“The poor,” Jesus said, “you will always have with you.”
It’s remarkable how often that is taken out of context by the callous. To some, Jesus is saying something like, “You’re always going to have layabouts and bums and welfare queens. So why mess with ’em? Let ’em rot! That’s just how it is.”
(The rest of the quote — “… but you will not always have me” — actually shows Jesus in foreshadowing mode.)
But throughout the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, in fact, virtually any world wisdom tradition and literature, and you’ll find a great many great words about the responsibility of those who have toward those who have not.
“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of,” Confucius said. “In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”
Jesus’s famously difficult advice to one rich man was, “(G)o, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
In both Judaism and Islam there are obligations to give to the poor, known respectively as tzedakah and zakat.
Reading Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” recently, along with my annual venture into Dickens’ Christmas stories, I noted that both authors not only accepted the inevitability of poverty, but also recognized the obligation to ease the suffering of the poor.
So yes, the poor we will always have with us. And yes, there will always be “income inequality.” The question is, to what degree?
Some people seem to think the more, the better, and that we shouldn’t even bother to try to reduce inequality.
Denver Post conservative columnist Mike Rosen was right when he wrote recently of the various contributions to inequality, some capricious.
“Income inequality is the inevitable consequence of the unequal distribution of skill, intelligence, ambition, dedication, parental involvement, market valuation, risk taking and just plain luck, to name only a few variables,” he wrote.
But I think he was wrong when he wrote, “Government intrusion to equalize individual incomes inevitably reduces aggregate income and wealth creation in a society.”
To people like Rosen and Ron Paul partisans, this is a moral and ideological matter, unrelated to policy or pragmatism. The market should be free because the market should be free, never mind the consequences.
President Obama presented a starkly different vision in his State of the Union address last week. He argued that government can, and should, use the tax code to help narrow the last three decades’ ever widening income gap. Those who have more can pay more, to help those with less.
“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” he said, “or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
But the interesting thing is, contrary to Rosen’s assertions, judicious use of government policy and tools seems to make everyone better off.
The dread “income redistribution,” violently opposed by some, is what fueled the incredibly prosperous post-World War II era in America. All kinds of “redistributionist” policies — Social Security, Medicare, welfare, regulation and tempering of the market’s more destructive capabilities, public education, progressive taxation — resulted not in a hogtied economy lacking in innovation, but rather to a great overall economic expansion. You know, a rising tide that raised a lot (though hardly all) boats.
Despite conservatives’ frequent claims that tax rates cause a decrease in productivity and economic health, history tells a different story.
From throughout the 1950s and into the early ’60s, marginal tax rates hit absurd highs of 91 or 92 percent — and the economy was rocketing along at an annual growth rate of about 3.7 percent.
Meanwhile, following the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, when the top marginal rate has been 35 percent, we’ve seen anemic growth that never passed 2 percent.
The two axes of that particular graph do not prove causation, it’s true. But they sure do give lie to the much-beloved GOP idea that taxes kill the economy.
Jesus was surely right, but accepting the inevitability of inequality is not the same as accepting — or encouraging — an ever-widening gap, which seems to be where we’re headed now. Over time, that’s a prescription for trouble — for the haves.
And while there is no historical example — not one — of a functioning “libertarian” society, there is ample data demonstrating that yes, government can play a positive role in reducing inequality, which actually does “grow the pie” for everyone.
“(E)quality appears to be an important ingredient in promoting and sustaining growth. The difference between countries that can sustain rapid growth for many years or even decades and the many others that see growth spurts fade quickly may be the level of inequality,” International Monetary Fund development researchers Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry wrote in September 2011. “Countries may find that improving equality may also improve efficiency, understood as more sustainable long-run growth.”