Give More to the Neediest or the Higher-Potential? A Debate

An underdiscussed Thanksgiving topic and foundation for broader decision-making.

Posted Nov 21, 2018

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Thanksgiving kicks off “The Season of Giving.” Its unspoken next phrase is “to the ‘less fortunate’” or some such. That concept is viewed as non-controversial as apple pie. But it may merit a bit of examination.

An underdiscussed foundational belief in all of us is whether it’s wise to give more to those with the greatest deficit or to those with greater potential to make a difference. There are solid arguments on both sides.

Pro-additional redistribution to the pool with the greatest deficit (D): A society cannot be moral if it allows so much income inequality.

Pro-additional redistribution to the pool with greater potential (P): That’s one moral factor but others need be considered. For example, those would-be-redistributed billions of dollars in the hands of the wealthy and companies are more likely to be used to develop or provide products or services that benefit us all, for example, to treat or cure disease, or to enrich our lives, for example, GPS, Google Search, the SmartPhone, etc. Meanwhile programs that serve the poor have yielded disappointing results for all the taxpayer dollars spent, the most painful share of which is borne by the middle and working class. Despite $22 trillion, the achievement gap remains as wide as ever. Head Start is perhaps most disappointing. The Obama Administration, a strong supporter, commissioned a metaevaluation of the studies of Head Start. Alas, it found that Head Start makes no enduring difference.

D: The wealthy and corporations already have more than enough money for their initiatives.

P: Can you really assert that more money isn’t needed, for example, in the fight against cancer or in Apple’s R&D budget?

D: Yes, that money might accelerate development but with certainty, redistributing more money from the Haves to the HaveNots helps ensure that the poor will eat better, have better housing, and better health care.

P: But at what cost? That’s not just the aforementioned slowing of R&D, but a society that punishes the successful to reward the less successful can’t yield net good in the long run. One of psychology’s most proven principles is that you get more of what you reward, less of what you punish.

D: No one is saying we should take all the money and incentives from the Haves.

P: Well, we already have a system in which the top 1% of earners already pay 39% of the federal income tax, the top 10% pay 71% of the tax, and the bottom 45.5% of households pay no tax at all.

D: That’s appropriate for another reason: to compensate for past injustices.

P:  That encourages a culture of avoiding individual responsibility in favor of externalities, even those so far in the past that their effect on a person is smaller than are current factors such as how diligent the person is in school and work, whether s/he resists drug abuse, etc. Every group could blame lack of success on past externalities: for example, enslaved Blacks, Irish indentured servitude, early 20th-century treatment of Chinese immigrants, East Indians subjected to the British Raj, Japanese-Americans interned in World War II, Jewish Holocaust survivors, immigrant survivors of the Vietnam War, and today’s remaining prejudice against people of color, LGBTs, even unattractive people. It’s easier for a person to demand more redistribution because of extrinsic factors than to look inward and take responsibility for one's actions and self-improvement. A society that encourages external locus of control may well end up worse, even if many claims of prejudice are legitimate.

D: You’re devaluing the moral injustice of income inequality, in which CEOs earn millions and own mansions and yachts while millions of other Americans live with three roommates in poverty and with marginal health care.

P: Putting aside that only a tiny fraction of people make millions, I earlier stipulated to that being a moral problem but that it's unwise to let that trump all the aforementioned factors as well as others. For example, can it be moral when an applicant to a prestigious college or job is denied because s/he is Asian or white rather than Black or Latino? Is that fair to the more qualified person? Is it fair to the fellow students, coworkers, and larger society that thus is saddled with people with weaker records of achievement and therefore is less likely to produce high quality products and services? And what would you say to an Asian or white who was rejected because of her or his race?

D:  I’d say it is the price we pay for a more just society.  When things are fairer, such policies will no longer be necessary.

P:  More equal doesn't necessarily mean fairer or more just. In response to your statement, the rejected people might say nothing but quietly feel aggrieved and angry, perhaps more resentful and less supportive of society’s HaveNots than had those rejected people been judged on the merits. The quiet backlash is likely growing until it won’t be quiet any more.

D: Merit need be more broadly defined than grades, test scores, and successful experience. Not only does racial and socioeconomic diversity add to the quality of colleges and workplaces, it’s the only way to avoid the hopelessness that comes from being multi-generationally poor, a problem exacerbated by capitalism, in which, faced with automation and offshoring, only a small percentage of Americans can compete for good jobs.

P:  You claim that those subtler determinants of a person’s quality make them better contributors to their college or workplace. Let’s see if you really feel that way. Imagine you had heart disease and had a choice between seeing a cardiologist who got into medical school because of top grades and test scores, passed the cardiology board exam with high honors, and had excellent patient reviews on Yelp. Your other choice was a cardiologist who was admitted to medical school under "comprehensive review" because he or she came from a disadvantaged background, didn't pass the cardiology boards with high honors, and had mediocre Yelp reviews. Wouldn’t you want to see the first doctor? Now multiply that decision by the millions of decisions made every year on whom to admit to college or graduate school, whom to hire, whom to promote. Can you see why yet more redistribution to the HaveNots, whether in college admissions, hiring, or taxation for redistributive programs for the poor, while, yes, yielding some benefit, is a net negative?

D: You’re ignoring the human, the emotion, the soul. Even if it is a net negative, I’d rather live in a world that takes resources from the Haves to ensure that all people, by virtue of being human, are entitled to live outside of poverty.

The takeaway

Before reading this, did you believe that, compared with the status quo, more or less should be redistributed to the people with the greatest deficit? What do you think now? In this Season of Giving, if you want to give more than taxes, do you want to give to those with the greatest deficit or to those with greater potential?

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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