Wednesday, June 09, 2004


The Reagan Memorial Lionization Propaganda Parade goes on...and it brings some thoughts about tax cuts and incentive to mind. Over at David Brock's Media Matters, he and his people are doing a great job at setting the record straight about what these right-wing media hellhounds are doing to our country. I was glad to see some corrections and clarifications on programs I had heard with my own ears, especially this one, from Bill O'Reilly's radio show:


O'REILLY: All right, so it's income redistribution. It's basically slapping more tax -- and remember, if you were earning $500,000 or more, you're paying your property tax already. You're paying a federal income tax. You're paying a state income tax. You're paying all the other taxes that come along.

Now, is this good? Is this what we should be doing here in America? Now, remember -- remember how the country was founded. So this is a deviation, because the Founding Fathers didn't want any federal income tax at all. That only happened around the turn of the 20th century. And they said OK, leave it to the -- leave it to the locals to tax and take what they need.


So it's basically a kind of quasi-socialist mentality. Remember, in the socialist countries, it's basically leveling off -- if you make a lot then we take it from you and we give to the bottom so that nobody has too much. That's communism, that's socialism, obviously got a lot of appeal. Got a lot of appeal.

It doesn't work because it robs incentive. I mean, that's why it doesn't work, but in this country, income redistribution is a hallmark of the Democratic Party and the Liberal bent of it. Hillary Clinton loves it. All right. And McGreevey obviously loves it, but is it morally right? Is it what this country was founded on? See, there's the question.

I find the part about how income redistribution supposedly "robs incentive" particularly interesting. Now, if you're wondering why I bothered to bring up Reagan, it's because until this current administration, he held the record for the biggest tax cuts ever. And tax cuts supposedly return incentive to entrepreneurs--as if by magic. Of course, no one likes paying large chunks of their income in taxes. But I don't think (and I hardly ever hear anyone say this) that the idea that taxes kill incentive is true at all.

The idea that taxes are the death of incentive was obviously born out of the widely held misconception that the only thing that motivates anyone to do anything is profit, especially financial profit. It's an idea that we are all basically chimpanzees, and the biggest banana is the only reward that will get us to perform tricks for the cameras.


I do find that comparison of human beings to base animals is a useful analogy in some respects, but like all analogies, it breaks down eventually (i.e., if a is always analogous to b, then a is b and no analogy is necessary). To continue the chimp analogy, suppose the zookeeper brings out a bunch of bananas to feed the whole chimp colony. There is one that is obviously bigger, even to the chimpanzees. Let's suppose for analogy's sake, that every chimp in the colony wants to have that banana because it's the biggest. They don't want any of the smaller bananas, they must have the biggest one.

But the zoo's rules are one banana per chimp, and the chimps have learned this over time. Well, what can the chimps do? They are all equally deserving of receiving nourishment, they figure, and that gigantic banana would be nourishment beyond belief. So when the zookeeper starts to tear bananas from the bunch and throw them to the chimps, they ignore all the bananas but the biggest one. When there's only the big banana left, they all clamor for it and a chimp riot ensues. The zookeeper barely escapes with his life, and the chimps literally begin to kill each other over this banana. Eventually, one chimp ends up with the biggest banana, all the other chimps are dead, but even the victorious chimp is so badly wounded he won't last long enough to finish the huge banana that he fought so viciously for.

Now, humans wouldn't do that. Humans would settle for a banana that was almost as big, or at least be happy to have a banana at all. When the bananas are thrown out, humans would think "here comes my banana" and morre or less take what was thrown their way. They might be a little bit resentful, but the human that wound up with the big banana would try to convince them that he was the most deserving and that's why he got it. And the other humans wouldn't really believe him deep down, but they aren't all that concerned because at least they got a banana and think that one day, they too will be the recipient of the biggest banana.


And that's because humans are rational beings. They understand that they shouldn't always have the biggest banana, or the largest slice of pie, or the biggest return on their investment. They in fact cannot always have that unless the system is rigged in their favor.

A human might feel that if he or she doesn't have the biggest salary, at least I've got my lovely spouse and my kids, while that billionaire lives all alone. A human would be willing to find the cure for cancer in order to stop people's suffering, not just to make billions of dollars from it. We've all heard stories of people like Van Gogh, who created great art but never received recognition or remuneration for it in his lifetime. So if he and millions of others like him will do great work without necessarily getting a lot of money for it, why do they do it?

Well, they do it because they like doing it--it gives them pleasure, it makes them feel better, it makes them feel connected to society, and on and on. In this respect, humans are not beasts--they are capable of doing a thing for its own sake.

The cynic might agree and suggest that those do-gooders can just feel great about their work and the rest of us will take the financial rewards they generate. The realists would say, no, let's assume that all but the most psychotic and sociopathic people have this capacity to do a thing for its own sake--whether it's medicine, art, sports, writing, politics, soldiering, etc.--and let's create a situation in which they can really pursue such things, and their reward can be the work. King Crimson's Robert Fripp has a great saying with regard to this idea: "The reward of the musician is music." You can use this for any profession "The reward of the doctor is healing people," "The reward of the governor is providing for the general welfare of the citizens," etc.

Now, this idea supposedly has been thoroughly discredited because it sounds suspiciously like the Communist Manifesto's "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." That idea is a thorougly Christ-like one ("Do unto others...") and is not discredited just because Lenin and Stalin and the rest of them screwed it up. The trick is to create a system that is neither wholly, rapaciously capitalist, nor woefully utopian socialist. The answer to a question is almost never either/or, it's somewhere in the middle.

And a system that rides that line is what we've been progressing toward for the entire history of this country. But Reagan-worshippers and Bush and their amen corners would like to change that direction entirely. You can hear it every single day on conservative shows like Limbaugh's and O'Reilly's. They think people are evil creeps whose only interest is their own personal gain. What they may or may not realize is that every single day, there are people working for non-profit organizations, writing books and songs and poems that may never be on any best-seller chart simply for the love of doing it. And one thing that allows these people to do these labors of love is a fair tax system that allows their government (which is actually the people themselves--when the right-wingers talk about wanting "less government" what they're actually saying is they want less control by the people and more control by the corporations) to provide a certain standard of living for them.

So if a certain tax rate makes a person want to stop being a venture capitalist, then maybe they should stop doing that and do something they really love. They should work toward actualizing themselves as human beings, rather than doing anything and everything only for its profit potential.

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