, Mitt Romney revealed a side of himself that he might not want us to see. As I say this, I am aware that he makes no apologies so I guess we must conclude that he is proud of his lack of concern for nearly half of this country’s voting public — the poor half who “pay no taxes.”  Consider the two following paragraphs from Yahoo News if you will:

[In explaining his position] Romney seems to be referring to the estimated 47 percent of Americans who did not owe federal income taxes in 2011 because their incomes were so low that they qualified for a tax credit, or because they didn’t work at all. Last year, 22 percent of people who didn’t owe income taxes were elderly people on Social Security, and an additional 17 percent were students, disabled people or the unemployed. More than 60 percent of the group were low-income workers, many of whom qualified for the child tax credit or the earned income tax credit. (These workers did pay payroll taxes for Social Security and other programs.)

Romney campaign spokeswoman Gail Gitcho released a statement about the video Monday evening. “Mitt Romney wants to help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy,” she said. “As the governor has made clear all year, he is concerned about the growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government, including the record number of people who are on food stamps, nearly one in six Americans in poverty, and the 23 million Americans who are struggling to find work. Mitt Romney’s plan creates 12 million new jobs in four years, grows the economy and moves Americans off of government dependency and into jobs.”

The second paragraph was written by a Romney “spokeswoman,” not Mitt himself. She gets paid to help Mitt get his foot out of his mouth. It’s getting to be a full-time job! But Mitt sticks by his guns. He cares not in the least about the poor in this country — we must believe this because this is what he keeps saying.

There are a number of problems with this scenario, of course, beginning with the cold heart that leads anyone to brag about the fact that he doesn’t care about the many poor people in this country — despite what his spokeswoman says. And it’s not just the poor vote he ignores, his policies are also designed to bypass the poor and favor the wealthy. But the attitude reflected here is not peculiar to Mitt Romney, sad to say. It is shared by a great many other people who see the poor as bloodsucking leeches who simply take and take and never give back. These stereotypes are more prevalent than we might like to admit in a country in which millions of Christians embrace the New Testament which preaches compassion for the poor.

But more to the point is the fact that the stereotype is built on a half-truth. To be sure, there are those in this country who have become dependent on the largess of the government and who will vote for a Democratic candidate in the hope that they continue to receive benefits from the large hand of the government. But there are also many poor — growing numbers in fact — who are in want not through any fault of their own, but because things simply didn’t go their way in an economy that is struggling.

But even if this were not the case, how can we condemn those in need for wanting help from their government when so many of the very wealthy receive even greater handouts in the form of tax breaks, bailouts, and subsidies that allow them to expand and protect their immense wealth? Talk about “paying no taxes”! And the people in this group are able to directly affect the way the government is elected in ways the poor simply cannot — by buying themselves politicians who are then obliged to see to it that the rich be allowed to continue to amass great wealth and avoid paying their fair share of taxes to help the poor and educate our children. Those people Mitt apparently cares about.

Friends In Need, Friends Indeed

I have a very dear friend whom I correspond with from time to time and we respectfully agree to disagree on most matters political. She recently wrote on her Facebook page a note regarding her frustration over some of the issues that the current election has raised:

I have a job. I make money. I have a choice of what to do with my money. I can decide to save some of my money or spend all of my money. I decide to save some of my money. Now I have to decide how do I want to save my money. I can put it under my mattress. I can keep it in my checking account. I can start a savings account. I can invest it. I decide to invest it. Now I have to decide what kind of investment. My decision to invest has worked out well for me. I make money. Now I have to decide, within the law, what to do with my money. I find out, with advice, I can save my money in different ways.
It is my money, I am within the law, but others have what they think is a better way to use or do with my money. But it is my money. I haven’t broken any laws. I am generous and giving with my money. But others think I am not generous and giving enough with my money. Why do others want my money or tell me what I should be doing with my money? What is wrong with this picture?

This is an interesting note and one worthy of reflection. My friend has a point: it’s her money, where do other people come off telling her where it should be spent?

Unfortunately, we live in a country where the government claims the right to take some of our money and spend it the way they think it should be spent. I also disagree with much of the way my money is spent, and I am frustrated by the waste and abuse. But I recognize the fact that I have little to say about it and as long as I choose to remain in this country I must play by the rules. For example, I would love to see “defense” spending greatly reduced and the money spent on clean energy, health and human services, and education. But I have no say in the matter, unfortunately. Neither does my friend.

For years now I have watched an elderly man walk by my house on his way to work at the local factory. He carries his lunch pail and he walks slowly back and forth like clockwork every day. I worked for years at the regional state university where my salary was paid for by people like the man who walks by my house every day. I have fed at the public trough and I have managed to do quite well. My friend, quoted above, also ate from that same trough and she has managed to do well also. We are the lucky ones, because we made it to retirement. The man I spoke about no longer walks by my house: he has been laid off due to “downsizing” at the local factory — after 20 years of loyal service working on an assembly line putting cabinets together. Now it’s my turn to help him, I figure. He can eat out of the public trough for a while until he can get back on his feet. Why not? It only seems fair.

As I say, I don’t choose where my tax money goes. But I am delighted to know that at least some of it goes to help out people like the man who walks by — and another friend of mine, a former public school superintendent who has been laid off, lost his house, and watched his life fall apart before his eyes. These people are not lazy bums. They are people who need our help and yet we begrudge it because it is “our” money. I  would prefer to think of it as a loan. We have it for a time and we certainly don’t need it all; when others need it they should be welcome to it. I don’t suffer unduly because these people are now feeding out of the public trough. I ate out of it for many years. Now it’s their turn.

Prognosis Negative

I haven’t seen the latest medical report, but the patient is in a coma and on life support so the prognosis can’t be good. The patient, of course, is the American democratic system and it is very sick if not near death. It waits for a champion on a white horse to rescue it — or perhaps miracle drugs, or a transfusion of new blood. As bad as things are at present they will get much worse if the Republicans have their way — judging by what they say.

In an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times, David Books had a close look at the recent Republican National Convention and he had many astute observations to make. The one that interested me the most was the following:

But there is a flaw in the vision the Republicans offered in Tampa. It is contained in its rampant hyperindividualism. Speaker after speaker celebrated the solitary and heroic individual. There was almost no talk of community and compassionate conservatism. There was certainly no conservatism as Edmund Burke understood it, in which individuals are embedded in webs of customs, traditions, habits and governing institutions.

Today’s Republicans strongly believe that individuals determine their own fates. In a Pew Research Center poll, for example, 57 percent of Republicans believe people are poor because they don’t work hard. Only 28 percent believe

people are poor because of circumstances beyond their

control. These Republicans believe that if only government gets out of the way, then people’s innate qualities will enable them to flourish.

We should have seen this coming, of course. When the presumptive Vice Presidential candidate tells us his favorite “philosopher” is Ayn Rand who advocates cut-throat capitalism we should have taken note. This group doesn’t care about people or the planet. There is no talk about the importance of educating the young or taking care of the poor. The latter are simply hoist by their own petard: they are lazy and unmotivated and that’s why they are poor. If they had any gumption they would be wealthy like us. This is not only a twisted, and even shrunken, view of the world, it is also a bit sick.

As Brooks suggests, the truly distressing echo resonating from the Republican rhetoric is the lack of compassion and concern for those who need our help. The chest thumping and braggadocio of the wealthy who honestly believe they made it on their own and everyone else should do and be exactly like them or there is something wrong with them is either delusional or downright stupid. This is especially so when one looks around and sees the talented and gifted people who are struggling to keep their heads above water as against the many stupid and uncaring people with great wealth who seem only to be able to gloat.

There are good people who need help and often the only institution that is in a position to deliver that help is the government, whether we like it or not. We tie the hands of government and reduce the effectiveness of social programs at our own peril: there but for the grace of God goes you or I. Even if people don’t respond to the call for charity and love of our fellow human beings, one would think they would respond to enlightened self-interest. We all benefit from a healthy government rooted in the concept of the common good.

If government “gets out of the way” we all run the risk of going down for the third time. The day of Horatio Alger is past. The day of progressive economic theorizing is past. We need to rein in our greed and self-interest and try to see the broader canvas. We need to develop new economies of sustainability and conservation — in the true sense of this term. And we need to care about one another. If we can’t see these things then the patient is beyond hope. Not even the most miraculous of drugs can save him.

Taxed Enough Already?

I have had the audacity to suggest that we need to change our mind-set about paying taxes. We lump taxes together with death as the two things we dread and can be certain of. But I suggested that we think of taxes as a way of helping our neighbors who may be in need and improving our schools which are failing to get the job done. We pay fewer taxes than most of the people in the “developed” countries and our schools are near the bottom of that group of countries as well. There may be a connection.

In reflecting on this issue, I came across an article in the British paper The Guardian in which the author suggested that Brits — who also dread taxes — think about Sweden where the attitude toward taxes is downright positive. In a recent poll, it was revealed that a growing number of Swedes are pleased to pay taxes because they feel their tax money does so much good. As the article went on to explain:

One way to examine the issue is to compare state help provided by the British government to one which traditionally charges much higher taxes: Sweden. Swedes support the second-highest tax burden in the world – after Denmark’s – with an average of 48.2 per cent of GDP going to taxes. Yet Sweden, along with equally high-taxing Denmark and Norway, tops almost every international barometer of successful societies.

Swedes’ personal income tax can be as little as 29 per cent of their pay, but most people (anyone earning over £32,000) will pay between 49 and 60 per cent through a combination of local government and state income tax.

And yet, the Swedes are happy, the article goes on to explain. What angers them is people who won’t pay their taxes and therefore fail to support national programs that help make the country strong, their kids smarter, their economy healthier, and the people well off.

The key here is twofold: First, the positive attitude of the Swedes is predicated on the good the tax money results in: better schools, free lunches for the kids, excellent teachers, and fewer people in poverty. Secondly, the Swedes don’t spend 60% of their tax revenue on the military. They are not supporting armed forces around the world that are presumably keeping us safe from our enemies. Let’s reflect on these points one at a time.

To take the first point first, the common perception in this country is that much of our tax money is wasted on the poor who are all crackheads and busily making one another pregnant with unwanted children. I have written to this point as it is a misconception that is widely accepted among so many Americans who pay taxes in the 10-35% range and who really would rather hang on to all their money and spend it on themselves. But there would certainly have to be some housecleaning and a good deal more accountability before enough people in this country became convinced that their money is being well spent on those in need, on improving the schools, and helping to save the planet from our mindless abuse. There is much good being done already, but more needs to be done and people need reassurance that their money is being well spent.

But I must say the second point above is the sticking point for me. We spend an inordinate amount of money on the military, thereby increasing profits among the multinational corporations who help them wage war. It’s not clear why we need such a gargantuan military presence and I sometimes wonder if it is the military presence itself that creates fear in others and results in them becoming our enemies in the first place. In other words, we are scaring the hell out of everyone else on the planet with our armed presence around the world and that may be what makes them take up arms against us — which in turn makes it necessary for us to increase military spending to protect ourselves against our enemies. It may indeed be a vicious circle. If we are not in fact a bellicose nation, we appear to be so. Perhaps if we presented a friendlier face to the rest of the world the army and navy could “stand down,” as they say in military parlance.

In any event, there are at least two obstacles to the citizens of this nation adopting a more positive attitude toward paying taxes, both of which are based on fear (and possible misconceptions) and neither of which contributes to a healthier and happier world.

The Rich Get Richer

As the gap widens in this country between the rich and the poor — and as mentioned before the middle class gradually slips into that gap — it behooves us to consider what the hell is going on. I recently blogged that 26 U.S. companies pay their CEOs more than they paid in taxes in the year 2011. The following chart tells the bigger story:

The standard excuse for this incredible disparity is that CEOs have to be paid huge amounts because of the competitive nature of Big Business — if we don’t pay the man or woman at the top enough $$ they will go elsewhere. In fact, that has become an excuse for hiring people at the highest levels not only in business but in such seemingly unrelated activities as coaching college football. But that’s a topic for another time.

The sad truth remains that the very rich in this country are becoming so at the expense of the middle classes who are, as a consequence, becoming poorer and poorer. While the rich grow richer and increasingly stash away more of their wealth in off-shore bank accounts (thereby giving the lie to the claim that they will create jobs with their tax breaks and subsidies and help the economy recover) the number of poor increases. In fact, the poverty levels rose 15.1% (46.2 million) in 2010 and 15.7& in 2011. As a recent story in Huffpost tells us:

WASHINGTON — The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

The number of homeless grows daily and those who find themselves suddenly out of work  struggle to find a minimum wage job — or two — in order to keep their homes and feed their kids. We need to consider who these people are. They are our friends and neighbors who have tripped over a weak economy. And increasing numbers of them are joining the ranks of the poor who need our help. Yet all we can think about is cutting taxes and eliminating social programs because we know of a few extreme examples of welfare abuse.

Those who work with the hard-pressed and homeless have a perspective that the rest of us can learn from. One such person is a blog-buddy who made the following comment on a recent post I wrote about the “typical pauper.” He said: ”

The homeless have no greater propensity toward substance abuse than those who are housed. Throughout my volunteer work with homeless families beginning in 1999, I have witnessed people who try to paint all of the homeless people with a broad brush based on the image of a panhandler on the street. The panhandler is just a small percentage of the homeless population. The agency I do most of my work reported in its July 30 fiscal year-end results – 84% of the homeless families they help are employed with a median average family wage of $9.00 an hour. A living wage for an individual is just under $10 an hour and for a family is just under $17 an hour (note this statistic varies by region).

Imagine yourself working at a well-paying job with a happy spouse and two kids in private school. Your home is mortgaged to the hilt and you have a fairly fat Visa bill to pay each month. But you can manage because you have a good paycheck coming in each week. Then imagine that one day you are called into a room by your boss who sits you down with the H.R. person and the company attorney and tells you that he deeply regrets he will have to “let you go.” You are given severance pay and there is always unemployment benefits to tide you over, but they will run out. In this economy it is quite possible that you will not be able to find any job at all except one that pays minimum wage with no benefits. While all this is happening to you and several of your fellow-workers, your boss is given a raise and more stock options and is now among the enviable 1% — those in the yellow box above. How do you cope?  Suddenly, it’s not someone else’s problem!

My example is fiction, of course, but in the world “out there” this sort of thing is happening with alarming regularity. In fact, I have a friend to whom this very thing has recently happened. He is a man with a Master’s degree and years of experience who now finds himself homeless and without an income. It is a serious problem. The gap between the very rich and the very poor is widening and while our anger over the obscene wealth of the few is perfectly justified, our attitude toward the poor needs to be tempered with compassion and the spirit of charity.