I caught a bit of one of those interminable talking-head debates on television the other day, in which one pontificator was explaining that in America, we work for what we get, and it is thus unAmerican to begrudge wealth to those who have earned it.
I agree. When someone works hard, innovates and creates that better mousetrap, we all benefit. That person has earned what he or she has. I also agree that this emphasis on meritocracy–the belief (however unwarranted) that anyone can compete and succeed if they just work hard enough–is a quintessentially American belief.
What the talking head didn’t seem to understand was that he was in the wrong conversation.
The people criticizing the status quo today are clearly not angry with capitalism, nor hostile to those who have done well by actually producing something. They are angry–justifiably, in my view–with a government that seems to have two sets of rules, one for those rich enough to hire lobbyists and another for the rest of us. They are angry with a system that confers obscene rewards on people who produce nothing, people who simply play financial games and buy influence.
Genuine capitalism requires the rule of law and a level playing field, where the same rules apply to everyone. When some people–or corporations–are able to buy a pass, buy a separate set of rules for themselves, that is no longer capitalism. It’s cronyism, and it violates deeply embedded precepts of American culture.
I’ve always been puzzled by the double standard so many seem to live by: you’ll hear people talk disparagingly about “welfare bums” who “work the system” and don’t deserve our help. And I know there are people who fit that description–although research suggests they make up only 2% or so of welfare recipients. Until quite recently, however, I did not hear similar opinions offered about people with unearned wealth–those who inherited it, or especially those who broke the rules in order to get it. I heard few complaints about corporate lobbyists who “work the system” to get special benefits others don’t enjoy. If we truly believe that merit should be rewarded, and cheating punished, we aren’t doing a very good job of selecting the winners and losers.
What we are seeing right now is a shameful effort to defend unearned privilege, by claiming that the rich are all “job creators,” or that objections to the status quo are “class warfare.” It’s telling that those who genuinely earned their wealth–think Bill Gates or Warren Buffett–are among the most vocal critics.
If we are going to dispense welfare, who truly deserves extra help from the taxpayers? The single mom struggling to raise her children in an economy she did not produce–an economy hollowed out by wars of choice, tax breaks for the powerful and permissive regulations that enabled dishonesty all the way from Enron to the banksters–or the people who run corporations like Halliburton and banks like Citicorp and Bank of America? I’m prepared to concede that we couldn’t allow the financial system to melt down–the consequences would have been horrific for everyone–but now that we have stabilized it, we need to address the inequities of an economic system that demands far more from the working poor than it does from the well-connected rich.
We Americans need to rethink who we are, where our taxes should come from and where they ought to go, and who “deserves” what.