Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Whose money?

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Many claims that sound sensible on first hearing evaporate into nonsense if one takes the trouble to think about them a little more carefully.

I know it’s going to be the private sector that leads this country out of the current economic times we’re in. You can spend your money better than the government can spend your money. (George W. Bush)

George W. Bush’s folksy encomium of the private sector and derogation of government echoes similar sentiments repeatedly voiced by Ronald Reagan, who said:

Entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States.

Government always finds a need for whatever money it gets.

Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.

Such shallow one-liners managed to convince quite a few voters that they would all be much better off if private entrepreneurs were allowed to keep their money rather than being taxed. The assumptions behind this claim were 1) that wealthy people would invest their money in ventures that would employ people, and 2) that whatever money anyone has rightfully belongs solely to the person who has it. The first of these assumptions led to such incessantly repeated slogans as “job-killing taxation.” The second assumption led to the conviction that taxation is a kind of theft of honest people by essentially dishonest governmental policy makers.

Eight years of Reagan’s systematic dismemberment of the body politic showed how bankrupt the first of those two assumptions is. As commercial enterprises were deregulated and corporate taxation was reduced, the gulf between the wealthy and the poor increased dramatically. As predicted, wealthy entrepreneurs invested their money in ways that employed people. They showed a strong preference for employing people who lived in countries in which environmental regulations were feeble and where there were low standards for protecting the health and safety of low-wage workers. Workers in countries with laws protecting them from unsafe working conditions and assuring them a wage that did not keep them in perpetual poverty tended to be deemed greedy, and their skills were considered to be overpriced. The factories that used to employ them were moved to third-world countries. The majority of voters who swept Reagan into office, and then kept him there for a second term despite an unemployment crisis, were arguably not among those who benefited most from his faulty assumption. The minority of voters whose net worth placed them in the wealthiest 2% of the nation, however, fared very well under Reagan. They fared well again under Bush père and Bush fils. Even during the time of Clinton they did not fare badly. The extremely wealthy have been faring quite well in the United States since 1980.

The second assumption is that if money is in your bank account, or invested in your stock portfolio, then it is yours pure and simple. For a government to take it away from you is therefore a kind of theft. What this seductive assumption fails to take into account is that none of us would have any money at all if it were not for the social contract that forms governments and establishes currencies and regulates banks and investment institutions. All money is essentially social in nature, which means that none of us would have anything if it weren’t for the social fabric in which each of us is but a minor thread. Without the social conventions that underlie the monetary system, a $1000 bill is just a piece of paper with Grover Cleveland’s picture on it, and one’s balance in a bank account is nothing but a meaningless number in an electronic data base. Even if one’s life savings is in gold bullion or real estate, those things have only as much value as the rest of society agrees they have. Supposing one invests one’s money in the stock market and it increases in value, that increase would never have been possible without hundreds or thousands of other investors and the labor of a multitude of employees. That increase in the value of an investment no more belongs rightfully to the investor than to the host of people whose work and cooperation made it possible for the investment to increase in value. One of the most important factors that makes an investment possible is a functional government. So surely a substantial portion of what any investor considers his or her money in fact belongs to society at large, and to government in particular.

When one looks at the wide variety of ways that people choose to spend their money, some of them wise and many of them foolish, it is not at all obvious that George W. Bush was speaking accurately when he said “You can spend your money better than the government can spend your money.” Private citizens seem every bit as capable of squandering fortunes as governments. It is no less true of individuals than of governments that they find a need for all the money they get. Few people seem to feel they need less than they have. Even the very wealthy often seem to feel they need every bit of what they have; otherwise, they would not spend as much time and energy as they do to avoid paying taxes.

People who increase their wealth through investment, people who inherit wealth from their relatives, people who increase their wealth by selling goods and services for more than they pay for them—none of them can make the legitimate claim that their wealth is rightfully theirs alone. The wealth of all such people is conditioned by social mechanisms of which they are not fully in control and for which they therefore cannot claim full credit. Even those whose modest income comes to them as a result of selling their labor have what they have as a result of a social network that makes the selling of labor possible. The very idea that your wealth is really yours and that it need not be shared with the rest of society that made it possible is, when examined more carefully, a vacuous idea. Like all vacuous ideas, it makes a very poor foundation for a life worth living.

The shibboleths of the political and economic right in the United States are, with hardly any exception, the war whoops of plutocrats who are waging—and winning—a war against the middle-class and the poor. (Plutocracy is government of the people, for the wealthy, by the politicians purchased by the wealthy; it is the form of government now found in the United States, Saudi Arabia and Libya, and the form of government that used to be found in Tunisia and Egypt.) It is difficult to see the Wisconsin government’s newly passed law that strips public workers of their rights to collective bargaining in any other way than as a war on the general public by the plutocrats. It is difficult to see the proposed cuts in the public funding for health care, education, scientific research and public broadcasting in any other way. People who can think for themselves, and people who are well informed, and people who care about justice, and people who wish to have a voice in making decisions about policies that will affect their lives are not very good for a thriving plutocracy. Keeping people ignorant and complacent and so worried about their livelihoods that they will never speak up is what a plutocracy needs. And that is what an increasing number of elected representatives are delivering—policies that favor the wealthiest 2% of the population at the expense of the remaining 98%.

As long as we are remembering quotations by Ronald Reagan, it may be worth remembering that he said this:

We might come closer to balancing the Budget if all of us lived closer to the Commandments and the Golden Rule.

As far as I can tell, few of the ten commandments would have much impact on the budget. The only one I can think of is “Thou shalt not kill.” If that were followed, the military budget would probably be about one-tenth its current size, and there might then be sufficient resources left over to enable us collectively to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and to do unto others as we would have others to unto us—such as take care of us when we are ill or when we meet misfortune or when we are struggling to make an honest livelihood.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, March 12, 2011 at 17:02

Posted in Society and polity

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