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October 29, 2011
They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Matthew 23:3

Is there such a thing as society? An odd question, but it is seriously asked in some quarters, most famously by Margaret Thatcher in 1987, when she was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. No, there really isn't such a thing, she said. There are men and women, and there are families. But that's it. Beyond that, we're on our own.

Well, 1987 was a long time ago. But the moralistic you-made-your-bed-now-you-must-lie-in-it tone present in any discussion of the social safety net has lived on, and lately it has acquired a zest that makes my blood run cold -- just a few weeks ago in a campaign debate, a hypothetical case in which a man who had no health insurance but needed an expensive medical procedure to survive was greeted by this chant from the audience: "Let him die!! Let him die!!

I remember when the seating benches were taken out of the concourse at Penn Station in the 1980s because people with no homes often slept on them at night. Seating was moved inside a fence, admission to which was governed by whether or not one had a train ticket. Of course the move made for a more pleasant experience in the station, but many New Yorkers wondered where the homeless people would go. Was this fair? An official was interviewed about it on the radio: Of course it's fair, he said. Nobody can sleep in the train station, period. Homeless people can't sleep there and Donald Trump can't sleep there, either. We treat everybody the same.

But everybody is not the same. Donald Trump owns multiple mansions, each with multiple bedrooms. He could sleep in any of them. There is a difference between not giving one person help he does not need and withholding it from someone who needs it desperately. Nobody thought people sleeping in train stations was a good solution to the problem of homelessness, but didn't there need to be some solution? Appropriately, the city partnered with churches and other community groups and businesses to form a remarkable network of manageably sized drop-in centers and small overnight shelters in churches and synagogues throughout the city.

The director of one of the drop-in centers for the mentally ill homeless often referred to its clients as "our city's most fragile citizens.". Fragile: it was a good word. There are people for whom things don't hold together very well. This can be for many different reasons, some of which are external to them and others of which arise from within them. We are not all the same. We have different strengths and weaknesses, and life tosses different sets of circumstances at each of us. None of us create ourselves by ourselves. We all need help from someone, and we have all received it, many times.

I think of Donald Trump not being allowed to sleep in Penn Station every time I hear someone propose a " flat tax.". No deductions, no exemptions. No long, confusing forms --you could file your return on a postcard. Sounds so fair, doesn't it? Everybody pays the same percentage --what could be more equitable than that?

Lots of things. The billionaire who gives his government 9 percent of what he earns has much more left than the minimum wage worker who pays the same percentage. The effect on the first would be negligible, even though his contribution to the cost of government would, indeed, be huge. The other taxpayer, who was already hanging by a thread as it was, would go under. It sounds so fair, the flat tax. But, like so much else in life, it would fall more heavily on those least able to bear it.

The idea that each of us pursuing our own interest will somehow vector into the prosperity of all of us is magical thinking. Self interest is present in every human action, but the world would be a savage place if it were all that motivated us. Family interest is the same: we must take care of our own, but if we were to care only for our own, watch out-- we would end up losing the matrix of the common. Yes, this means that I will be helping to support someone else's children, someone else's aged parents -- but our states can change, and someday someone may have to help me. We must work together on the things that vex our common life, and it is absurd to contend that government and the means by which it is funded --taxes-- should have no role in this work.


Whether or not you and I are on the same page, you will want to read economist Carol Stone's more informed discussions of such matters in "Ways of the World" at She and I often do not agree, although we are often surprised to find ourselves closer together than we thought.


A week or so ago, I misidentified the composer of "The Gambler" as Kenny Rogers. He sang the most famous recording of this great song, but the composer/lyricist was Don Schlitz.
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