The third most common personal question I get, after ones regarding my running shoes (yes, I wear them to run. Yes, they are comfortable. Yes, really.) and what I do for a living (because in LA people generally ask you this before your name), is probably about my political beliefs. And since this blog sometimes wades in the shallow end of the political pool, I figured it might be useful to explain why I take the stances I do beyond simply saying I’m a democrat, a socialist democrat, or whatever other name you can think of. Now, I will aim to keep this post as short as possible, as to not completely bore you, while trying to best articulate the gist of my thought process.
The nucleus of pretty much any political argument I may make comes back to one word:
Every morning I wake up in a bed that I did not build, in an apartment building I had no hand in constructing. I brush my teeth with a toothbrush and toothpaste I did not create, I dress myself in clothing I did not sew. I travel to work in a vehicle that works in ways I cannot comprehend; using a gasoline mixture I can’t begin to fathom how to make. I eat food for breakfast that I did not cultivate (or even prepare most of the time) and drink water I took no part in filtering while in a café which, of course, I did not build. OK, you see where I am going with this: Pretty much every single thing I do and own was made possible by, at least, one other person and, in most cases, several.
We live in an overly complicated world that, because of the production of the community, has been made significantly easier through both innovation and companionship. In fact, I know I rely on the community to such an extent that if it were to disappear tomorrow, along with everything the community created; I’d probably be dead by the end of the week. No exaggeration. We’ve built entire towns, villages, and cities that function symbiotically in a way where most every citizen contributes to the greater good in some fashion. And we’ve become so accustomed to our joint lifestyle that, judging by recent political rhetoric among the public, we don’t even realize how often we ask for help from our fellow citizens, even if the help is paid for in the form of currency.
Think of society like a Xerox machine. Filled with hundreds of both moving and stabilizing parts. Sure, some parts are more important to the process of copying and printing than others, but as anyone who ever worked in an office knows, if even a screw comes loose, the entire system shuts down. Similarly, if you eliminate key parts of society that don’t seem like they are vital, for example waiters/waitresses, you’ll be rudely awakened any time you decide not to cook. Everyone really does have their role in the functionalization of a first class society, thus everyone should be taken care of.
So you’re probably now rolling your eyes and telling me how not everyone can be equal and communism is a pipe dream. And I agree with you. I do not begrudge someone a decent living of course, but I do wonder why people seem to forget that the community is the one that allows for wealth growth. If you start a business, the community buys that product (supplying your profit), and it is also the entity aiding you in the production of it (whether they actually work for you as an employee, or you purchase raw materials from another company). It’s really a cycle. That said, it makes sense that the wealthy give back to the same people who allowed them to enjoy the fruitful life they live, to ensure the steady flow of give and take (and the continued viability of the product). Again, this is not to say they should give up their entire fortune in the name of equality, but a pretty high tax rate to help support social programs for the middle/lower class, the vast majority of this country (and, by far, the ones who account for the most moving parts in the machine) is sufficient. Trust me: no one needs six houses, five sports cars, a stable, and a private island. This type of accumulation is a burden. And if you equate happiness with your bank account and your possessions, you are misguided and need to realize happiness is a state of mind and not something you buy. Simply put, if first prize in the game of life is to be happy, there’s plenty of ways to skin that cat.
Now, on the subject of high tax rates (like we had in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s and like they have all over Europe), I often hear the argument that high taxes stifle innovation. In other words, why would someone spend time creating something if they have zero chance to earn a bazillionmillion dollars? Simply, this is baseless bullshit. There is zero evidence that this actually occurs and it’s not like Europe doesn’t invent plenty of useful products (Hey, they gave us Angry Birds! Thanks Finland!). In fact, the only workers that I think are 100 percent truly motivated by money are the ones who call Wall St home, and look where these geniuses have lead us.
All creation is art. Whether it is mechanical, a painting, or an idea: it’s all art. For example, I am a writer who has made a little money off this craft, but certainly not enough to ever call me rich. And sure, I do write some pieces with the thought that I might sell them and earn a better living. But I do not write specifically to be rich. I write because it fulfills some need I cannot explain. I write as a form of expression that helps me figure out my thoughts and allows me to live a clearer, more fulfilling life. And that is the true force behind any innovation. True innovators do not create for money; they innovate because the emotional fulfillment behind creation is a powerful force.
Make sense? OK, moving on …
Another major aspect behind my thinking is the fact that we are not all provided with an equal upbringing. As mentioned in another post, the social democracies of Scandinavia (Sweden, Denmark) actually have more social mobility than America. The easiest way to make money in America is to be born with it, and the more money you have, the more chances you are provided. The American dream is over. If you don’t have proper societal resources (and many don’t) your chances of making something out of yourself from nothing are slim to none, and really pale in comparison to someone born into wealth. Essentially, if you’re born in a poor area, you probably don’t have access to adequate healthcare, education, and general societal services that someone in a wealthy area could enjoy. So before people claim “all rich people earned their money,” know that’s not exactly true. Luck and circumstance play equal (if not greater) roles than talent. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book about how luck and circumstance is vital in efforts to acquire success and wealth. (It’s a good read, check it out).
But let’s step back from idealistic terms and talk about practical application. I want to provide you with some stats that I’m lifting (well paraphrasing) from Bob Herbert’s latest (and last, we will miss you Bob!) column: The Economic Policy Institute reported the richest 10 percent of Americans have received 100 percent (!) of the average income growth from 2000-2007. During WW2, income distribution was certainly more equal as the 10 ten percent accounted for 1/3 of the average income growth, while the bottom 90 percent received 2/3’s. Also, in 2009, the richest five percent of Americans accounted for 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The bottom 80 percent (EIGHT PERCENT) accumulated only 12.8 percent of the entire nation’s wealth. That’s a lot of fucking people splitting a tiny pie. Are we really to believe that the top five percent work that much harder than the bottom eighty? Or is the game seriously rigged?
America wasn’t always this way. Before Reagan ushered in the era of supply side economics, taxes on the rich were higher, allowing for a more equal income distribution, and as a result, a strong middle class (or spending class) that kept the economy running smoothly without the roller coaster effect that it has today (obviously, with today’s global economy it’s more complicated, but that’s another can of worms). I believe every American citizen deserves a foundation, much like they are given in European socialist democracies. We have the money and resources to provide universal healthcare, childcare, free college (among other perks), though it would take a complete 180 in American thinking. But if all of our citizens had greater access to the above necessities, just think of how much opportunity it would create for millions of people…millions of people that will one day contribute to the American cause.
But, unfortunately, we have become a nation of the entitled. A nation of “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” while completely ignoring the fact that we 100 percent, completely need each other in order to both ensure our lifestyles and survival. It’s not the individual that can save us; Superman isn’t around the corner. We need to reinvest in each other and work together towards the greater good. After all, wasn’t this one of the first lessons we learned as children? I remember the first thing I was taught in kindergarten was the value of sharing. Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of this incredibly simple concept.
But where do we stand today?
The concentration of wealth in the top five percent, along with the crumbling of the middle class has already created tremors in American society, and if the downward trend continues, there will be even more people out of work or living in sub-standard conditions. This kind of existence generally leads to two dangerous emotions: desperation and anger. And those two words could one day, sooner than we think, inspire an even more dangerous one:
And, unfortunately, we’ll probably do nothing to stop this dangerous force.