October 22, 2008
Spreading the wealth-3: Meeting a hierarchy of needs
My view is that one should formulate tax policy based on the extent to which one meets a hierarchy of needs.
The first level of needs is to provide food, shelter, clothing, and medical care for oneself and one's family. That undoubtedly takes priority over everything else. People who are struggling financially just to get by even if they live frugally, would tangibly benefit from paying less taxes and should pay less. In fact, there is no reason why such people should pay any taxes at all. Tax cuts or policies that result in higher incomes meet that level of need very well.
But once those needs are met, the next level of needs consist of safe neighborhoods, well-lit and well-maintained streets and sidewalks, parks and recreational areas for children and adults to enjoy, well-stocked libraries, and good schools. Those are very real and tangible needs that I would directly and personally benefit from but it beats me how giving me a tax cut is going to help me attain any of them. This level of needs cannot be met by tax cuts or even higher income, unless the increased income is so large that I can live in a gated communities, send my children to private schools, hire private security services, and otherwise pretty much cut myself off from most of humanity.
Since that is unlikely (and even undesirable from my point of view) am I supposed to take the few hundred extra dollars a month in tax cuts and go around and find other people who share my needs and we then pool our money to build a park? To hire police? To build schools and libraries? That is madness. Only an organized system like government can provide the kind of personal benefit that comes from creating a public good.
Giving people tax cuts when they are already able to meet their first level of needs while this second level of needs is not met makes no sense. It seems to be based on the belief that by using that money to buy consumer goods like iPods, I can compensate for the decay of public services.
Beyond the level of meeting the first level of basic needs, the deeper pleasures and joys of life do not come from private wealth but communal wealth. I would gladly pay more taxes to pay for those needs that can only be met by a collective community effort. What is the point of buying a large flat screen plasma TV instead, unless I am planning to shut myself up in my fortress home, cut off from the pleasures that come with being a social being? Surely this should be obvious? Or do people think that they can be happy in a cocoon while surrounded by poverty and decay?
But I also have a third level of needs, this time on a psychic level. At some level of my subconscious and occasionally of my conscious mind, it bothers me that there are people who go to sleep each night hungry, live in sub-standard and rat and cockroach infested housing in dangerous neighborhoods, whose schools are experiencing physical decay and lack of resources, and who suffer and die from treatable illnesses because they do not have access to affordable health care.
I do not routinely see these people because I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to live and work in neighborhoods where they are largely absent, or at least invisible. But I know they are out there and sometimes as I drive through poorer neighborhoods I can envisage the grim lives such people must be leading. It is depressing. I would gladly pay more taxes to alleviate the hardships those people face.
In order to meet that psychic need, I would gladly pay higher prices for my food if that meant the food service workers were paid better. I would gladly pay more for my groceries if that meant that agricultural workers lived better lives. I would gladly pay more for my clothes if that meant that sweatshops were shut down. And I would gladly pay more taxes to pay for better housing for low-income people and to create a single-payer universal health care system so that no one is denied appropriate care.
All those are also ways to ''spread the wealth around' and they are good things, just as it is a good thing to raise taxes on the well-to-do and use that money to create greater social goods that everyone benefits from.
Even those who do not share my third level of needs must surely recognize the value of the second level, which is why the opposition to spreading the wealth is so surprising.
POST SCRIPT: Fake Americans unite!
Jon Stewart rips into the ridiculous notion put out by McCain and Palin that there is a 'real' America and a fake (?) America.