Saturday, August 04, 2012

The Argument From Personal Experience

I was speaking to a good friend of mine a while ago about the idea of taxing the wealthy and he mentioned that his views on that had changed and he now believed that it was wrong to tax the wealthy at a higher percentage rate than the poor or middle class. "I got where I did by working hard. I never got a college degree and I make a good living. If I can do it, than anyone can do it." This of course implies that those who make less money simply don't work hard enough, which is patently false. Statistically, those in lower income jobs work longer hours in much more grueling, manual jobs than those in higher income positions.

Personally, I'd love to just close all the stupid loopholes and tax breaks so the wealthy pay at least as much, as a percentage of income, as the lower and middle classes. But, his argument was that if someone has worked hard to get to a certain level they shouldn't be penalized for it. Two issues there. The first is that the vast majority of the extremely wealthy in this country are legacy millionaires, old money. They didn't work for it. They may have turned a couple million into tens of millions or tens of millions into hundreds of millions, but that is not the same as starting from the bottom and working their way up from the lower or middle class into the top 1%. Most of them did not do that. Their grand parents or great grandparents did. The second issue I have with this line of reasoning is that it does not conform to what is best for the majority of Americans.

When our country is in economic trouble we have only two choices, raise taxes or cut services. Raising taxes on those making less than sixty thousand a year would hurt a lot more than raising taxes on those making more than two hundred and fifty thousand. Taking an additional 10% of a $60,000 a year salary would significantly change a family's lifestyle and cause them to make painful sacrifices. Taking 10% of a $250,000 salary would not. Historically, our economy has been the most prosperous and the middle-class has grown the most when taxes on the wealthiest have been the highest. Conversely, the middle-class has shrunk the most, along with the economy, when taxes on the wealthiest were the lowest. Think the Clinton era versus the Bush era.

If you do not rely on Medicaid or Medicare or food or housing assistance programs and never have, it is easy to advocate cutting those programs. It doesn't affect you or anyone you know. If you live in an area with good, well-funded. high performing schools or can afford private schools, it's easy to advocate cutting state taxes that will ultimately mean less funding for schools. You might think, "Those needy families should all just go out and get good jobs. I did it. Why can't everyone else?" And there's the crux of the argument from personal experience. "I did it. Why can't everyone else?"

The obvious problem is that the argument rests on the belief that everyone possesses similar skills, opportunities, and obstacles. This is a big error in logic. The idea that a black kid from the Richard Allen Projects in North Philadelphia who woke up every morning to a mother on crack, no father, walked to school without eating breakfast, passing crackwhores and crack dealers and avoiding gangs on his way to school, passed through a metal detector at school where he was taught by a teacher who hated every second she spent in front of his class room, reading books with missing pages that are five or ten years out of date, has the same opportunities as a middle-class white kid from a small town, is ridiculous. The black kid is lucky if if he even learns to speak proper English in that environment. He will likely never see examples of success in his life that he can relate to other than the local crack dealer. So, he will see welfare and unemployment as his only opportunities. The same is true of many minorities in this country and even poor whites.

Do you think Mitt Romney faced any of those obstacles growing up? Do you think he suffered from a sub-par education and an environment that fosters failure? Neither did my friend.

The biggest problem with this theory is not just the disparity in opportunity and higher level educational attainment, but also the disparity in skills. Not everyone can teach themselves how to build a computer like Steve Jobs did. Not everyone can teach martial arts or write novels like I can. Not everyone has the personality to talk themselves into a good entry-level job where they can receive on the job training and work their way up into a well-paying position. Some people have children to care for,which adds another obstacle in their path. If education, both on the lower and high level, was free and equal and opportunities and individual skills were equal, the argument would hold up, but if you're a successful hair stylist, writer, athlete, chef, businessman, politician, etc. you have to know dozens of unsuccessful people in your field who dream of being successful, who you know do not have the talent to ever really make it. Some of them need a college degree in order to get where you got without one. Some of them need a job program to get them prepared for an interview that you breezed through effortlessly. Some of them need daycare programs in order to be able to afford to get the job training and some of them will just never make it.

The kid who never learned proper English at home or at school is not likely to ever become a CEO of a company. The kid who could barely sleep at night because it was 90 degrees outside and he had no air conditioner and he hadn't eaten that night and there were police sirens racing up and down the block and gunfire and helicopters, is probably not going to get the same grades and therefore the same access to a higher degree as the kid with two working parents who grew up in the suburbs. The fifty or sixty-year-old who lost his job during the recession is not going to find it as easy to get a new job as the twenty or thirty year old. Women will not find it as easy to get the higher-paying positions as men. Fat people will not find it as easy as skinny people. Ugly people will not find it as easy as beautiful people. Minorities will not find it as easy as whites. The poor will not find it as easy as the wealthy or middle class. It's a fact. Ignoring that fact will not make it go away; It will only further divide us. Just because you made it does not mean anyone can and just because you think you made it without help does not mean you did. Everyone from your parents to your teachers to the guy who gave you your first job helped you. Your genetic ancestry that led to you being born with a certain level of intelligence helped you. Every experience you ever had in your life helped you and most of those experiences are unique to you. How you responded to them is unique to you and cannot be duplicated. 

There have even been serious studies linking IQ with social and economic success like the 1994 book, The Bell Curve, by psychologist Richard J. Hernstein and political scientist Charles Murray, which demonstrated, using empirical statistical analysis, that even siblings raised in the same households under the same circumstances achieve radically different levels of success based on IQ. Those with higher intelligence scores make an average of seven-time more than those with lower scores. That makes it unlikely that those with lower IQs can duplicate the success of those with higher IQs.

So, no, just because you did it does not mean that anyone can do it. I don't care how easily you were able to find a good job. Looking at the 5 million Americans who are out of work right now and suggesting that any one of them could do what you did is both naive and offensive. It belittles both your success and their challenges. Those entitlement programs are there for a reason. The reality is that some people need a little extra help and a benevolent society, the benevolent citizens of that society, should be willing to provide that help and those who have been more successful than others, should be counted on to give a little more.