99 Problems but the 1% Ain’t One

In spite of their happy and friendly nature, Brown students like to get angry. While this anger is typically channeled through smug academic contempt (rather than your typical yelling and screaming), it is anger after all. With Israeli airstrikes into Hamas kicking up and Donald Trump tweeting about a second American revolution, Brown students have much to be angry about. Yet the most recent sway of Brown fury has been directed instead toward an article our Co-Editor-in-Chief Oliver Hudson wrote for the Brown Daily Herald in November. The now-infamous op-ed called for apportioning a person’s vote based on amount of taxes paid to the government.

I should probably be upfront with the fact that I disagree with the conclusions my colleague drew in his article. I must respectfully assert what many Brown students have already argued. A government is more than a huge Ponzi scheme of money transferring, but is set up to pay for the public goods that taxpayers individually would never produce, such as the military, courts, schools, and roads. As well, the government, as nearly two and a half centuries of American political philosophy have determined, is intended to protect the rights of all its citizens. I believe the consequences of such as policy would be harmful, but discussing the merits of Hudson’s article is not my focus.

Eat the rich

The rich are not to blame for all the nation’s ills.

However, once the dust of the controversy clears, I do believe there is a message worth considering beneath the hoopla of Hudson’s article. The op-ed — and even the hate speech it incited — highlights the growing divide in American political, economic, and social life between the wealthy and the middle- to lower-incomes. This tension was inherent in almost every twist and turn of the recent election. President Barack Obama’s campaign positioned the incumbent as the advocate of the 99 percent and sketched Mitt Romney as the aloof, wealthy capitalist. The Romney camp instead championed the wealthy candidate and labeled Obama supporters as “dependent” or “entitled” (see Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment). It is important to point out that this is an issue that is not necessarily determined along partisan lines. One must only think back to the Republican primary — when a Rick Santorum candidacy actually seemed a possibility — to remember that Romney and the wealth he stands for were attacked by Republican primary candidates all around.

Hudson’s article does beg the question of why so much attention has been focused on the wealthy. Why are we so angry? Why do we blame the wealthy for their success? Why do we fight over how much of their income to take in taxes in the first place? Why do we spend so much political capital and energy transferring money from the wealthy to other parts of society?

The answer Brown students gave has some legitimacy — the wealthy got to where they are because they were lucky. While I do believe that this is an unfair simplification, even I cannot deny that economic mobility is not nearly as robust as one might consider ideal. However, in spite of this truth, attacks on the wealthy are still largely misguided. Of course, I can run through many examples of greedy executives going out of their way to screw over the helpless. But if we search for a fundamental way to improve the social mobility of America’s masses, redistribution and the political wrath that accompanies it is not the solution. This is especially true when a majority of this transfer goes towards the elderly — or, even worse, when our government must borrow football fields’ worth of cash to execute that transfer. No, to fix this problem we have to invest in our next generation both financially and mentally. I will tackle each individually.

First, we must invest more in education. To Brown students, this seems like a no-brainer. But unfortunately, neither party has put much political capital behind expanding educational opportunities. While Obama is the champion of Pell Grants, in practice his budget devotes less than 2 percent of federal funds to education. Spending on Medicare and Social Security, on the other hand, gobble up nearly 40 percent of the budget. This is only part of the reason that public spending on the elderly is more than double spending on the youth. For a country that is striving for social mobility, this is a disturbing fact. Taxing the rich may sound a noble goal, but if this money is not allocated effectively, the entire point is moot. Investing in education is not a numbers game. Nonetheless, we need to have a national discussion about how best to provide opportunities to the youth, rather than turn a blind eye to their growing poverty.

There is much more we should be doing as a society to improve the situation facing the youth. We must provide not only opportunities but also the avenue to take advantage of them by investing in the youth mentally. We must teach the youth good values and gear them towards the opportunities that do exist for upward mobility. While Brown is far from perfectly egalitarian, I am pleased to see among my friends a wide diversities of backgrounds and upbringings. My friends are not stereotypical Ivy League WASPs — in fact, many of my closest friends came from extremely difficult backgrounds yet worked their way through life. Being at Brown will give them the opportunities that we so desperately want the poor to have. Beyond higher education, many companies now have diversity programs that seek to target underrepresented groups of society. The opportunities do exist, but we need to encourage the youth to take advantage of them. Attacking the wealthy is not the way to do this.

Rather, it is important for us as a society to embrace hard work and to highlight these opportunities that do exist. As Charles Murray highlighted in his recent bestseller “Coming Apart,” those who are born into poorer families are more likely to make harmful decisions, such as having children out of wedlock and disregarding or even dropping out of school. Perpetuating resentment of the wealthy and painting the system as one in which you absolutely must be born wealthy to gain wealth is not only untrue — (take a look around here at Brown) — but it also encourages those who are young to make these wrong choices.

These two halves cannot exist independently. Rather, we as a society need to make a conscious effort to truly improve the opportunities for social mobility by investing in the youth, especially those born into poorer areas, both mentally and financially. Only with these two investments coexisting and self-reinforcing can we really make the strides toward producing an ideal society that truly stands for the American dream.


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