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The Problem of Wealth

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Kristine Mattis       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink

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Preface:

The Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is an institute funded by the right-wing conservative Bradley Foundation. In April of 2013, the Center announced the "Bradley Freedom Prize" essay contest, in which they asked for a response to the question: "Do the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share of taxes? What amount would be fair and why?"

 

My following Bradley Award-losing essay submission likely inflamed the judges of the prize; rather than focusing on taxes and wealth merely in relation to the economy - the obsession of nearly all news media reports and academic literature -   it instead focuses on taxes and wealth in relation to ethics, equity, and ecology.

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In light of the recent AFL-CIO report "Executive Paywatch," this essay seems especially relevant.

 

The Problem of Wealth: Why Only the Rich Should be Taxed

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As our country and the world face the unprecedented scourge of global climate change, the constant toxification of our air and water, and ever-increasing social and economic inequities, the few means to combat these problems exist in the form of government regulations and interventions, funded by taxes. Though the richest among us may be touted as beneficent "job creators" by ideologues and the obsequious mass media who revere them, the rich, in fact, are actually the major source of the harms and evils facing our society. Their vast industrial and corporate enterprises directly and indirectly contribute to the majority of all fossil fuel emissions, toxic pollution, worker exploitation, and income inequality. Contrary to popular opinion, the rich do not gain their wealth because they work harder or possess more skills and intellect than the rest of us; they amass profligate fortunes because they are more selfish, narcissistic, and sociopathic than others. They are rich for a specific reason. Where you or I would freely give of ourselves to help others and eschew extravagant excess, the goal of the rich is money-making, so everything they do is toward that end. Psychological studies have demonstrated that wealthy people are less altruistic than poorer people, which is precisely why they are wealthy. In this era where the United States faces the greatest income disparity in the nation's history, on top of unprecedented environmental and ecological catastrophes, it is imperative that those responsible for causing these calamities pay for them rather than benefit from them.

 

The rich are indeed different than the rest. They are more liable to lie, cheat, steal, and act unethically. 1 It is precisely this behavior that enables their accumulation of wealth. According to Professor Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, "the higher you go up the ladder" the great number of sociopaths you will find there." 2 Thus, it is not surprising that many of the richest, most powerful people in our society perpetrate tremendous damage and injustice. They more often lack empathy and pro-social behavior, while they take more and give less than their poorer counterparts. 3 These negative attributes of the upper classes commonly manifest themselves in the form of lack of concern for the environment, for other species, and for other humans. Given that the ten richest Americans are all corporate/industrial magnates of one form or another, 4 it is inevitable that tremendous damage has resulted from their industrial pursuits, both due to the nature of the wealthy individuals themselves and due to the nature of corporations. In addition, since corporations are considered people as per a Supreme Court decision, it is imperative that not only rich individuals, but corporations as well bear the burden of reimbursing society for the destruction they spread.

 

Industrialization, thus far in America, could not occur without the use of fossil fuels. Devoid of coal, oil, and natural gas, most mass-produced consumer products would not exist. Among the richest Americans are Charles and David Koch, whose Koch Industries is the second largest privately-held company in the United States . 5 The siblings of the Walton family, owners of Wal-mart, the third largest multinational corporation in the world, 6 are also among the ten richest Americans. The wealth of these individuals could not have been produced without the utilization of copious amounts of fossil fuels, the emissions from which are driving the worldwide global catastrophe know as anthropogenic climate change. And in fact, if one examines the richest companies in the world, four of the top five are oil corporations -- Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and BP. 6 Consequently, it is hard to imagine that their wealth could have been generated without an immense contribution to global climate change. Yet, it is the tax dollars of all Americans that are paying for the mitigation and remediation efforts in the wake of climate change. These payments recently took the form of aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy, an exceptional "super-storm," as well as aid to mid-west victims of 2012's unparalleled drought, the likes of which have been predicted over and over again by climate scientists who have modeled the potential effects of global warming.

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Moreover, the wealth of the richest Americans and the corporations that most of them represent could not have been accumulated without the use of and disposal of massive amounts of toxics and pollutants. ExxonMobil and BP were responsible for two of the largest ecological disasters in U.S. history -- the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Much of the current and future costs of cleaning up the environment and caring for the organisms (including humans) made ill from their toxic chemicals will be a burden for taxpayers, despite any legal ramifications to the corporations involved.

 

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Kristine Mattis holds a PhD in Environment and Resources. She is dedicated to social and environmental justice, public health protection, and ecological sustainability.

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