Reading last week’s edition of the Old Gold and Black, I came across a piece summarizing a lecture by John Tamny, political economy editor for Forbes, called “The Wonders of Inequality.”
The lecture was sponsored by the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism, which co-sponsors the Eudaimonia Institute — more than likely a front group for the Koch Brothers. The only “studying” of capitalism being done is the unabashed defense of laissez-faire capitalism, hardly a recipe for eudaimonia — what Aristotle defined as human flourishing.
Tamny’s treatment of income and wealth inequality is a smoke-and-mirrors tactic. His celebration of the pursuit of inequality —straight-up greed — was packaged as school spirit. He implored our Demon Deacons to consider whether “anyone at Wake Forest” was “weakened because Arnold Palmer became the worldwide face of golf” or because Chris Paul earns millions of dollars with the Clippers. The irony of this question is that our student body is generally affluent. Of course the average Wake Forest student will not find themselves on the losing end of income inequality.
More importantly, this analogy is misleading. Tamny calls these Wake Forest legends “unequal” alumni, yet he conflates two types of inequality. No one who believes in progressive taxation is opposed to inequalities in talent. I, like many students, admire Palmer and Paul for their athletic prowess. But that is a different matter from the subject at hand, whether these two ought to have made incomes exorbitantly greater than our hard-working doctors, professors and small business owners. The point of progressive taxation is not to penalize talent or hard work. It’s to ensure that the top one percent of Americans pay their fair share.
No person is an island. The richest Americans could not have succeeded without the support networks of society, particularly the support of government. Federal and state governments set the rules of the market under which businesses compete. Rich business owners benefit generously from tax breaks and subsidies, making them hardly the “rugged individualists” envisioned by the BB&T Center for the Propaganda of Capital.
Our economy could not function properly without strong public education and properly enforced standards for public health, safety and the environment. All of these public goods depend on public revenue, so it only makes sense that the rich should contribute a larger proportion of their income on tax day. They ought to give back to the community, owing to it the very possibility of their success.
Tamny argued in his lecture that the rich share their wealth throughout the entire economy. This logic of “trickle-down economics” has been discredited by numerous economists, owing to its failure in the 1920s, 1980s and early 2000s. Extreme income inequality is a recipe for recession. According to Paul Gambles, managing partner at MBMG Group, “Ultimately, the narrower the wealth and income bases are, the less efficient an economy is. If a single individual owns the entire productive asset base, then the only employment is indentured slavery.”
When a small group of wealthy families, the top one-percent, own as much wealth as the bottom ninety percent, economic power is denied to the poor and working class. As the rich get richer, while incomes stagnate for the lower and middle classes, the economic mobility of the many is sacrificed for the largess of the few.
I read in the piece that one student attempted to refute John Tamny’s arguments in a Q&A period. I hope that this student knows they are not alone in the fight for economic justice.