Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Paradoxical Generosity of Americans

Here's a conundrum: Americans are incredibly generous when it comes to causes, whether it be save the whales or save the children. And yet, an alarming number of Americans cheer John McCain when he tells them that redistributing the wealth is bad, but generating more wealth is good.

The evidence shows that additional wealth goes to the wealthy, while Mr. and Mrs. Everyman struggle to make ends meet. Not much wealth trickles down.    The frontier ethos must have something to do with America's beliefs.

The first settlers (not the first Americans...) had to have plenty of grit to make it in a virgin land where everything had to be done from scratch. But two hundred years and two revolutions later (the industrial and the IT), waiting for the wealth to somehow miraculously trickle down is the equivalent of the frontiersman thinking the land would plough itself, and the fox wouldn't raid the chicken house.

The grit needed now is to require of government that it represent the solidarity of its people. As more and more countries evolve varying forms of social democracy, Americans are still expected to volunteer their time and efforts to help others, rather than pay more taxes so that their government, which after all represents the community at its broadest, can accomplish those tasks. Joe the Volunteer has to hope that when he is in need, "someone" will come to his aid, rather than being able to count on being helped by the broader community.

Little good it does him to have been able to buy a new car every two years, when he loses his job and his unemployment benefits run out.  Little help are the pictures he took in the Grand Canyon when his health care goes the way of his job. When he volunteers, he is in effect redistributing the wealth - his wealth, instead of the government, which benefits from economies of scale, doing it with everyone's money, taking care of the elderly, the after school kids, the addict.

McCain makes the argument that individuals can help more efficiently than government. But in a world as complicated as ours, that is open to question. Would a retiree prefer to count on a neighbor cooking him a hot meal when he/she has time, or prefer to count on meals on wheels? (If meals on wheels is staffed by volunteers, the food comes from public funds.) So when John McCain tells Joe Sixpack he wants him to keep more of his wealth, Joe should realize he has to donate a substantial part of that wealth to causes because government has "other priorities".

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