Give me a kingdom to lord over. Only then can I feel complete. Only then can I feel the whole world sees my greatness. Only then can I know the comfort and security I deserve. Keep me above the roiling waves of poverty and poor health.
Money divides us and misplaces value on our humanity. Should we so easily accept the judgments placed on us by how much money we have? Should we so easily accept those forms of distributions devised by those who already have so much and are only seeking more?
It has always been difficult for me to admire those who have worked hard to amass a great amount of wealth. In fact I’ve always felt it was very desultory and selfish pursuit. What is wealth but comfort; and of what use is too much comfort, especially if one comes to expect it. I have however admired the manner in which a small minority of the very wealthy has chosen to redistribute some of their acquired wealth. People like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Ted Turner, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates all spent many years devising ways to make more and more money, often using merciless methods. (Great wealth does not come without great ruthlessness.) But a few decided to give back large chunks of their wealth to their chosen causes in a manner that seems to show their feelings are much deeper than mere vanity.
To a large degree these people were and are trying to fill a need that they saw our society had failed to accomplish. Much of the need they saw was due to the uneven distribution of wealth in this country and in the world. Ironically it was this uneven distribution of wealth which allowed them to acquire their wealth in the first place. There was a period of time (and I speak not only of the US because other world governments have shifted tax policies as well) when huge incomes and inheritance were taxed at high percentage rates and that money became part of the government budget which often did what these vastly wealthy people attempt to do on their own. To some degree these wealthy benefactors are effective at what they do but it is a piecemeal approach and a bit like using a squirt gun on a forest fire.
People who amass great wealth are generally not the most talented, the most brilliant, the most knowledgeable, or the most hardworking. Though they might not be lacking in these traits, none of these things are key to amassing great wealth. Their secret is a laser-like focus on accomplishing their goal of acquiring wealth and holding on to it, along with a bit of luck in finding a means to acquire it. The little discovery of finding the device that will direct a large flow of wealth in their direction is the key. I like to think of this device as a “tax”. If they were kings or queens and they came up with a way of gathering fees from their loyal subjects then those fees would be called taxes. If they were winners of the lottery they would have stumbled into a way of taxing numerous people for the benefit of few. When the we pay a fee willingly or contractually (such as interest on a credit card) it is not often thought of as a tax, but it is essentially the same thing. The trick is to position oneself as the rightful owner of this tax stream. Often this tax stream is on the edge of legality, sometimes very much on the other side.
This may sound like a rather sloppy definition of the word “tax” but like the word “government” the word tax has also been used to trick, befuddle and bamboozle people. We are all “taxed” just as heavily by businesses and corporations as we are by our own elected bureaucracies. Remember how the word is used to mean “arduous”, “difficult” or “burdensome”? If a great deal of our time and energy goes into paying our mortgage, our medical bills, our rent, fines, etc., these things are surely a tax as much as anything we pay that has “tax” as part of its name. Following the strict and narrow meaning of words can be used against us like a kind of shell game. Politicians are very good at these word shell games, they always have some new word which they are trying out on the constituents. “Terrorists”, “entitlements”, “welfare”, “taxes”, “patriot”, “war hero”, “free enterprise”, “job creators” always we think we know what is contained in these word shells, but their sleight of hand always disguises their true intentions.
So my use of the word “tax” encompasses all transactions where the price received for goods or services exceeds the cost of goods or services. If I have a business selling cookies and I pay $1.00 for the ingredients in that cookie, I then sell that cookie for $2.00, then the “tax” I have charge is $1.00. Sure I can justify it and say, “this is a very low tax and I need that money for my own labor”, but then why should I? Whoever said taxes were necessarily a bad thing? I could also call that extra $1 I made above my cost a “profit” but that is not to be confused with a business “profit” which is the money left over after after all the bills have been paid, including salaries. But shouldn’t that $1 be my salary? There are a lot of different names we can give to that extra $1 depending on the circumstances of the transaction and who is giving and who is receiving the money. We could call it a donation, a salary, a profit, a surcharge, a fee, a value added tax, a commission, interest, a penalty, a fine, a surplus and probably several other things I’m forgetting. You might notice that all these words have specific emotional connotations, both positive and negative. I don’t mind making a donation but I don’t want to pay a penalty. Why should it matter what word we attach to what is essentially a mathematical transaction?
We only use words such as “fee”, “profit”, “donation”, “salary” or “tax” to add social context to the distribution of societies’ rewards. We are in fact trying to justify any particular individual’s right to any particular sum of money. It is a strange thing if one sits back and thinks about it for a bit; this complex web of justification and dividing the deserving from the undeserving and deciding just how deserving one individual is compared to another individual. If we consider how a large society such as the US decides to distribute it’s collective “tax” (An economist might call this Gross Domestic Product but I use the word “tax” as an intentional prod to help focus on the big picture rather than minutia), we see some very uneven patterns. There will always be some kind of rewards distribution system whether it is a “free” one or a “government” controlled one, though this dichotomy is very misleading. Often the stated ideal of any such tax distribution system has been to reward those individuals most who have done the most benefit to society as a whole. A society’s collective tax is not a given, it is driven by much work, ingenuity, and ambition. So perhaps those that increase a society’s collective tax to the greatest degree should be given the greatest reward? Society’s overall well-being is not a given either, it is no accident when people are healthy, well-educated, creative and inspired, this all takes decades of education, health-care, innovation and outside the box thinking. So perhaps those that increase society’s overall well-being should be given the greatest reward? An individual’s relative value to any particular society is a very difficult thing to determine. That is the question all the penalties, profits, value added tax, interest, rents, royalties, sales tax, inheritance tax, salaries and all the thousands of the little names we have for money moving around between individuals and institutions, is trying to determine. Some of these methods might be considered more “natural” or more “free” than others but inevitably the “natural” and “free” systems are invented and maintained by wealthy individuals with plans to become more wealthy. And maybe this is just how things should be, I have no all-seeing powers of judgment. As our own smaller (US) society (as well as many other nations) drifts more toward a modern feudal model, the overall global society seems to be drifting in the opposite direction more towards the “all people are created equal” (egalitarian) model (or maybe not, it is a hard thing to judge).
My own proclivities are for the “all people created equal” model and I tend to resent even the idea of the “feudal model”. I am certainly willing to work toward an egalitarian model, but harbor no illusions that any “ideal egalitarian model” can be achieved or that it would be a good thing if it could. I see my written work here as working toward a more egalitarian society. However it is important to remember that the story lies in the pursuit, not the destination, the destination is merely a mirage.
One of the most important lessons to learn when growing older is how little you really know. Like the Tao or Zen story about a farmer who lost his horse. This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors soon came by to console the farmer over his terrible loss. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is so terrible?” A month later, the horse came home and brought with him two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors were excited, and they told the farmer what great fortune it was to have these two new strong beautiful horses. The farmer said, “What makes you think this is good fortune?” While trying to break one of the wild horses the farmer’s only son was thrown and broke his leg. All the neighbors were again very distressed, “this is such a terrible thing, we are so sorry for your bad luck”. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is bad luck?” Soon a war came to their land and all able-bodied young men were conscripted and sent to battle, but the farmer’s son was left behind because of his broken leg. The neighbors again cheered on the farmer’s good luck, but the farmer only said, “What makes you think this is good?”
This is a popular and ancient story which shows up in many different forms, which I have paraphrased. The story could clearly go on and on, back and forth and is of course an analogy of life in general. I like to run this story or something similar to it through my head whenever I am feeling too good or too bad about my current circumstances in life. Americans, and I suspect all people have a tendency to set up a highly contrasted picture of the world. There is the set of things that are “good” and the set of things that are “bad” (the Heaven and Hell syndrome). This is a symptom of turning experience into words and then mistaking those words for reality. I think people in general would have a hard time not seeing this Zen story as a kind of creeping relativism, but that would be a mistake.
Relativism is not the moral to this story. I for one, only tend to “get” this story after growing much older and looking back at my life; those things I thought were such tragedies and those thing I thought were such great achievements seem very arbitrary to me now. When I stop viewing this personal history through my own contrasty lens of tragedy and achievement, I begin to see so many more details and many more colors that existed in my own personal experience, which I completely missed at the time. When the contrast is turned down, so many things appear out of the shadows and the bright whites, just like when a photo becomes less contrasty. It is in fact a way of viewing experience without the “good” and “bad” filters, it is a way of seeing more colors and more details; not the plain gray slate of relativism.
What does any of this have to do with taxes? Taxes are societies’ way of rewarding what it sees as “good” and punishing what it sees as “bad”. As our society tends to move toward a highly contrasty system of rewards we stand to lose a great deal. Already we have lost so much. I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s when our own society was at it’s most egalitarian point. Many things have changed since then particularly in the social realm; women are perceived more as equals, different races are perceived more as equals, and people of minority sexual orientations are perceived more as equals. But while there has been a drift toward egalitarianism in this realm there has been a drift away in the manner in which our taxes are distributed. The Plutocracy has reappeared after several decades of slumber and now it can be said that it more or less pulls the strings of government, those of us who are not part of the plutocracy sometimes participate in the charade of democracy.
The one thing I remember so fondly from my growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s which I fear has been lost; is the sense that our life in front of us was this mysterious story that could unfold in so many different ways. We could look inside ourselves and find that thing we saw as the fulfillment of our own personal vision and we could spend our lives pursuing that mysterious thing. However in our highly contrasty reward system there is now such an emphasis on “success” that it crowds out all other pursuits. The person who is not constantly striving, falls behind and the threat of homelessness, substance abuse, poverty, poor health, generalized anger, incarceration and mental illness are a constant presence. These are the punishments in a highly contrasty or feudalistic society, and granted we (the US) are still a long ways from the most feudalistic countries in the world. But you don’t have to look too far back into our past to find some pretty grim times, the age of the Robber Barons, the age of Industrialization, the Gilded Age, the Depression. During all these periods in our own history the majority of the people lived in harsh poverty but it was a poverty that was often ameliorated by more open land and a smaller population. The poverty of today without the land and the space around us is a much harsher poverty. The poverty of the past was softened by westward movement, homesteading, gold-mining, oil-drilling and other exploitations of natural resources. Such opportunities are much fewer in our present times.
Egalitarianism and the rise of the middle class is a rather recent event in our own history. And it did not come by accident, it came out of many decades of work and sacrifice by labor unions, political activists, social workers, teachers, political leaders (some of whom were very wealthy), civil rights activists, women rights activists and many others. But the decades after the 1970’s saw a fading of the priorities of egalitarianism and the middle class and a rise in the pursuit of wealth. When we look at the state of our society now, those decades after World War II almost seem like an aberration, back then it seemed like egalitarianism was inevitable. Now what we call the “Middle Class” is weak and fading entity. It’s political clout is very weak, as corporations and wealthy individuals begin to take over the reins of government and begin to decide who will make societies’ next set of rules. Technically it is still a government which must be certified by a vote, but modern gerrymandering and campaigns based on money and single issues make democratic dialogue impossible. Certainly the middle class was no innocent bystander while this came to pass. But who is to say this is a “bad” thing. Fortunately there is no unanimity among our current batch of corporate/wealthy leaders (the plutocracy), those who now fund all the political campaigns and pay for all the lobbyists who write our laws. Some members of the plutocracy are still supportive of a vigorous middle class, that is where most of their fortunes were made. The tech companies all require a middle class with disposable income, as do most of the billionaires and millionaires from the entertainment industry. Those from the petrol-chemical and the mining, and agriculture industries do not need much of a middle class to build their wealth. That does not mean they do not support a strong middle class but you do see a lot less sympathy from the plutocracy in those industries. So it is not a given that our society will continue to drift toward a more feudal model as many of those members of the plutocracy are in fact working in the opposite directions.
Our society rewards its winners handsomely just as it punishes its losers harshly. It is important to look at who these winners are; who are the current members of the plutocracy? These people represent our highest ideal as a society because we have chosen such a hierarchical community. And they give us a clue as to our future direction. But it is not a pretty sight and I think with a few exceptions reflects very poorly on our society. These winners represent the titans of those most successful industries, which is currently people like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison (Tech), the Koch family (petrol-chemical industry), the Walton family (Walmart mega-retail chain), Warren Buffet and Michael Bloomberg(securities trading), Sheldon Adelson (gambling). Much further down the list there are also those who made there mark in entertainment (Rupert Murdoch, Oprah Winfrey and Ted Turner), real-estate (Donald Trump). There are a number of CEO’s of large companies who make astounding salaries but have yet to accumulate vast wealth but it is probably only a matter of time. The most recent list of Forbes 400 has no major sports players, no major actors, none of those people whose salary is famously so high. The wealthiest are not people whose actual work is attached to their income. They do not work a certain number of hours and receive a certain income for their work. This is not to say they are not hardworking, many probably are (but I would venture much less hardworking then the average farm laborer or janitor) but their income or wealth is not limited by such conventions. Their wealth stems from a more esoteric concept; that of ownership. The ownership of a business, the ownership of stock, the ownership of real-estate etc.
So is the increased value of a stock, a casino, an oil drilling company beneficial to the larger society? And if so, in what way? The value of a company or a stock is generally related to how much tax it can extract from the larger community. Microsoft and the Tech companies are so valuable because they can generate so much profit now or there is a perception that they will be profitable in the future. Casino’s are valuable because so many people lose so much money at them. An oil company is valuable because oil is such a versatile and profitable product, everybody needs it in some form or another. Actors, sports figures, and other entertainers command large incomes because of their appeal to so many people. It is almost is if each person below them (their fans) willingly pays a tithe to them. So in a certain sense the wealthiest people in the US are those who are best at taxing the community at large. By making that space between cost and sales as large as possible (buy low sell high). These are not generous people, they make a business of not being generous. They are rewarded for a kind of innovation of organization. Do any of these people do much to help create a greater sense of community?, to create good paying jobs for the middle class?, to help build a more secure future for the society at large? If any of them do any of these things, it is purely by chance. Their ultimate goal is to create more profit, those aforementioned goals generally run counter to the ultimate goal of profit. Somehow the society at large has been bamboozled into admiring this class of people.
Do the highly paid athletes, actors, CEO’s deserve their income? Is their contribution to society that much more than say a scientist, a teacher, a doctor, a social worker, a politician, a government worker, an artist, a designer, an architect, a Walmart greeter, a McDonald’s employee? Should people who need Food Stamps or Public Housing be shamed? Is mental illness or homelessness a crime? How do we quantify such things? It is in fact a choice our society makes all the time, through our attitudes and the rules we create. Our attitudes as well as the rules (laws) we create either hinder or assist people in their various life pursuits. Contrary to libertarian ideology it is not some all-knowing market force making these decisions, we are not wild animals living at the mercy of the environment. We live within a community that shields and pampers us. The work we choose is very specialized and we depend on the work of others to provide for us. This is the faith we put in our community; that if we contribute with our work and our time, that our life needs will somehow be met. These choices are clearly made by the laws of our land, whether they are the created by our bureaucracies or the fees and complex contractual agreements of the various businesses we deal with. It is all a tax, and how it is spread around is not decided by merit or some higher force, it is simply our choice as a society how all this happens. Though the various conduits of exchange are a vast complex network, something akin to the veins in a leaf, the basic concept of exchange is simple.
Different societies tend to construct their own networks of exchange, often these networks of exchange reflect a particular society’s ideology. Marxist ideology has often been contrasted with Capitalistic ideology though there has never existed a society that practices a pure form of either one. These are mere concepts which exist only in somebody’s head; words detached from existence. Though Marxist ideology was based on egalitarianism as a basic principle while Capitalism tends to value accumulation of wealth as its founding principle they are both similar in requiring a rather rigid hierarchical structure in governance. Where the Marxist ideology has often used a police-state to enforce its hierarchy, Capitalism has used poverty as a kind of enforcement whip, though it never shies away from using a police-state as well, for those who are undeterred by poverty. A vibrant democracy can not thrive in either system, those atop the hierarchical system make sure of that.
It is true that people display certain psychological patterns that can help explain the uneven distribution of wealth. Gambling is a good example. If you talk with anyone for any length of time you will soon come to realize that everyone thinks they are “special” in some way. Gambling exploits this “special” feeling by dangling that tasty reward in front of everyone. Even those who know the odds are stacked against them think that they are “special” enough to win.
People are also very tribal, they identify themselves with certain groups of people. This allows them to feel empathy for their own group and antipathy toward their rivals. Just watch any form of sports for a short period of time and you will quickly observe an intense tribalism displaying itself. This tribalism is also used politically; pitting various classes, regions, ages, and ethnicities against each other. The winning tribes award themselves with more wealth at the expense of the losing tribes. Sometimes these tribes are defined by wealth, sometimes by ethnicity, sometimes by neighborhood, sometimes by religion.
When things don’t go well human nature carries a lot of resentment looking for a place to hang it. We want some one or something to blame. Because this is such an emotional thing, the blame is usually misplaced. This resentment searching tendency is often connected with tribalism. In politics how often does a potential leader try to form a motivated majority by hanging resentment in a vaguely defined minority? It is all the fault of: the “liberals”, “the environmentalists”, “the Welfare Queens”, “the immigrants”, “the gays”, “the feminists”, “the blacks”, “the poor”, “the government workers”, “the unions”, etc. etc.. In other countries blame might be placed on the more powerful minorities such as the “oligarchs” but for whatever reason that strategy rarely works in the US. Probably because most politicians who use this strategy see themselves as working for the oligarchs. This strategy is the mainstay of certain strains of political manipulation, though not all politicians use it. It is an effect way to increase wealth disparity because it justifies a hierarchical system. Though the majority never end up being atop the hierarchy it often feels satisfying to have someone below them.
Human nature also carries a certain sadistic inclination, pleasure in the pain of others. Maybe this goes all the way back to our animal origins, were the need to kill and tear apart prey was a necessity. That is merely a guess, but the trait is clearly there inside all of us. I would also venture to guess the origin of most religions came as a result of trying to address and soften this trait which no longer had its use in a tightly woven society where cooperation became more beneficial then competition. Recorded history is full of displays of this sadism; the Inquisition, all wars, the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, Stalin’s Purges, the Slave Trade, the Armenian genocide, the destruction of natives all over the world by peoples with more advanced weapons, again the full list would be too lengthy. Sometimes we convince ourselves that as people we are past doing such horrible things to each other, even though similar events continue to occur all over the world.
There is also the human weakness of buy now and pay later or immediate gratification vs. contented living. This tendency has something to do with a passion for life. The wanting to experience so many things now, life is short after all. This weakness is often displayed by a passionate sensuous person who might come across a large sum of money which they are unaccustomed to. Instead of saving this money and using it bit by bit over a long period of time, the passionate person might spend it all at once; on a new car, a new wardrobe, a binge weekend or some other impractical thing.
And who can forget the ever-present human weakness of sexual attraction. Certainly this provides many opportunities for exploitation. Some might say it is the underlying weakness that all of the master manipulators use. Convincing people to buy something they don’t need because they think it will win them points with those warm bodies they desire. It explains an awful lot of striving and fighting but I don’t think it explains all the striving and fighting. I think other weaknesses are just as strong.
A community can chose to use these weaknesses in many different ways. It can devise ways punish its members for displaying these weaknesses, claiming the punishment is good for the society at large. It can use these weaknesses as a bond between its members, owning up to the fact that they are all things we share in common.
If you are someone who would like to possess great wealth I would suggest trying to exploit one of these human weaknesses. Often our society sees wealth itself as a grand ideal, a sign of farsightedness and wisdom. But the unending striving for more or more wealth beyond a person’s needs is itself a human weakness. It shows a lack of trust and faith in our community. Wanting more then one could ever need, or use, or even cast a glance at, is generally regarded as greed. But “greed” is such an ossified word and it is used so reflexively. Where does this desire for wealth come from? I would venture to say that it resides within all of us. It is that feeling of insecurity, of wanting to control your own destiny, of wanting to create a world around one’s self where only “good” things happen. It is that ever competitive spirit of always wanting to be the “winner”. There is the illusion that if we have enough wealth we can create our own community, our own world and somehow that will satiate us and bring us a kind of Nirvana. It could let us stand independent from our larger community, which can seem so unpredictable at times.
It would be interesting to speculate about the origins of our weaknesses. I would guess there are those who have spent a great deal of time and energy doing exactly that. Like Spock the Vulcan making his unemotional observations about the curiosities of human nature. My own guess is that there was once a time when these traits were not weaknesses but strengths which served us well. They stayed with us throughout our evolution and didn’t leave just because are way of life has changed so drastically. We have given ourselves a higher name but it really doesn’t change the fact that we are still essentially animals.
The propose of this essay is not to propose a solution, I have none. I am certainly not trying to justify (or claim a natural inevitability of) an uneven distribution wealth nor am I trying to suggest a very even distribution would be ideal. My purpose is to attempt to unmask some of the rationalizations which come in the form of emotion laden words. A tax does not rob me of my hard earned money anymore than that fee on my credit card or that mortgage I have to pay every month. They are both contributions we make to the larger community in which we live. All wealth is just a form of reward generated not by me alone, though I do my share, but mainly by the community at large. What I want in the way of a reward for my own contribution depends on my needs, my desires, my greed, my insecurity, and many other emotions. What I get in the way of a reward doesn’t always match my needs and desires, which makes me feel discontented at times. I would ideally like to see everybody be content with a reward that matches their needs and reaches slightly into the realm of dreams and desires. But with human nature being what it is, contentment is a rare thing. More often than not, people jostle and fight for a reward which exceeds their own needs by a great deal. For some of us there is no limit to what we want. And regardless of the shell-game logic of our own words, our own greed does in fact make it much harder for great numbers of people to fulfill their basic needs. This in turns makes the world we live in a harsher place. That feeling that our life is a mysterious story unfolding before us is lost and we become focused on just getting by and scrambling for that dollar in front of us before someone else grabs it. Our faith in our community is lost.