Saturday, February 28, 2009

Death and taxes

If there's one thing I've come to accept, it's that other people simply don't agree with me about death and they never will. To me it is Just Not That Big a Deal. Obviously I don't want to die, but I don't believe in any sort of afterlife or reincarnation or continuation of the soul--I believe we rot, and that's it, and I'm really okay with that.

For some reason this notion freaks a lot of other people out, and as I said I've sort of learned that for whatever reason I just think differently about this than they do and that we are never ever going to agree. (I'm okay with that, by the way.) Furthermore, the basis of our various feelings on this isn't exactly super-empirical/logical, and so arguing and reasoning with each other will never bring us into agreement.

Again, that's okay. I bring it up only because I am increasingly starting to believe that the same is true over taxes. Andrew Sullivan's reader writes:

I'm one of those “wealthy” people who will be pinched hard by Obama’s tax hike. I came to this country legally 17 years ago with $300.00 in my pocket but with good education. I struggled at the beginning but nevertheless, worked my way up in the high tech world. I too think that the Obama’s tax proposals are extremely unfair as if I don’t pay already enough to Uncle Sam.

Sullivan himself says:

I feel the same way. I came from a modest background in another country and arrived in the US with barely a cent of my own money. I've worked hard and earned the American dream - and now have to work for the government for well over half the year (a government that still persecutes me for being an HIV-survivor). Obama will take more of my money - and much, much more in the future. Liberalism believes in punishing hard-working successful people in this manner - and the more you succeed, the more they will punish you.

I have encountered similar sentiments from my roommate and her family. And I fundamentally can't comprehend it.

I mean, I understand it. The words make sense. I get the logic. It's not that I feel like people who feel this way are spouting gibberish. I just can't relate at all. It's not how I experience the same phenomenon. In my view, it's not punishment--I don't think anybody's out to get me, and I don't feel as if I'm being told I did wrong. It's more along the lines of something Joe Biden said during the campaign--neighborliness. I take it more or less for granted that not only do we all pay for certain services and benefits of living in a nation-state, but that if some people (myself included) can spare a little more toward that they they/we ought to contribute it.

It comes back, I think, partly to an issue we talked about a lot in the class I took on sort of the greatest hits of liberalism (which included Burke, Hayek, and Smith as well as Rousseau, Mill, Locke, and Dewey--this is liberalism broadly, rather than politically, defined). Are we most concerned with fairness in methods, or fairness in results? Put another way, do we want everyone to be treated the same even if they're starting from different places, or do we want people to be treated differently such that they come out more even?

"Fair" was a word we got into endless arguments about in that class, and I really think that it's something deep-seated and emotional enough that it's all but impossible to reason across camps because it's not actually about reason at all. That's okay, and I'm not sure either side can be said to be right or wrong (economic theories can be found for both camps, and in any case that kind of ostensibly empirical basis isn't really what I'm dealing with here). In a sense, it's like kids on a playground yelling about what's fair and unfair. We know unfair when we see it, and it makes us nuts, but it can be very hard to articulate why or how something is unfair to someone who doesn't feel the same way.

I have gone the proverbial fifty rounds with my roommate on this and we simply don't agree. We've accepted that that's the way it is and most of the time it's not an issue (although the time another housemate commented that she thought it was "selfish" of Rommate 1's family to vote for McCain solely on taxes was definitely a rough moment). I just think it's fascinating that taxes--an issue you might think would be the driest, wonkiest, most mathematical of all policy--are so political and so bound up in people's politics.

There's a lot more I could go on to say about the state's relationship to the economy (hi, Foucault) as well as relative identification of the individual with the state vs. the community in Western political liberalism, and furthermore I have notions of how to map that--or not--onto Islamic notions like the Ummah and jizya, but this is getting long so perhaps another time.


  1. All of us who have done well tend to attribute these good results to our own efforts. We tend to attribute little to the conditions necessary to economic growth and individual success--highway systems, the mechanisms of the rule of law, functioning economic management, a population that believes in security and stability and opportunity. These are in large part created by government. (And talented immigrants acknowledge this when they choose to come to the US to make good, judging the odds to be best where these conditions exist.)

    These social goods aren't free. There is no "Uncle Sam" spending our money on himself, there is, or should be, a society that believes that contributing to the commons is a productive investment (and a government competent to make this so.)

    As to whether the burden is "unfair:" history suggests that extreme income inequality does not promote political stability--an issue a courageous government needs to deal with.

  2. Another version of a similar problem:

    For obvious reasons, my employer is trying desperately to cut costs right now. One of the methods currently under discussion is furloughs: the school will save $60,0000 if it just stops doing anything at all for one day (!). That means no one comes to work, the heat and lights are turned to their weekend settings, etc. Clearly this would happen some day when classes are in session, so the students wouldn't be being cheated.

    The problem: we've got a small group of employees on campus who are working at slightly below a living wage. The school is committed to increasing their wages. People who initially suggested the furlough intended the living wage pool to be exempt: they would be paid as usual, it's just the rest of us who wouldn't.

    Apparently there's some discussion about this: some other employees feel that this is unfair, and that we should be "sharing the pain equally."

    That reaction is baffling to me. How is it "sharing the pain equally" for me to lose an amount of money I won't even notice, while one of the custodial workers, who already skips lunch to save money, is suddenly down a day's wages? If we'd all shared the pleasure equally I could see it, but the living wage pool has been taking a lot of the pain for a long time. If you're not being fair in times of prosperity, emphasis on distributing costs during in a downturn seems particularly unfair.

    But evidently not everyone sees it that way.