Luck matters when it comes to wealth
In their unbending opposition to raising a penny more in taxes from even the wealthiest Americans - even in the midst of a government debt crisis and shrinking public budgets - extremist politicians paint all rich people as self-made, entrepreneurial "job creators." If we ask any more in taxes from such paragons of industry, they argue, we'll not only crimp the economy, but perversely "punish success."
I was born into an affluent family and lived in a good neighborhood, and so received a top-notch public education. I went to one of America's great public universities, the University of California, Berkeley, emerging debt-free. Later, I inherited money and married a man with a high-paying profession.
It's true that I've appreciated the opportunities afforded me and made responsible choices. But personal effort, choice, and virtue played no role in creating the opportunities. They were just handed to me, by good luck.
That's why I support higher taxes for me and for people like me. Taxes are a way of evening out the blind fortune that plays such a central role in all our lives. Because luck runs both ways - as has become especially clear during this Great Recession.
Wealthy people like me should pay our fair share because, like everyone else, we depend on the public services that taxes fund. I benefit everyday from living in a safe neighborhood protected by great police and fire departments. I travel on public transit, use public libraries, and rely on public utilities. These are services that we collectively, as a society, provide efficiently, democratically, and on a scale that individuals - even rich ones - could never afford on their own.
I want a fairer tax system because I would rather have adequately funded housing services than pass by homeless people languishing in the streets. I'd rather have an aggressive response to the unemployment crisis than worry about my friends losing their jobs and wondering how they'll make ends meet. None of us, even those lucky enough to be well off, live apart from the world around us. I want the America that I am part of to be a better, fairer place.
I have been to Mexico City, where the rich live behind barbed wire and only go out with armed guards, while desperate people without clean drinking water or adequate sewage systems live in squalor. Is this who we want to be? I'm afraid we're getting close. I don't want to live in this divided world, and I can well afford to give up some of my luxuries so that others can have the necessities.
Yes, some rich people started with nothing, worked long hours, sacrificed, saved, and well deserve their good fortune. However, they are wrong if they believe they made it entirely on their own. Education, health, safety, and opportunity always play a role. None of us creates these things for ourselves.
They are gifts that each American child receives because all Americans contribute their fair share to the common good. And while hard-earned, dazzling success is to be congratulated and admired, it should also be recognized as rare. Many talented people with good ideas work hard their whole lives without ever accumulating wealth.
And many rich people, like me, owe their money to factors entirely beyond our control. That's why an equitable tax system - paying for public services we all use, as well as offering support and a hand-up to those who've lost out in life's lottery - should demand more of us.
A good start would be to end the Bush-era tax cuts for high-income households like my own. We can certainly handle it. And if we're truly honest with ourselves, we know it's only fair.
Because luck matters.
Betsy Malcolm serves on the organizing committee of Act Now and is a member of Wealth for the Common Good.