I’ve written about the 1 percent, the common good, overpaid professionals, a CEO who raised every employee’s salary to $70,000 and lowered his to the same, the accumulation of wealth to the detriment of others, the purpose of taxes, and taxpayer subsidies for the poor.
Today I ask the question, “how much does a person really need?”
What is the measure? Enough to meet basic needs without stress and fear? Living comfortably enough to afford nice vacations and send the kids to college?
Or an amount of money that allows vacations abroad, private schools for the kids, several mansions around the world, and a bank account beyond all needs?
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Let’s start with a living wage that provides security and enough to live on. Next is comfortable – a reasonable level that coincidentally contributes to economic growth.
But when we get to the super rich, we have to ask, do they really need that much money? How much can any one person or family realistically spend? When all their needs are met, when they have luxuries for everyone in the family, they still have excess money.
That excess goes to three places. The first is inheritance which guarantees the next generations will never have to work – is that really a good message for them? The second is mischief money – contributions to politicians that guarantee their money will remain safe in elected officials’ hands with an expected return. The third is philanthropy.
Wealthy philanthropists maintain those institutions that enrich our lives: the symphony, the ballet, art museums, theater, parks and wilderness acquisitions. In our capitalistic economic system we need rich people to fulfill that function. But in Europe and China and the rest of the world, governments subsidize those institutions. They are a source of pride and a showcase for their best. We could do it here by taxing the wealthy more so that government can support those organizations. Instead, the Tea Party and Ayn Randers believe in “pay as you go” which would leave 90 percent of the population left to get their culture from TV.
So while Wal-Mart has a large charitable foundation, they don’t pay their workers enough to live on and we taxpayers subsidize them with food stamps, housing, Medicaid, etc. The wealthy give generously to food kitchens, homeless shelters, school supplies, but the poor wouldn’t need those handouts if workers made a living wage. They themselves could give to the charity of their choice and take pride in it. (In fact, lower income people in the U.S. give proportionally more of their income to charities than rich people.) And we lesser taxpayers could keep more of our money, as the Republicans are fond of saying. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage is the least we should be doing, while taxing those who could help pay. (Yes, I know all you economists out there, it’s not that simple. But it worked after WWII and everyone benefited – high wages and high taxes.)
I have little hope a living wage for everyone will come to pass, but there is an active movement for it and the more we connect it to salaries at the top, maybe it will happen. So, is it economics, market forces, or is it morality, the foundation of a just society?
Ellie Kinnaird is a former state senator and mayor of Carrboro. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org