Thanks for calling attention to the situation in Kansas: when state support for child welfare services and support for families fell as part of Governor Sam Brownback’s
tax scam a ssault on the vulnerable utopian dream that lowered taxes means more liberty, child abuse and neglect went up. This is what both previous experience and theory would suggest, but Republican leaders prefer to believe in the mythical power of the Laffer Curve, which is to say the that they need some brainy justification for their plan to rob the poor to pay the rich.
The Christian conservatives I study are loving the bill. They rejoice at the idea that government will no longer be able to afford to provide services that, they argue, belong to the domains of family and church. If state-provided services decline (as they might, given that state taxes will no longer be deductible), that’s as it should be because it increases “independence” from the government.
Except that we’ve known since the Great Depression that our social problems are simply too big for churches and charities to fix by themselves. (For more, read Alison Collis Greene’s work on this.) And since church participation is in decline, we have fewer people who are even participating in the infrastructure that religious conservatives are looking to.
I don’t want to ignore the fact that many, many people who are religious give generously and deeply. But it’s simply not enough.
But what about the super-wealthy? Won’t they step up?
Last night and today, our family has been reading/telling A Christmas Carol.* (You can find the full text at Project Gutenberg.) It’s short enough that if you have an attentive child, you can read it in a single evening, though we’ve chosen to read and re-tell parts in order to keep the attention of all our kids. It’s a Christmas ghost story that’s just scary enough to insure that everyone stays interested, and we incorporate some details from our own favorite versions– Scrooged, A Muppet Christmas Carol. The big point, the one even the littlest listener can understand, is that we shouldn’t be greedy.
It was our 10 year old, though, who pointed out the harsher lesson: Scrooge would never have seen the evils of his ways if he didn’t have a supernatural experience. He could have seen Tiny Tim any day of the week had he wanted to. He certainly had seen beggars on the street, orphans and widows without enough food or a warm place to stay. He knew how much money Bob Cratchit needed to support his family, and he knew that he didn’t pay Cratchit enough. He knew what poverty was–he just didn’t care. Or, rather, he cared most of all for money, whatever it cost him (his fiancee, Belle) or those around him. Ebenezer Scrooge had plenty of opportunities to have a change of heart but didn’t do so until he ghosts scared him into it.
Above, the ghost of Jacob Marley visits his old business partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, in this illustration by John Leech (1843).
We can’t expect most rich people to have such a supernatural reckoning. In fact, I’d argue that God has relatively little interest in interacting with those who hoard wealth.
It makes no sense to entrust the wealthy, whether through churches or other private charities, with caring the for the needs of “the least of these.” It’s very hard (impossible, perhaps?) to gain significant wealth without seriously harming themselves and others. (1 Timothy 6:9 says it this way: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.”) Generally speaking, if they cared for the most vulnerable, then they wouldn’t be rich in the first place–or at least, not for long. Yet it is so rare for the ultra wealthy to give significantly that when they do, it’s major news–as when JK Rowling lost her billionaire status due to her charitable giving.
Yet that’s what proponents of the newly signed tax bill suggests will happen. (Note: No one has a right to believe such an obvious lie.)
In a recent piece in The Atlantic, financial writer Helaine Olen, explains why the wealthy actually give less, proportionately, than those who are less well-off. The obvious answer is that people don’t like to part with money–but that isn’t unique to the wealthy. Indeed, we could assume that it’s easier to give if you know that you will always have enough–yet just the opposite is true.
Olen plows through the research on behavioral economics and suggests a different conclusion: rich people think differently about their relationships to those in need than do less well-off people. Whether being rich corrupts our ability to be empathetic or whether those who are without it in the first place are more likely to pursue wealth isn’t clear, but the evidence is pretty damning: rich people are less generous and more selfish (literally, more likely to take candy from children), less compassionate, more deluded about their own innate talents and hard work, and more judgmental. All of these things make them less likely to give and also (though Olen doesn’t argue this) ill-equipped to be leaders. (Do read the whole article, which, like everything Olen writes, is sharp and insightful. She’s the rare finance writer who puts economics in a sociological perspective.)
Above, in a political cartoon by Mike Lukovich, Paul Ryan steals Tiny Tim’s cane to give it to Uncle Pennybags.
Perhaps worse, when the ultra wealthy do give, their donations often come at the cost of democracy. A donor class gives selectively and with demands on how their funds are spent. They can disproportionately shape outcomes that we should all have a say in.
I’m doubtful that Betsy DeVos or the Koch brothers or the Mercer family are going to be visited by any ghosts tonight. I doubt they’ll ever have a change of heart. But we can change their giving through smarter tax policy.
Maybe by next Christmas?
*Dickens was a serial misogynist and a terrible father. Art can increase our empathy, but Dickens seems to have missed the point.