Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Haves and the Have Nots

There are two stories in the Deseret News that offer a nice little contrast. In the first, the DesNews scrutinizes the political donations of the Huntsman family. The article states that the family, as a whole, donated about twice as much to Democrats as to Republicans (but this is not what the post is about). In the second, the DesNews finds that 82% of low-income families are fully employed and still not able to meet the basic necessities of modern life, such as food, shelter, and health care.

So what we have here in Utah, in part, which is a microcosm of our nation as a whole, is on the one end a very successful family worth billions of dollars and on the other end 94,000 working families with 243,000 children, struggling to keep a home or apartment, food on the table, and basic health care.

You should know right now that I am in kind of a liberal/upset mood, so I'm going to get a little indignant here.

This is ridiculous and it makes me angry. I have no beef with the Huntsmans, they donate a lot of time and money to charitable causes and they seem like good people. But we've created a society where two people with the same drive and work ethic live in two separate worlds. In one world your family owns several mansions and offers you the best education and best connections that money can buy, and in the other the kids are in over-crowded classrooms without physical and psychological security or basic healthcare. In one world you expect to inherit millions of dollars from the family business and in the other you inherit callouses on your hands and a healthy distrust for a society that will just wear you down.

And yet all we hear is that the government better not touch my money. The government better stop encouraging lazy people to live off the Nanny State. The government is singularly ill-equipped to deal with social problems. The Invisible Hand will sort it all out!

All of which is nonsense. The rich receive so much more benefit from society and the government each day than the poor do in years. The rich grow rich from the physical labor of the poor. The government is not perfect, but we have seen again and again the injustices of a laissez-faire philosophy. We have seen slavery, monopolies, gender and racial inequalities, depressions and recessions, and the like.

I'm not calling for socialism, and I'm not calling for complete income parity. I'm calling for a society that fosters the hopes and dreams of all of its members, each of whom has something important and essential and meaningful to offer. I'd like to see better public schools that give every kid a chance to learn and succeed, affordable higher education available to anyone that wants it (including more emphasis on vocational schools), a public health care system that makes sure every family has their basic health care needs met, and no family (absolutely zero families) worrying about what they are going to eat tomorrow because the cupboards are empty.

This is what being a liberal is all about. Equality. Do those beliefs make me less of a Mormon than a conservative? I openly scoff at the idea.

There are plenty of ways liberals and conservatives can work together, and I respect many, many conservatives and think they present a lot of good ideas. But the goal of both political ideologies must be equality and security (which are completely intertwined), and you can't just come to the table with ideas that merely reinforce a system that leads to the rich getting richer and getting more opportunities, and the poor getting poorer with fewer opportunities.

If conservatives want to champion less government involvement that is fine, but that is not enough. They have to come up with ideas that replace government action that promotes equality. Can we rely on individuals acting independently with human compassion alone to create justice and equality? History has shown that we cannot. The only society that I can think of that achieved such total equality was this one, and I'm not sure we should just sit around and wait for that to happen again any time soon.


Shawn O. said...

Okay Pinko.

I can hear the arguments now - why should I be punished for working hard? why should I give up my money to support the lazy? handouts will only make more people dependent. That's communism, or that's socialism. Why should government redistribute wealth? there is no motivation to work and get and education, and on and on.

In a perfect world (i.e. the United Order) all would voluntarily support each other in a community to eradicate poverty (Moses 7:18). While communism and socialism in toto are weak man-made attempts at this such a society, and fail because of the greed of men. And it is greed that prevents capitalism from working too.

So while we wait for the perfect society to spontaneously form, I agree with Jacob - action should be taken to ensure that all individuals have the chance to work hard, and that hard work is rewarded. Along with providing for the common defense, we must promote the general welfare of this country. To me that means that we as citizens, should work in harmony with the government to make certain that all citizens can secure the basic, and essential, services that will spawn independence and progress - health care, education, and free thought.

Doug said...

What you describe is symptomatic of a society that has departed from the essential elements of a Zion society, which is what we as Latter-day Saints are under covenant to work for. There is a “culture war” in America, but it is not between conservatives and liberals, who in fact share a great many core values—including a commitment to children, family, community, personal responsibility and democracy. It is between the lower and higher orders of our human nature. I would describe it as between and “imperial” politics of individual greed and power and a “democratic” politics based on principle and the common good.

I hope we can come to see ourselves as progressive conservatives and progressive liberals, who, though we have are differences, share a commitment to creating a society governed by ordinary people and dedicated to the ideals liberty, justice, and opportunity for all. We must be driven by principle rather than ideology and we must deal in reality rather than delusion. A politics of mature citizenship properly honors both the conservative values of freedom and individual responsibility and the values of equality and justice for all. I see much potential in our society for giving opportunity to all, especially the least among us. I am motivated by progressive grassroots organizations that see as one of their defining purposes securing fulfilling livelihoods for all and increasing the generative power of our local communities.

I think there are many other ways we can be working towards a Zion society here and now. Perhaps a discussion about what that society looks like might be interesting. We are blessed with particular insights because of our association with the Holy Spirit. Surely, we can find solutions to bring a Zion society closer and relieve the misery, suffering, and inequalities among us.

peter said...

I assume that you are promoting an equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of results. I believe everyone should have an equal opportunity to make what they will of themselves. Advocating an equality of results takes away agency, libety, etc.

A perfect society would be great, and your outlined items needed for that society I agree with for the most part. My question is, do you have a strategy for their implementation and where does all the money come? What percentage of your income are you willing to donate to achieve equality? It's great to talk about the things we'd like to do, and it's always better to aim high, but when the rubber hits the road, where's the money going to come from?


Jacob S. said...

Well, I wasn't exactly proposing anything that specific, but I get your point, this stuff costs money. This was more of a rant that was precipitated by seeing such stark contrasts right here in Utah, contrasts that usually don't even make us think twice anymore.

So we find a few more tax dollars through things like inheritance taxes on the uber-wealthy and closing corporate loopholes and we invest seriously in education and healthcare. Of course we can't make people take advantage of better opportunities, but we can offer it as realistic and I am confident many, many lives will be improved.

One other note, you said that forcing everyone to be equal takes away liberty, and I can understand that, but what is it called when a huge chunk of the population has no real opportunity to follow their dreams and better their situation? Isn't that also taking away someone's liberty? It seems to me the general conservative idea, and you are free to refute this because I know conservatives aren't all the same, is to favor giving more liberty to the rich at the expense of more liberty to the poor.

Doug said...

"....where does all the money come?"From the Center on Policy and Budget Priorities: "In 2008, some 21 percent of the budget, or $625 billion, went to pay for defense and security-related international activities. The bulk of the spending in this category reflects the underlying costs of the Department of Defense and other security-related activities. The total also includes the cost of supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, for which Congress appropriated approximately $188 billion in 2008 (note that this amount represents funding, not actual spending)".

The US spends more on defense than all other nations combined. How about a reordering of our budget priorities to address these moral imperatives?

Andrew said...

To me, a fundamental issue is how heavy a role chance plays in determining financial success. I think we need to delink the ideal of hard work from the idea of financial success -- there is enough correlation to be suggestive, but I don't think there's enough to justify basing your worldview on the concept that hard work always leads to financial success.

You can do everything right and still be broke. What sort of recourse should be taken to address that sort of thing? Do we correct the whims of luck by helping people who've fallen on hard times? I think so; when you remove the "morality" of work from the equation (i.e., that work always equals success), it becomes much easier to see that we're not redistributing work-generated wealth; rather, we're trying to smooth out the randomness of everyday life.

peter said...


Do you really think that inheritance tax and corporate loopholes will provide enough money to fund healthcare and college education (I assume that is what you are advocating) for everyone? But, as I said before, I do think we need to do our best to provide equality of opportunity. Everyone should have the opportunity to become what they want to become…I guess I’m talking more than just having lots and lots of money.

I’m confused by what you mean when you say, “to favor giving more liberty to the rich at the expense of more liberty to the poor.” What liberty for the rich are you talking about that comes at expense to the poor?

On another note, since I posted my last response, I’ve been thinking about the concept of equality of results. When we read about the city of Zion, it says that “they had no poor among them.” There were no poor, but it doesn’t say that everyone had everything the same. In the parable of the talents, the Lord gave each man a different amount and in the end they had different amounts. It wasn’t as important what they had as what they did with it. (and I realize this parable wasn’t meant to teach about economics, etc.) But with the law of consecration, there really is meant to be more of an equality of result, but participation is voluntary and everyone is doing their best. And under this system, even the poor have to be willing to give up what they have and be invested in the program for it to work. Still, does the law of consecration dictate a complete equality, or just the same idea that there be “no poor among them?”

As you pointed out, however, there is a large difference between the Lord’s system and the federal government. It is pretty much impossible to try and implement a Zion/law of consecration society in our current secular climate. But I would suggest that any type of program that tries to help needs to have everyone invested and giving instead of just trying to take it all from the rich to pay for the poor.


peter said...


I agree that there is probably extra that could be cut out of the defense budget. That being said, defense is truly one of the reasons for which we have government…”provide for the common defense.” It is one of those things no citizen can do on their own.

We are a large nation with large borders and probably require a larger amount to defend than many other nations. But if we are going to cut the defense budget and quit being involved with conflicts around the world, we probably ought to cut our foreign aid, too. I mean, if we can’t afford to take care of our own country, why are we trying to help everyone else?


peter said...


I think we are going to have to agree to disagree on this point. You put chance as a much higher percentage of financial success than I do. (If your definition of financial success involves multiple houses, vacations around the world, and buying whatever you want on a whim, then I can see where you might say that chance plays a larger part of the equation.)

There is absolutely a correlation between work and financial success. Sure, someone who is doing everything right could be broke, but if they are truly doing everything right, they won’t be broke for long. Work hard and spend less than you earn and generally you will have financial security. (You will have a house, food, the things you need.)

When you say you want to take the “morality of work” out of the equation, I don’t see how you can. Hard work is good and moral. I don’t think that work always equals success, but work usually equals success, and success will never come without work.

Now, let’s be clear, people do fall on hard times and I am not opposed to helping those people get back on their feet. I am not opposed to helping people have equal opportunities at a good life. I am opposed to blatant redistribution by the federal government, or smoothing out the randomness of life, or whatever you want to call it.


Andrew said...

'When you say you want to take the “morality of work” out of the equation, I don’t see how you can.'

It's pretty simple, actually. There's an old concept called the Protestant Work Ethic and it's related somewhat closely to the Prosperity Gospel. It's the basis for a widespread undercurrent in society that people who are successful are also somehow more righteous. Slight variations of this appear in religio-Libertarian thought (most of Libertarianism's progenitors were atheists), and by its logic poor people are judged to not be worthy of assistance. In a sense it's Social Darwinism in disguise, and just as wrong.

That's the "morality" of work that I'm referring to, and its insidious influence has tainted political thought in the U.S. since well before the so-called "culture" wars. Since the inference works both ways, people also assume that wealthy individuals deserve what they have because they've worked so hard, or somehow worked harder than anyone else. In essence, therefore, it's the extra something that exalts the work of the rich and debases the work of the poor.

In my mind you really start hitting the "lucky" zone when you make over $250k per year, which is also around where our national tax code gets more progressive. People in that rare category are benefiting from the collective advantages of society and, therefore, should give a bit more back than the rest of us.

peter said...


I guess I’ve never asked these specific questions of my widespread acquaintance, but I only know one person who has ever thought that people who make more money were inherently better or more worthy than people who worked at minimum wage jobs (an ex-boyfriend and this attitude annoyed me immensely.) I personally have never felt my spirituality was called into question by the wage I earned and I doubt that this particular idea has much widespread credibility.

It sounds like you are more concerned with what you perceive as inequitable compensation for work done. The argument that you seem to be making is that the effort you put in to doing your job is the sole measure that should be used to determine what you get paid. You are saying that level of education, difficulty of the job, experience necessary and even hours put in at work should count for nothing?

As I pointed out in a previous response, people go into a profession understanding what their probable income would be. They made a choice and bear the consequences of that choice. Someone who chooses to become a teacher is not going to make the same as someone who chooses to become a lawyer. Perhaps society doesn’t value some professions as they should, but that is an issue to take up with whoever is determining salaries, not with the people who are doing the work that earns the salaries.

As for your luck criteria…it’s good to know that a neurosurgeon who has spent twenty years in school, plus another eight or so years of training, plus an often 80 hour work week, added to the responsibility they have over your life just got lucky. It’s good to know that an experienced lawyer, who did 19 years of schooling, plus works long hours, and whose services (often) are vital to defending the rights of people just got lucky. The pilot who has specialized skills, thousands of hours of flight experience, and who also holds your life in his hands just got lucky. In fact, the president of the United States just got lucky (no work involved there). President Obama is a millionaire…he should probably just give all his wealth away…why hasn’t he?

As I stated previously, I don’t have a problem providing temporary assistance to people who are down on their luck. I do have a problem of continually giving to people who can work, and who choose not to. Or to people who continually make bad decisions and don’t want to face the consequences. They don’t need money, they need social intervention and education. Work is a commandment…I actually found two more scriptural references to the importance of work yesterday. 1 Timothy 5:8 “but if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel.” D&C 75:28 “And again, verily I say unto you, that every man who is obliged to provide for his own family, let him provide, and he shall in nowise lose his crown.”

The work that everyone does is important, no one is better or less-worthy based on the work they do or the compensation they receive. But just as the person making $50,000/year earned their money by doing the job they contracted to do, the person making $250,000/year earned their money by doing the job they contracted to do. It is their money and they earned it. It should be taxed, taxes are important for taking care of the business of government, (infrastructure, defense, public education, etc.) But taking away the bulk of what someone has earned just because someone else didn’t earn as much crushes incentive, is bad for the economy, and takes away the individual’s opportunity to grow spiritually through personal generosity.


Shawn O. said...

"As for your luck criteria…"

It's even better to know that the Research Professor, who spent 22 years in school, 3 years as a post-doc, and then the rest of his life writing grants to supplement his 60k salary didn't get lucky. Don't feel sorry for us though, we knew what we were getting into, and we can wear t-shirts to work. I should have worked harder, like Paris Hilton, then maybe i could be rewarded.

I have no problem with rewarding those that work hard - even if it means paying them a ton of money. In fact, I support high salaries for athletes and entertainers. However, look at the downstream effect - ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, and I'm sure they will say actor, musician, doctor, or maybe even firefighter. The concern is when they start to pursue a career and either find it nearly impossible to succeed, or it won't pay the bills.

The root of the problem is in how society values different professions. So yes I agree that people go into a profession knowing full well what the monetary reward will be. My concern is that more people would choose certain jobs if there were more reward for their effort. How many great scientists, inventors, computer programmers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and so many others, have we lost to more "rewarding" careers.

As for incentive, ask a person that works her butt off for 45k (with a masters degree and 5 years experience, taxed at 15%) if they are willing to do a job where she works her butt off and earns 300k but has to pay 35% taxes. In the first case you net 38k, in the second you net 195k. Incentive to work isn't going anywhere.

peter said...

The whole point of the "as for the luck criteria.." was to point out that it is ridiculous to state that any salary greater than $250,000 is largely due to luck.

$60,000/year is a perfectly adequate salary for a comfortable life. If you are doing what you love, why worry that someone is making more money than you are?

I chose science...I think that pleanty of people will continue to choose all careers, because they love what they are doing and despite the lack of a six digit salary, as long as they can live on what they make.

Andrew said...

"How many great scientists, inventors, computer programmers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and so many others, have we lost to more "rewarding" careers."

Too true; where I live is in fairly close proximity to Cal Tech. With one or two exceptions, most of the people I know that should have been scientists went into finance. We all know how that went...

Valuation of work is an issue, but there are still a number of factors that play into what opportunities are afforded to you in life. Neurosurgeons generally need a solid education well before getting to college, and to a degree the quality of that education depends on where you grow up. I went to what I'd consider to be a good public high school; many parents in our Stake send their kids to private schools (if they can afford it) because the public option isn't working well. What about those parents that can't afford private schools? I don't think you quite see the full role of "luck" in determining what career paths are actually available to you, as opposed to those that are theoretically possible. Not to mention the number of people whose individual choices affect that process. So, yes, you can work hard to become a neurosurgeon and if you make it I think you're lucky. Hard work is, in my mind, still only part of the equation.

I'm not against success; I aspire to join the 250+k/year tax bracket. I have a plan to get there, but it's been influenced in large part by the kinds of jobs I can find. I happen to be working for a start-up that looks like it'll be successful (growing business in a down economy is a good thing). I turned down a job that offered a higher salary to work here because I felt like the bet would pay off, both in financial terms and job experience. So far the experience part has worked out; whether our ship will come in remains to be seen. But no matter what happens, at the end of the day I feel extremely blessed to be where I am doing what I'm doing.

A footnote to this conversation is that, in many instances, members of the Church (and righteous people outside it) can replace "luck" with "miracles". In my mind that leaves us even more indebted to society as with greater blessings come greater responsibilities. I hope to faithfully fulfill mine.

winkieburger said...

"It's even better to know that the Research Professor, who spent 22 years in school, 3 years as a post-doc, and then the rest of his life writing grants to supplement his 60k salary didn't get lucky. Don't feel sorry for us though, we knew what we were getting into, and we can wear t-shirts to work. I should have worked harder, like Paris Hilton, then maybe i could be rewarded."

Man! The comments in this section are fantastic!

I'm bias because I am a biochemist and I constantly wonder how my PI is creating the life he wants with his salary. Science is a hard profession to make a ton of money in. The only people I've seen make money are those in material science or some sort of disease research. We all think our own research is the most important but it can be difficult convincing others.

Students entering college for the first time are not choosing ANY sort of science for a career. Everyone is choosing finance and business. It's really sad!

As for $60,000/year being adequate...that completely depends on where you live. I'd love to make $60k and live in Utah....actually no I wouldn't

peter said...

Wow, I guess the tables are turned and it's my turn to find out that I'm the idealist. I always assumed (because that's how it was done in my family) that people chose a profession that they loved and as long as you could make a modest living doing that profession that everything was great. I didn't realize that so many people were choosing professions based solely on pulling in a huge paycheck. It's actually a pretty sad commentary on the materialism and mixed up priorities of our society.

I don't know that which public school you go to is such a big deal (my husband and I both went to public schools that weren't stellar) but the difference was that our parents cared about our school, teaching us responsibility and that we do our best. They instilled ambition and vision into us. I was very lucky to have the parents that I did.

And winkieburger, you hit the nail on the head...You choose where you live... Very few professions require that you live in one specific city.


Laurel Nelson said...

I totally agree. That DesNews statistic completely blasts out of the water the typical conservative argument of "Well if everyone would just work hard enough they'd suceed". I'm sorry but it just doesn't always work like that. They are burying their heads in the sand.