Jane Reilly, a candidate for supervisor in District Two, came in to talk to us last week, and before we got around to interrogating her about tax policy, she told us a bit about her background. And while she was describing all of her (considerable) qualifications for the job, she noted that she’s done a lot of good work in the community and is "passionate about volunteerism."
Reilly’s a nice person, and (like a lot of wealthy people) she means well, so I didn’t get all Marxist on her and say that volunteerism is a bourgeois concept. And I know, poor people volunteer too, and it’s a wonderful thing that so many people do so much for so many, thousands of points of light and all that. It’s great, I really mean it.
But I’m also getting fucking sick of volunteerism and charity.
Because it’s not only an incomplete solution to our worst social problems it also diverts attention from the full solutions.
Warren Buffett, the multibillionaire, is getting a lot of press attention and lavish praise for his pledge to give half of his fortune to charity. He’s got Larry Ellison and David Rockefeller and Ted Turner and a bunch of others to join him. How grand.
Meanwhile, most of these people have been paying a fraction of the tax burden that falls on the middle class (what’s left of it) and getting more and more wealthy from Reagan-, Bush-, Clinton-, and Bush IIera tax breaks.
The richest 5,000 Americans now own more than the poorest 160 million, combined. Millions are out of work while the nation’s infrastructure crumbles. The connection between those problems is clear and direct: since 1980, the U.S. government has stopped trying to redistribute the wealth of the superrich in ways that create jobs and economic opportunities for everyone else.
No amount of charity will change that (especially since "charity" includes gifts to extrawealthy institutions like Harvard University and the Getty Museum). No amount of volunteerism will lift huge masses out of poverty. There’s only one institution that can do that government and one effective way to make it work: progressive and redistributive taxation.
My new hero is a woman named Jill Heavenrich, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The New York Times published a letter from her on Sept. 20, which reads:
I’m 81. I don’t have to worry about losing my home. I know I’ll never go hungry.
I can help my grandchildren go to college. I can give to causes I believe in.
Why am I not being taxed more? Why was I told to go out and shop after 9/11? Why wasn’t I asked to help pay for two wars in which brave young men and women are dying? The question remains for me: ‘It’s my country. I love it. Where is my responsibility to help the only way I can with my taxes?’
That’s not charity. That’s reality.