Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Things That Don't Bother Me: Other People's Wealth

There's a fellow on my team at work who every so often reads a news story that sets him off on a familiar refrain: "Do you know what would happen if we imposed a 50% tax on the world 50 richest people? We could pay for national health care without costing anyone else a dime! Can you imagine that? Fifty people sitting on enough wealth to give healthcare to everyone in the country. There's something wrong with the world... Why should they have all that money?"

I'm sure there are indeed lots of things wrong with the world, and this may be one of them, but try as I might I honestly can't work up any worry over it. Once and a while I half-heartedly reply, "Well, it is their money. That's why they'd generally expect to keep it." Generally I just keep my mouth shut.

I'm hesitant to say that this kind of exercise is simply a matter of envy. Christ discussed the injustice of the rich man who does nothing for those in need at his very gates in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. However, unlike many modern progressives I don't think that Jesus envisioned setting up vast government systems to redistribute wealth.

It seems to me that there rests on those who have earned or inherited great wealth a duty to use that wealth wisely, to store up treasures in heaven as well as on this earth. And yet, it doesn't strike me as worth worrying too much about it from my position. I rather question how much good it would do to take the money from the richest people in the world and give it to the richest government in the world, in order to "do good". Rather more important, it seems to me, is what each of us is doing with our own small bits of wealth, or lack thereof.

In the end, rich or poor, we're all headed in the same direction. At the end of Barry Lyndon, perhaps Stanley Kubrick's best film in my estimation, there's a quote which I can't seem to find at the moment that runs something like this: "All the players in this story, good or bad, rich or poor, all are now equal."

Or as Shakespeare put it rather bluntly: "The worm is the great equalizer."


Anonymous said...

I sometimes hear similar things at my place of work. Though periodically it's a complaint about some pop star, more often than not its about someone who runs a big business (let's face it, big name actors, etc. may seem to have money, but it's nothing compared to the business giants of the world).

I looked into it once or twice just for fun. Generally it seems to me that though these people have money, most of it is tied up in stock related to the various businesses that they are associated with. Someone worth a $1B can really only get their hands on a few million of it at a time. Now, a few milliion isn't chump change, but when it comes to national healthcare it's nowhere near what is needed.

What I tend to think, if I don't bother to say it out loud every time, is that since the vast majority of their wealth is tied up in business they are already doing good with it. Without that, there would be LOTS of people without jobs as a result. A comment like this doesn't take into consideration the economics in total. There is no way that Bill Gates could pull enough money from his ownership in Microsoft to pay 50% of it to the government without destroying the value of MSFT stock, and a quick and direct impact on the company and employees personal finances.

Besides, if that were the case, who would want to make it into the list of top money makers in the country? I think if such a thing were put into place you would quickly have those with the money taking their money, and often business, to another country where it isn't confiscated just because they happen to be successful.

Anonymous said...

I think people like your coworker must imagine that this wealth is all kept in gold dubloons that are moldering away in a vault somewhere. Or it's being used to pay servants to feed them grapes and fan them on their divans. If that were the case, your coworker would have a pretty good argument. (Although someone might point out that even those grape-feeding servants are jobs created by this wealth!)

The point is, the money has to go somewhere... The question is, where should it go?

Other than perhaps the psychic value of being an alpha dog, you don't derive any value from the wealth itself. Most of it is probably in shareholder equity of some form and is being put to use in business investment and job creation. You might think that economic and job growth are not as high a priority as health care spending, but that's a debatable matter.

In other words, it's not self-evident that it is better to transfer that wealth from its current (productive?) uses to other (productive?) uses. At least it's not self-evident to me that, say, a portion of that money should be spent on lavish government-funded dental care for a man in his 20s with healthy teeth as opposed to being spent on creating a salary-paying job for a struggling breadwinner.

Darwin said...

Yeah, the added irony is that our company is run by one of those top fifty people -- and so I imagine if he had to liquidate 50% of his wealth, we'd be out of jobs...

The Pigeon said...

It is a lot easier to complain and spout bumpersticker philosophy than to think something completely through. Of course, I am not immune to that pandemic myself.

j christian said: "I think people like your coworker must imagine that this wealth is all kept in gold dubloons that are moldering away in a vault somewhere."

This reminded me of a cartoon I watched as a child: DuckTales. One of the characters, "Scrooge McDuck," had a huge vault of gold that he would swim around in.