Patriotic Millionaires

Sheelah Kolhatkar writing in the New Yorker; The Ultra-Wealthy Who Argue That They Should Be Paying Higher Taxes:

In the U.S., executive compensation has increased, on average, by nine hundred and forty per cent since 1978, according to one estimate; during the same period, worker pay has risen twelve per cent. Income inequality hasn’t been this extreme since the nineteen-twenties. Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman found that, as a result of cuts to estate and corporate taxes, as well as the 2017 G.O.P. tax bill, the four hundred richest Americans pay a lower over-all tax rate than any other group in the country. In a Times Op-Ed, Saez and Zucman wrote, “This is the tax system of a plutocracy.”

First off: 940%. Wow.

Saez and Zucman’s research continues to provide evidence of the extent and damage done by runaway inequality, which is of course the aforementioned plutocracy. The hard, numerical reality of inequality was first presented to me by Paul Krugman, which made me very interested in the exhaustive review of historic, global inequality (and government’s role in curtailing it) by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. My point: it is incontrovertible fact that inequality hurts societies. But here’s what the wealthy think about it all:

When I asked Payne how hard it was to persuade rich people to join [Patriotic Millionaires, a group of wealthy people who support hiking taxes on the rich], she said, “I think the last time I checked there were about three hundred and seventy-five thousand taxpayers in the country who make a million dollars a year in income”—there are now almost half a million—“and we have a couple hundred members.” She laughed. “If you ever needed a back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many of America’s élite are concerned about the basic well-being of their fellow-citizens, that should give you a rough estimate.”

Let’s do the math. That’s just over 0.06% of millionaires who see enough of a problem to join a group that asks for higher taxes. So I think it is very very safe to say that essentially all millionaires feel that they have, to use the old expression, earned every penny. And they intend to keep them.

After that, you get a series of tired old expressions to justify stupendously low taxes:

And then you get the books written by these people:

And the narrative corollary from those millionaires: “I earned so much money in my life, it must be solely because of the things I did and not at all because of my luck.”

Which reminds me of David Robert’s evergreen piece in Vox, “The radical moral implications of luck in human life”:

It’s not difficult to see why many people take offense when reminded of their luck, especially those who have received the most. Allowing for luck can dent our self-conception. It can diminish our sense of control. It opens up all kinds of uncomfortable questions about obligations to other, less fortunate people.

Nonetheless, this is a battle that cannot be bypassed. There can be no ceasefire. Individually, coming to terms with luck is the secular equivalent of religious awakening, the first step in building any coherent universalist moral perspective. Socially, acknowledging the role of luck lays a moral foundation for humane economic, housing, and carceral policy.

To rephrase Roberts: if we can not sit down and reflect on our lives and conclude the frightening degree to which luck has shaped our selves and our circumstances (to say nothing of our monetary assets) then we are completely blind to the role of luck in other’s lives.

And, honestly, read that piece from him. It include an outstanding discussion of genetics, epigenetics, nature, nurture. Here’s a bit more:

So, then, here you are. You turn 18. You are no longer a child; you are an adult, a moral agent, responsible for who you are and what you do.

By that time, your inheritance is enormous. You’ve not only been granted a genetic makeup, an ethnicity and appearance, by accidents of nature and parentage. You’ve also had your latent genetic traits “activated” in a very specific way through a specific upbringing, in a specific environment, with a specific set of experiences.

Your basic mental and emotional wiring is in place; you have certain instincts, predilections, fears, and cravings. You have a certain amount of money, certain social connections and opportunities, a certain family lineage. You’ve had a certain amount and quality of education. You’re a certain kind of person.

You are not responsible for any of that stuff; you weren’t yet capable of being responsible.

And of course Roberts includes the necessary rebuttal of those who would claim that assigning luck the large role it deserves undercuts our free agency. Of course it doesn’t. But! Understanding luck reorients your understanding of everyone else on earth and better prepares you to exhibit the compassion and generosity that people deserve.

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