Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Actions vs. Intentions

This conversation grew out of a story writing and editing session I had. I was trying (politely, of course) explain that the ending this person had selected for her character was boring because his salvation/resolution came from outside--the ever-dreaded deus ex machina. What I was trying to explain, as patiently as possible, was that her character had to earn his salvation. Finally, I tried another example. I said, "Look, let's say you had a million dollars in your estate, and you wanted to give it to your kid."

Horrified, she said, "I wouldn't do that!"

I asked, "Would you just give it to them when they turned 18, or would you make them earn it?"

"Earn it!" she said firmly. Then she added, "I don't think I'd even tell them I had it. I wouldn't want them to be spoiled."

"Great," I said, and then related the example back to her character and why an unearned reward did nothing for him. The discussion of earning vs. rewards continued, and we meandered into politics, partly because she had a utopia she wanted to include in her story.

"I'm very concerned about social justice lately," she said. "I just saw the Michael Moore movie, Capitalism: A Love Story." Rolling my eyes, I let her continue. "I don't think capitalism works."

There after followed a five-minute explanation of her feelings regarding the homeless, how they needed "dignity" and shouldn't be thrown out on the street. "They should have the basics: food, shelter, dignity." Dignity was a big thing with her. But she didn't want to talk or think about "rich or poor" or where the money would come from--you know: the actual cost of feeding the welfare state. She just wanted people to have enough money or possessions at the end of life to have dignity. This was the same person who didn't want to tell her own child that she had a million bucks, but she was willing to do whatever it took for social justice to prevail. I didn't have time to ask her these questions, but I couldn't help wondering afterward:

  • If fictional characters or your own kids learn and value something earned more than something given to them, why wouldn't the total strangers you want to supply with "dignity?"
  • If you wouldn't give your own kid $1M without them earning it (if then), why would you expect rich strangers in this country to give other total strangers enough money to have "dignity" at the end of their lives?
  • How much should "dignity" cost, anyway?
  • If you're so protective of your theoretical million dollars, why are "the rich" or "big businesses" greedy and evil for being the same way?
  • Has it occurred to you that religion--which is increasingly being driven out of the public sphere--once drove the rich and poor alike to engage in private charitable giving before the government started taking more and more for the welfare and doing the giving for them?

I did ask her this: "If people get more satisfaction from earning and earning comes mostly from (private-sector) jobs, why shouldn't entrepreneurs and businesses be allowed to keep more of their money so they can hire more people?"

"They need to pay more taxes to pay for the social safety net."

I said, "They are, and so am I. The president thinks the way you do, and is raising taxes. As a result, businesses don't have as much money to hire more people. That's why unemployment is nearly 10 percent."

She shook her head in disbelief. "I don't think so. They're just cutting jobs to raise profits."

Great googily moogily! How do you argue with someone who has swallowed anti-economic thinking whole? Does she not understand that money that could have been spent on creating more goods and services (and thus jobs) is now diverted to unproductive activities like taxes and lawyers to cover their butts in the face of new regulations? Obviously not.

This is not just a gap in philosophy, it's a gap in fundamental knowledge, possibly willful, possibly not, but it illustrates dramatically why the political classes and the people they purport to represent are increasingly talking past each other. Wow. There's some real food for thought.


Unknown said...

The money certainly *could* have been spent increasing production and jobs. The money typically *is* actually spent increasing bonuses for the top 1% of wage earners, who then use international finance loopholes to sink their funds so far offshore that taxes are one of those things that poor people have to worry about. :)

It's not always a lack of knowledge, it's a difference in assumptions about whether or not money is spent in the ideal situation for society's benefit. I imagine if the rich and poor alike had continued private charitable giving at a level that allowed for any form of social safety net, it wouldn't have become compulsory. If charitable giving were so grand an idea and so common an ideal of the average person, charitable organizations wouldn't be scrambling for gov't grants to pay basic overhead costs.

It's not that we're talking past each other, always. Maybe not even most of the time. It's that some of us don't buy Adam Smith's Invisible Hand theory, and definitely don't buy trickle-down economics as a viable model.

Bart said...

>>I imagine if the rich and poor alike had continued private charitable giving at a level that allowed for any form of social safety net, it wouldn't have become compulsory. <<

No, no. Your timeline/cause-and-effect sequence is wrong. Once government (i.e. LBJ) decided to make government largesse (the War on Poverty) compulsory and subsequent governments raised taxes to fund it, charitable giving declined. If there's less money available to the private sector, there's less available for private giving. QED.