Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Remedial Class Warfare

Today conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan reprints a fascinating quote from Adam Smith, father of modern capitalism, a paternity which, if not already ascribed to Smith, I so ascribe now, even if the kid is a bastard:

“The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor . . .. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess . . .. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”
--The Wealth of Nations (1776)

The same quote has appeared this month in the New Yorker and Slate. So—with the recent “heroic” efforts in Washington to save the old coots who, just weeks before, were turning widows and orphans out of their foreclosed homes—something Smithian must be in the air—or rolling in its grave.

Still, to McCain and Palin these words must smack of “spreading the wealth” and socialism. That the rich might in fact owe something to the common good, other than the obligation to become even richer, is really not a revolutionary idea. Even knights and their ladies in the Middle Ages felt some obligation to the burghers and peasants—some small Christian beneficence to go along with the daily kick in the balls.

In a day or two, perhaps, Obama the Socialist will take his place alongside Obama the Terrorist, Obama the Elitist, and Obama the Clueless Neophyte, all failed fabrications of the McCain campaign—whose identities are as superficially imposed as those of Malibu, Far-Out, and Harley-Davidson Barbies ™.

Unfortunately, Obama poses less of a threat to dog-eat-dog capitalism than I would like. As mentioned by others better informed than I, Obama’s contributors are the same corporate entities contributing to McCain. Still, Obama marks an improvement over Bush (and McCain), if only on the “hope” that he won’t further ransack the economy to pull the obscenely wealthy up to the stratosphere by their Sorrell Custom Boots.

What have I against the wealthy? you might ask. Envy, I’ll admit when I don’t mind what the bad light does to my skin tones.

But seriously, folks. Charles Koch, to pick a random example from cyberspace, net worth $19 billion, co-founder of the conservative Cato Institute (1), may in fact be a fine fellow, someone I’d have a beer with. I doubt it, but my point is I don’t know for certain.

And, sure, $19 billion sounds like a lot of money, but that’s short of what banks made off just overdraft fees in 2007 (2). Really. Shame on me, then, for indulging in divisive and unpatriotic class warfare when I complain that the same federal government that can’t be bothered to sufficiently fund education and health care, which apparently don’t benefit all of us to the same extent that overdraft fees do, only blinked (and just barely) at the thought of spreading $700 billion over the nation’s banks in exchange for their distressed assets. (And I’m not holding my breath for any of that money to trickle down to me.)

Republicans decry the “death tax” (i.e. estate tax), which would reduce the inheritances of $10,000 or more by 18% and up (to 55%), usually not applicable when the inheritor is a spouse or charity. But this is unearned income. Sure, it would be nice to get it all, I understand that, but at the risk of joining what McCain adviser Phil Gramm this summer called a “nation of whiners” (3), I think it would be nice if I could keep the 33% the fed and state pull from my earned income—this from a government that can’t even rescue poor flood victims off their roofs in a timely manner.

See, I don’t particularly mind paying taxes to the government, but I would like to see that money turn up in observable improvements and maintenance to the nation that belongs to all of us, in public works, schools, public transportation, hospitals, and so forth, not in the pockets of Halliburton (to name but one grating example).

I am no economist. I am not a capitalist. I am not a legitimate member of Bush’s “ownership society.” But I don’t think I’m a stinking Red, either. Still, if the fabulously wealthy want the real Joe Six Packs, along with Joe the Plumber and other Joes, including me, to have any kind of empathy for them—or simply anything less than class-centered loathing and hostility—I suggest that the holders of wealth—individuals and corporations—begin seriously to ante up for “the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”


(1) Farrell, Andrew. “America’s Energy Billionaires.” 7 Oct. 2008.

(2) Mogul, Matthew. “Consumers to Get Some Relief from Overdraft Costs.” 11 Oct. 2007. Kiplinger Business Resource Center.

(3) Hill, Patrice. “McCain Adviser Talks of ‘Mental Recession.’” Washington Times 9 July 2008.

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