Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why Tax the Poor More? They "Deserve" It.

James Kwak offers some comments on the determination of conservatives to increase taxes on the poor while reducing those on the rich. My overwhelming impression is that conservatives see the poor and less fortunate as inferior in deep sense. This was betrayed in a Gregory Mankiw blog post that should have gotten far greater attention than it did. That it didn't suggests, I think, the extent to which essentially conservative thinking pervades even many liberal arenas. Mankiw is an economist at Harvard and is now among those advising Mitt Romney.

In a 2009 post, Mankiw offered a social-Darwinist account for children's school performance, including an allusion to reductionist genetic explanations of a kind very popular these days among conservatives and liberals (like, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich). The post is here.

Mankiw clearly thinks that different outcomes are in significant measure a result of fundamental, intrinsic, biological differences between individuals. The rich are more successful because they are just better — better workers, better thinkers, better innovators.

This thinking is very widespread in the anglophone, industrial democracies — Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and of course the US. Moreover, it closely tided to a kind of supremacist thinking (and I do mean supremacist) found among the wealthy. Scan the comments of Michael Bloomberg or the Koch brothers or Bill Gates, and you will see a pervasive contempt for the less fortunate that is coupled with a conviction that these less fortunate are just less well-endowed with the natural talents enjoyed by the better-off. Centuries ago, this was overtly embraced as the divine right of nobility. Today it is far more subtle.

More importantly, it reflects a close intwining of tacit assumptions about social status, native talent, education, culture, heritage — many things. For example, Mike Bloomberg simply has no substantive interaction with those who are markedly less well-off; so, predictably, he views the less-fortunate as "Other." This view is reinforced by the socio-biological, reductionist account that says that behavioral differences are outcomes of genetic differences. It is further reinforced by the need all people share to view their own good fortune as something more than plain good luck. If Bloomberg is just lucky, then what justification is there for his holding the staggering fortune he does. He must "deserve" that wealth because he's better than the rest of us.

Why raise taxes on the poor then? Well, they "deserve it." In the view of the Michael Bloombergs — and, crucially, also in the view of the Arne Duncans and (I suspect) the Barack Obamas — the poor aren't just poor in a socio-economic sense; they are "poor specimens of humanity."

How do we test such contention as mine? Probably not in the neatly numerical way that economists and political scientists today demand. That, in turn, raises yet another issue of how our very methods of inquiry tend to promote some conclusions over others.


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