Issue January 1, 2006

Reader response

Former TV star Art Linkletter liked to say that kids say the darndest things. He should have added that adults often say the most childish things. Certainly that’s not breaking news, but it occurred to me that much of contemporary political dialogue — from everywhere on the spectrum — is childish.

I raise the point today because of some letters I received in response to my recent column that discussed the disparity of wealth in the United States and how much money is wasted by wealthy people on stuff they don’t need.

Not for a moment do I believe that the thrill of waste is wasted only on the rich, nor that the economic ripple effect of waste is irrelevant. Neither do I, nor did I, ever exclude myself from the criticism I leveled in the column. I waste — in the sense of spending money on things I really don’t need — all the time.

So I was offended but not surprised that some readers would respond to my topic with personal remarks, including the suggestion that I should take money I don’t need and send it back to the Internal Revenue Service. For example, Thomas, a reader who shall remain otherwise unidentified, wrote: “Nothing prevents you from skipping your next golf trip and donating money to the U.S. Treasury.”

Actually, the column in question did not make a recommendation on tax policy, although that was a reasonable inference considering many past diatribes about tax cuts for the rich. But the suggestion that I make a pointless, unilateral gesture is one of those childish things adults say.

Would it help solve the nation’s obesity problem if I went on a diet? Would it cure alcoholism if I gave up drinking? Yes, I know that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but it has to be a step that makes a difference, and obviously sending more money for George W. Bush and the profligate Congress to send to Halliburton or Exxon probably would not help correct our wasteful tendencies.

Of course I could send some back, then run television ads, as I did last year, advocating a change in tax policy, but then critics like Thomas would just criticize me for wasting money, as they did last year.

What they really want is just for people they don’t agree with to shut up.

Most people simply don’t want to discuss the substance of issues. If they generally disagree with a person, they would rather make some snide comment about him or her than engage the subject. For example, I would respond to Thomas (actually I did respond to him this way) by saying that it is just as appropriate for me to address the issue of waste by the wealthy as it is for Rush Limbaugh to talk about America’s drug abuse problem. I have said before that I am a liberal not because I know how poor people live, but because I know how rich people live. I know someone whose wife has literally hundreds of different colors of the same cashmere sweater. She has more money invested in sweaters than some people have in their homes.

The head of Wal-Mart makes more money in two weeks — $660,000 — than many of his employees will earn in a lifetime of working for him.

My point was, and is, not that either of these people, or those like them, should be heavily taxed on their huge incomes, but that our system has evolved in such a way that the relative value of what we do has gotten way out of any reasonable balance.

Last week, while on a golf trip (a working one, Thomas, since I do publish a golf publication), I met the CEO of the Alabama Retirement System, Dr. David Bronner. He has run the A.R.S. from 1972, when the public employees’ pension fund could cover only 25 percent of its future obligations, until today, when it has $26 billion in assets and can cover virtually 100 percent of its obligations to Alabama’s teachers. He is arguably the most popular and powerful person in Alabama, and he earns the relatively modest salary of $275,000 a year (close to the top 1 percent of American incomes). And he plays a lot of golf. A corporate CEO with a similar track record would unquestionably earn a salary in the eight-figure range.

There is a bill before Congress limiting the deductibility of corporate salaries to $1 million for any employee. In other words, corporations could pay someone any amount, but everything over the first million dollars would come from shareholder profits. It has no chance of passage, but at least it might generate some serious dialogue about values.

It is not a discussion about me, or about golf; it is an important discussion about what counts in America.

Contact the writer at jyarmuth@aol.com