Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Republicans, Democrats, and the Redistribution of Wealth

We, Americans, are in the heat of campaign season, and I can’t help but feel like the same old debates are still a churning. Take for example this email my father recently sent me entitled Elephant or Donkey?. Even before the story begins it is described as an “Interestingly correct analogy…..” I’m not so sure, but before we debate the correctness, let’s look at the story.

Elephant or Donkey?

  • A young woman was about to finish her first year of college. Like so many others her age, she considered herself to be a very liberal Democrat, and among other liberal ideals, was very much in favor of higher taxes to support more government programs, in other words redistribution of wealth. She was deeply ashamed that her father was a rather staunch Republican, a feeling she openly expressed. Based on the lectures that she had participated in, and the occasional chat with a professor, she felt that her father had for years harbored an evil, selfish desire to keep what he thought should be his. One day she was challenging her father on his opposition to higher taxes on the rich and the need for more government programs. The self-professed objectivity proclaimed by her professors had to be the truth and she indicated so to her father. He responded by asking how she was doing in school.

    Taken aback, she answered rather haughtily that she had a 4.0 GPA, and let him know that it was tough to maintain, insisting that she was taking a very difficult course load and was constantly studying, which left her no time to go out and party like other people she knew. She didn’t even have time for a boyfriend, and didn’t really have many college friends because she spent all her time studying.

    Her father listened and then asked, ‘How is your friend Audrey doing?’ She replied, ‘Audrey is barely getting by. All she takes are easy classes, she never studies, and she barely has a
    2.0 GPA. She is so popular on campus; college for her is a blast. She’s always invited to all the parties and lots of times she doesn’t even show up for classes because she’s too hung over.’

    Her wise father asked his daughter, ‘Why don’t you go to the Dean’s office and ask him to deduct 1.0 off your GPA and give it to your friend who only has a 2.0. That way you will both have a 3.0 GPA and certainly that would be a fair and equal distribution of GPA.’

    The daughter, visibly shocked by her father’s suggestion, angrily fired back, ‘That’s a crazy idea, how would that be fair! I’ve worked really hard for my grades! I’ve invested a lot of time, and a lot of hard work! Audrey has done next to nothing toward her degree. She played while I worked my tail off!’

    The father slowly smiled, winked and said gently, ‘Welcome to the Republican party.’ If anyone has a better explanation of the difference between Republican and Democrat I’m all ears.

If it was only so simple…

Before commenting directly, I would like to give an alternative ending.

A Defense of a Socially Responsible Society of Human Animals

The daughter is shocked by her father’s logic. And initially agrees to what he has said, because it isn’t fair to redistribute that which wasn’t earned (be it GPA points or personal monetary wealth). People that don’t work shouldn’t get paid for doing nothing nor should they receive any of my GPA points just because they have less and we should be “equal.” The daughter seeing the clarity of her father’s thinking “converts” to Republicanism and votes systematically Republican for the next several elections. Her votes along with those of other fellow Republicans lead to a further decrease in government programs and spending. As such, this leads to a more or less pure, individualistic, capitalistic, free market system where there is little or no collective, social security net. Tant pis.

The daughter finishes school with high grades and gets a good job. In the meantime, her father has died leaving her no money. This means she’s financially independent in a society where what you work for is what you get.

She works for this company for several years, but suddenly the company goes under and she’s without a job. She immediately starts looking for a new job but with no luck. A few months pass with no job and mounting bills when she gets sick. Her former employer no longer covers her as a client and the government seeing that people didn’t want their hard-earned money taken from them can do nothing to help. All forms of social security were eliminated.

She should have planned ahead. She should have saved more. She shouldn’t have gotten sick. She shouldn’t be alone.

So she’s sick with no job, no family to help her out, no health care, and, ironically, few or no friends (unlike her old, “slacker” friend from college).

Take on any number of other unfortunate situations of well-intentioned, hardworking people who fall on bad lack and with no one to help them (getting pregnant, getting sick, a car accident, falling down the stairs, losing a job, having a job that doesn’t pay enough to live, etc.). Take these unfortunate situations with no one to help, and you get the fact that someone should be there to help. Not just someone but all of us should be there to help and carry the load of those who stumble. This doesn’t mean we carry the entire load for them forever. It just means that when things go wrong, we are always part of a socially responsible society of human people helping human people, of friends and family being there for friends and family.

Take any of this stumbling people in a world full of trip-ups and potential pitfalls and add the help of society willing to share and care for those in need and…Welcome to (what should be the ethical core of) the Democratic Party.

An additional comment on the original story

This isn’t exactly a “correct” analogy, because it aims at defending personally earned property and money from being arbitrarily taken away and given to someone who has hasn’t earned it.

The father has more or less simplified the Democrats as equating to a pure, redistribution of wealth, particularly emphasizing the fact that the daughter worked for her GPA in the same way her father worked for his wealth. By this logic, when you work, you earn according to the time and energy put in (this would include time and energy spent studying to earn that particular position). But many people earn more in putting less time and energy than others.

For example, the factory worker that works a 10-16 hour day while the factory owner works a physically easier 9-5 job with weekends, long vacations, etc. Subtracting level of education and level of responsibility, the factory owner still traditionally earns much, much more than the factory worker who often works harder. Is that fair? Does the owner merit his 10X higher pay than the worker?

Redistribution of wealth for a “liberal” means that wealth should be ethically distributed between the worker and the owner, such that everyone gets a good, basic human condition (housing, food, health care, etc.) as well as a certain amount of money to buy luxuries. The United States is a country committed to freedom and equality, but it seems to me that we are far from equal in terms of an equal distribution of wealth in a money-earning organization. (This example could be looked at even more gloomy condition between the owner of a multinational who exploits 10-cent an hour labor abroad while earning 1000s of times more.)

Equally important in understanding redistribution of wealth is the question of inheritance. What right do the children of someone who has worked hard and earned a considerable amount of money for their life and for raising a family have the money earned by someone else, even it is his or her father or mother (this is directed at “children” over the age of 20 or 25, I’m not inferring that 10 years who have lost their father have no right to much needed money in order to eat, study, etc.)?

My alternative ending emphasizes the fact that we as societal members should promote measures in our society to protect and insure a basic human condition, which, in my opinion, the Republican platform cares little about.