It’s a question many people can’t stop asking: When so many have so little, how can a few have so much?
If they shouldn’t have it — who should? And there’s the rub. How would we go about taking from those who have and getting it to those who don’t? It’s been tried, but with no noteworthy success. Somehow, once it gets taken from those who have, it seems to get stuck.
In fact, the only good examples we can find of effective wealth redistribution are those that involve conversions of previously socialist economies to systems more oriented towards private wealth and private property. Only with the arrival of private wealth and a new class of billionaires did China manage to create its explosive growth of a middle class. Ditto Russia. The oligarchs that came with the upward mobility of the peasant classes may be unattractive, and even obscene, but they seem to go hand in glove with widespread and highly substantial economic improvements for the poor.
Of course, this is capitalism, where people confuse material comfort with a purer and more spiritual growth. Try as we might, we cannot seem to persuade people that happiness is more than just a full belly, or a decent home, or all the other temporal comforts we pursue, and that freedom also entails an acceptance that the greater good must take precedence over individual license. The President has repeatedly said that If we can save even one life by further limiting weapons ownership, then we clearly have an obligation to favor community safety. Shouldn’t this also apply to income distribution? The correlation between poverty and poor health is well-known (if not actually well-understood). And should we not also look further? For example, as much as people may enjoy motorcycles, does that justify the thousands they maim, cripple and kill? Do we tolerate them out of some antiquated and jejune conceit we have about individual choice?
The other problem with redistributing wealth is determining what level of wealth comprises excess. How much should one person or household have before it is too much? Clearly we should err on the side of generosity; it would be better (I suppose) if one had a little too much than have too little. Still, what metric should apply? Mr. Reich, we would suspect, earns well over the median household income for our country, which is about $31,000. And by the standards of the rest of the industrialized world (we’ll leave out that half of the globe that dwells in a state of uninterrupted poverty, because they don’t really count), even $31,000 — more than twice the median figure for Israel, for example — seems princely. (If you do look further, you’ll find that the average per capita income globally is just a little more then $7,000.)
Where then to draw the line? Democrats have suggested $250,000 per year as a reasonable cutoff between “enough” income” and maybe “too much,” where income in excess of that figure warrants a kind of punitive taxation. Republicans argue for $1,000,000. But to the average global citizen making $7,000 a year, this would seem absurd. True, costs are higher in the US, but not by a factor of 142.9.
One thing we know: we could take all the private wealth of the 1% in America, and divide it equally among all the rest of America, and it would do very little to really improve anyone’s life over the longer term. In fact, if all private wealth in the US were divided equally by each individual, each person would have roughly $180,000. And even Mr. Reich would most likely not suggest that this distribution, even if it could be effected, would not swiftly redistribute itself once again, until, very shortly thereafter, 25% of people would hold 78% of the total wealth.
It makes wonderful sound bites to wail about the morality of great wealth, until you start thinking about those pesky Chinese, and how the warts of the new oligarchy seem to grow only on the healthy tissue of the equally-new middle class. Great wealth may be not only indefensible, but indispensable. How that galls those who believe that the guilty must be punished, even if the innocent suffer the more for it.