As we emerge from our days of gift-giving and celebration, we are poised to take on the new year in a spirit of optimism shadowed by doubt — optimism because it is our habit and doubt because of hard experience.
Where does that doubt come from? Kathleen Parker, columnist for The Washington Post, says the American people are plagued by several regrettable tendencies — envy and lack of self-restraint among them. Recent experience, she says, has sown widespread doubt that we can ever dig out from the debt and other problems plaguing the nation because we have lost the capacity of self-restraint and we are crippled by envy.
Her diagnosis is accurate in part, and in part it misconstrues the attitude of many people. Self-restraint, decorum and respect would go a long way in establishing the spirit of cooperation that might help us dispel doubts about our future. But envy of the rich is not the obstacle that she makes it out to be. Liberals focusing on the nation’s inequality are not motivated by envy; rather, they believe that the rich, too, should partake of the spirit of cooperation. They, too, should do their part.
American attitudes toward the rich are complex, and envy certainly plays a part. But admiration of the rich is a much stronger feeling. People admire the rich because they would like to be rich, too. They watch TV programs about the rich and follow the lives of the rich in any number of versions. They daydream about the rich. They refrain from establishing punishing taxes or staging a revolt because, rather than envying the rich, they identify with the rich.
On the left, envy and resentment play a part, as could be seen in some of the excesses and silliness of the Occupy movement. But the liberal critique of existing policies has less to do with envy than with a practical reading of the way the economy has been structured.
The rich have gotten richer in recent years not because of the laws of nature or because of their virtue or intelligence. They have widened the gap between rich and poor to a historic degree because of the way we have structured the system. We are channeling ever greater percentages of the nation’s wealth toward the rich because the tax laws and our policy choices are stacked that way.
Thus, two things are happening at the same time. We hear the cry that there is not enough money for food stamps, unemployment benefits, education, law enforcement, even institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and other research centers. There is not enough money for roads, bridges, railroads and other infrastructure that benefit ordinary people.
At the same time, companies are reaping enormous profits and the wealthiest are amassing huge fortunes. Why have we chosen to tax income from stock dividends at a lower rate than income from factory work? That is a policy that makes the rich richer while starving the nation of the revenue it needs to help working people improve their lives — by maintaining high-quality schools, by promoting the kind of research that leads to well-paying jobs in cutting-edge industries, by providing meals that allow poor children to maintain attentiveness in school, thus improving their chances to climb the ladder.
Kathleen Parker commends the courage of the nation’s founders and suggests that courage is needed now to practice the kind of self-restraint and respectful behavior that will improve our lot. Courage requires us to curb our tendency toward envy. But it also requires us to stand up for what will benefit the American people. That means making clear that it is not good for the nation to skew the system toward the few. Let us have the courage to find the resources to invest in the American people — in their education, health and welfare — so they can rise to the challenge of the future. That is a good resolution for the new year.
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