Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

November 28, 2012

Paying our fair share for what, exactly?

Nathan Harter
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — Just after the election, Netflix delivered a DVD of the movie “2016: Obama’s America”.

In it, Dinesh D’Souza raises the possibility that when this president argues that for the sake of fairness the wealthiest among us should pay more in taxes, he is not limiting himself to the United States. In fact, the U.S. is the wealthiest country and therefore ought to pay more to the rest of the world.

Critics howled that Obama had no intention of asking his own country to take a hit and give away its wealth to other countries, whether for the sake of fairness generally or to redress the inequalities of previous colonialism. When he says the 1 percent, they say, he means the top 1 percent in America. And that’s it.

So, let us suppose that “2016: Obama’s America” got it wrong. Obama did not adopt an anti-colonial ideology that holds us responsible for the world’s inequalities. Let us say that the thought never entered his head. I can agree to that, for the sake of argument. To be honest, I really do not know what the man has been thinking. Let us take him at his word.

The question I have is this. Why would it not be reasonable to extend his logic to the world at large? If the wealthy should pay more to help the rest here in the U.S., then why shouldn’t our country pay more to help others around the world? The same reasoning applies. We should take from the rich and give to the poor in each instance. So why not just keep taking from our whole country and send it off to Indonesia, Kenya, and Pakistan?

I think the president has a plausible response to this. Not only have we been sending our wealth overseas for decades, under both political parties, so that doing this would be nothing new, Obama explicitly told us that part of the reason the wealthy must pay more than they have is because they benefit from the system that permitted them to become wealthy.

You remember. He said, you didn’t build that. And what he meant was that you (the 1%) profit from a system that enables the accumulation of wealth. You benefit from a system of laws and roads and public education, without which your success would be in jeopardy. You need the whole infrastructure to reach such levels of material well-being and to stay there with any security. In other words, the 1 percent operate within a system, and thus they owe something to sustain the system. If anything, they owe more.

By that reasoning, Obama could contend that there is no worldwide system which is comparable. It is less sensible to speak in terms of a global infrastructure. And like I said, to the extent we do benefit from international systems such as NATO and the Law of the Sea, etc., we already shoulder our fair share as a nation.

He could go on to say that if anyone in the U.S. benefits from an international infrastructure, it is likely to be the 1 percent, because they garner their wealth from across the globe and enjoy the fruits of international commerce and travel. The rest of us don’t vacation is Gstaad. So maybe the 1% has a greater obligation to pony up for our collective share of the worldwide burdens.

I don’t happen to believe that. The infrastructure is everyone’s responsibility, even when you don’t use it directly. You owe something to the system that sustains your way of life. I can’t decline to support paving a particular street because I don’t happen to drive there. The whole point is that we need the system in place for the system as a whole to work.

To that extent, then, yes, conservatives understand the obligation to sustain the systems that make our private pursuit of happiness meaningful. We all need to pay our share for bridges and the electric grid and courts of law. Strangely, despite years of government bloat for who-knows-what, our infrastructure is actually neglected and in disrepair. If I thought Obama and every other level of government were genuinely dedicated to the project of upgrading infrastructure, I would understand increasing public revenue.