Friday, January 21, 2011

Income Inequality

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, January 20, 2011

There is a certain spark that glows within the heart of every human. You may call it a sense of morality, or a recognition of “oughtness” – as C.S. Lewis described it – where we realize that things “ought” to be a particular way, that people “ought” to act according to set parameters.

Our founders stood on the shoulders of great philosophers and biblical teachings to declare this spark as evidence of our equality before an omniscient and omnipotent Creator. I choose to believe we have this spark because we are created in the image of a God who is just and therefore we seek justice. You may call it what you wish, you may even believe it is the culmination of millions of years of mindless, purposeless evolution, but you must admit it is there.
It is because of the existence of this spark that we bristle at inequities and unfairness. From the first introduction of sibling rivalry, to the playground, to the executive office, we scream when we see someone getting a different amount of toys or cookies. We, at these times, fail to realize that “created equal” refers to our inalienable rights (life, liberty, individual pursuits for property and happiness) and not to our economic equality.

Many utopian dreamers have sought to fan this spark of “oughtness” into the flames of revolution and some have succeeded – for a short time (Marx, Hitler, Mao, Lenin, etc.) – but sooner or later the futility of generating true economic equality through a synthetic means has been exposed.

Nevertheless, we continue to hear new cries for economic equity whenever new statistics are published that show a greater disparity between the wealthy and the poverty-stricken in our nation.

Recent news stories have mentioned the Gini Index, which is a value given to a society’s economic equality according to how evenly the riches of that society are distributed among its inhabitants. If a nation has a Gini Index of zero, it means everyone enjoys the same level of prosperity. Conversely, a Gini Index of one means one person owns everything and everyone else is destitute. Our nation’s Gini index rose from .39 to .44 in the past 20 years, which seems to indicate a troublesome trend of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Some have claimed that we should strive for that perfect level of zero, but is that such a good idea for the long term health of our economy? And even if it were a good idea, what mechanism is the best way to achieve that goal? To answer those questions, we can look across the globe and study the reaction of a chief rival.

China recently realized its own growing wealth gap when they achieved a Gini Index rise from .35 to .47, in only five short years of rapid economic growth. According to an article written in the Far Eastern Economic Review, there is an old Chinese proverb which states “Inequality, rather than want, is the cause of trouble” and it is belief in that proverb which has motivated Chinese leaders to begin a policy of wealth distribution to prevent growing class tension and political upheaval. The irony of this approach is that many experts believe, and other societies have proven, the drive to achieve income equalization would most likely result in decreasing innovation and entrepreneurial and labor incentives.

The next question to be answered by those who believe in income equity is: By what mechanism or method will this equality be achieved? Should we, as many have suggested, tax the rich at higher and higher rates until their income is decreased to an “acceptable” level (Obama seems to think $250,000 or less is an acceptable level)? Should we limit competition for skilled employees and executives by setting maximum wage levels?

It seems that the growing wealth gap has provided the social engineers with both the symptom and the pathogen of a threatening disease, for which they are all too eager to provide the cure. Like a fanatical pharmaceutical company that develops a drug and then searches for a sickness, these engineers found taxation and governmental control and then sought for a cause.

Wealth disparity is the symptom and the rich people are the germs. They are universally seen as corrupt, greedy and manipulative, while the poor are classified as unfortunate or disadvantaged – but seldom seen as greedy, grabby or fraudulent.
If we believe that corruption, greed and ignoble deeds only grow in the hearts of the prosperous, and that nobility, charity, and ethics only grow in the hearts of the poor, we are mistaken. You will find all of the above in the executive office as well as in the tenement slum. No class has a monopoly on any virtue or any vice.

If we think we can achieve peace and tranquility by removing economic inequities, we will be forced to learn once again the hard lessons learned by so many other utopian dreamers. The best we can hope to accomplish through wealth distribution is mediocrity, the worse we can receive will be slavery to the state.

Friday, January 7, 2011

It Is Not About Equity

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, January 20, 2011

In the pages of this paper, on more than one occasion, I have talked about the growing wealth gap in this country. It is something that I have been concerned with for some time and something that I believe we all should be concerned about.

I think it is apparent, however, that at least my brother Gordon and possibly one BVW reader in particular misread my intent. In his column, Gordon focuses on the utopian concept of economic equity and on the distribution of wealth as an attempt to achieve this equity. In a recent e-mail message one Broader View fan asked several questions about the relationship between the wealth gap and taxation, one of which was “How does taxing the rich benefit the poor?” These approaches are oversimplifications of the complex issue.

Gordon is right that the extreme wealth gap in the United States is a symptom of a larger problem. But it is a problem that cannot be addressed by a distribution of wealth. As much as that term has been used against President Barack Obama, in order to label him as a radical leftist, Marxist or socialist, he and his administration do not see that as the answer either.

I don’t believe heavy taxation of the wealthy or somehow distributing their wealth among the poor is a solution to poverty and plight in this country. I do believe “of whom much is given much is required”. The national debt and deficit are growing in the U.S. and to continue to limit the wealthy’s tax burden as revenue sources, while cutting funding for programs that benefit the common good, is not only unfair, it is irresponsible.

There is no easy fix for the overwhelming disparity of income among Americans. There is no single target such as the greed and avarice of the wealthiest, nor the lack of opportunity afforded the poorest of us.

As I have said, it is a complex dilemma. There is an undeniable systemic bias favoring corporate America and the wealthy elite, while disparaging the working and poverty classes. This is a bi-partisan disregard for the poor evidenced in the policies of the current administration (even though less blatantly than during the previous administration’s reign). One need only look to the deal-making between the White House and the insurance, medical and corporate lobbies that stripped the healthcare legislation (which Republicans now seek to repeal) of meaningful provisions.

Policy makers who contribute to income disparity by imposing corporate welfare in all its forms, while devaluing safety nets and programs that benefit the poor, are part of the cause of the great plague that is the wealth gap. We citizens would do well to address those policies by expressing our displeasure to our representatives, by correspondence and, in a couple of years, at the ballot box. If we continue to allow the ruling elite (which includes members of both political parties) to strengthen the corporate and wealth classes while crippling the poor and eliminating the middle class, we become part of the problem.

I believe at the core of our failure to address this imbalance in policy, and the resultant income disparity, is a disconnect between the middle and working class and the realities of our economic system. Workers who still have jobs often protest high taxation when their income bracket currently excludes them from much of the burdens of the taxes they oppose. There is remarkable disapproval among the working class of the Estate Tax which impacts so few Americans that most of us would never feel its sting if it was doubled or tripled. The only explanation I can find for working poor voting against their economic interests and supporting relaxed taxation of the wealthy is a Horatio Alger syndrome in which if one somehow rises from rags into riches he or she seeks to avoid taxation of their bounty.

In past decades there has been an attempt to convince the working and middle class that supply-side economic imbalance would benefit all by trickling wealth downward. However, even though some conservatives cling to this argument and maintain that relaxing the tax burden on “job creators” will miraculously create jobs and prosperity, this myth is becoming increasingly hard to sell to those who are out of work because the corporate giants here have outsourced the best jobs to China, India and Pakistan. There is growing acceptance of the fact that industry and its employment opportunity in the United States will not return in our lifetimes.

Gordon may be correct that income equity is an impossible pipe dream and that it is an ideal with potential negative outcomes. But we should still be concerned as the United States rises toward the top of the Gini Index as a country with immense wealth inequity. It is an indicator that we are abandoning the interests of the common man while lifting up the wealthy elite. My fear is that within the century we will become like Haiti, with our ruling class occupying the mansions and state houses while the masses beg on the street or barely survive in service industries. As the wealth gap grows the American dream dies. As the wealth gap grows we risk descending from a super power to a third world country. As the wealth gap grows we surrender fairness and justice to the free market.

The Things They Must Now Carry

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, January 6, 2011

Tim O’Brien wrote a very moving novel in 1990 entitled The Things They Carried. It was filled with stories about a group of soldiers during the Viet Nam conflict. He listed the many things they carried into the battlefield. Their burdens were physical, emotional and psychological weights that pressed down upon them as they tried to perform their duties. It was a telling description of the many stressors our military troops deal with on a daily basis. We should be careful to not add to the things they must carry.

I believe the lame duck Congress and President Obama have just added to the list of things our soldiers must now carry.
If one only listens to the sound bites and only reads the headlines regarding the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), one would think our military personnel have undergone a dramatic shift in their perceptions and feelings. One would probably conclude – as Keith does – that a “warm breeze of tolerance and progress” is blowing across our military bases and battlefields. However, as with most of the news stories these days, the truth is usually buried far beneath the sound bite and the headline.
Much was made of the report commissioned by the Congress and fulfilled by the Pentagon in which a survey of active military personnel revealed 70% of respondents (by the way, less than 30% of our troops chose to respond) claimed there would be “positive, neutral or mixed” effects from the repeal. What needs to be revealed is that the report itself is close to 300 pages and the implementation plan adds another 95, and within the details of the report is the fact that nearly 60% of the combat units (i.e. the Army infantry and the Marine Corps) felt the repeal would have a negative impact on troop morale and reenlistment decisions.

We all know our military is the greatest collection of personnel, weapons and tactics that has ever existed on this planet, and we rest safely in our homes each night solely because they are “on that wall” between us and those who mean us harm. They all deserve our highest respect and honor, and we should listen to them when they tell us their concerns.

Those who choose to sign their name to an enlistment form do so with the knowledge that certain things are going to change for them after the ink dries on that dotted line. They will no longer be free to choose their own hairstyle or color of clothing. Certain behaviors and modes of conduct will be prohibited. They will be expected to sacrifice their preferences and their orientations for the sake of unity and troop morale.

The DADT policy was initiated during the Clinton administration to allow those with homosexual tendencies to serve in the armed forces as long as their preferences and orientations were not made public because it was determined that such knowledge would disrupt the above-mentioned unity and troop morale. This policy had nothing to do with “fear and hatred” (as Keith likes to claim) but more with the reality that sexual relationships tend to add more burdens to the over-burdened soldier and commander in the field of battle.

The repeal of DADT will turn the focus of our military leaders away from the task of fighting real enemies and toward defending themselves from our own soldiers and citizens as a myriad of lawsuits will most definitely be filed. In fact, a report published on (‘Don’t-Ask’-repeal) mentions that the ACLU has several lawsuits involving soldiers who have lost their positions ready to file as well as plans to use legal battles to force the military to recognize same-sex spouses for benefits.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates admits that implementation of the repeal will cause disruption and likens it to the five-year transition that took place during the military’s racial integration process. He also admits that the introduction of females into the military still causes problems.

“We have a continuing problem with sexual assault.” Gates said, referring to the issue of females in the military and then added. “I think the report is honest in saying we will have some disruption [if DADT is repealed].”

We should not use our armed forces as a social experiment. There are several other institutions with which we can teach diversity and tolerance. Our military is designed to work best when everyone wears the same uniform and works as a unified force. No differentiation is allowed if unity is to be achieved.

I have always been impressed by the men and women who serve our nation in the armed forces. It seems they all lose their identity as they go through their basic training so they can assume a new identity as a soldier. For the rest of their lives they accept the fact that they are no longer the individual they were before they “joined up”. They all refer to themselves by their branch of service as their first identity. Obviously, this new identity is necessary for troop unity.

It is easy to see how this unity would not be accomplished if everybody identified themselves first according to their sexual orientation.