Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Eradicating the Poor

Our daughter, Meghan MacLean Weir, MD - yes we are very proud of her - has a post on her blog about the controversy surrounding the proposal that birth control counselling and presciptions be provided to women at no cost. I won't enter the fray on this controversy, but something Meghan wrote about eradicating the poor got me thinking about something that has been on my mind since the week my wife and I spent at Chautauqua. One of the speakers was Harvard professor Michael Sandel. His course on justice, which was recorded and broadcast by PBS, and his book Justice devote considerable attention to the question of the common good. One of the controversial issues that Sandel considers, one which is the subject of a debate among his students on the PBS program, is whether it is right for the government to use the taxes it collects from the rich to help the poor.

I will not attempt to lay out Sandel's answer to that question, but in the book he considered the claim that those who are rich deserve their wealth. I have long known that their is not a level playing field in this matter in America. Some of us are born with a whole lot more money than others. Some are born with college-educated parents. Some get to grow up in safe communities with good schools. All of that has been part of my understanding for years, but Sandel pointed out other factors that I had rarely considered. Some are born with considerably more talent than others. I knew this because it had bothered me for a while as a teen-ager that some of my friends were smarter, more athletic, better looking and more popular than I was. I had not, however, considered how this factor played out in the question of deserving success and wealth. Tiger Woods did nothing to earn or deserve his athletic ability. it was a gift. Tiger Woods has, of course, put a lot of effort into developing that ability, but even that is not entirely of his own doing. He was encouraged - some might say pushed - to develop that ability by his father. Woods was privileged to have that kind of encouragement and support, to have that particular father. He did  nothing to deserve that, any more than any of us get parents that we deserve. 

So the question of moral deserving is not as clear-cut as some, like libertarians, claim it is. Very successful people owe their successes not solely to their own hard work, but also to all those other factors which they did not control or deserve.  The very successful do not have an absolute moral right to the fruits of their success. In the various lotteries of life they were already winners while still in diapers. It is morally right to tax those who have succeeded and who have more than enough money to meet their needs in order to assist those who weren't as privileged. Given the current political climate in this country, I don't hold out much hope for the kind of tax policy that I consider morally right. After all many of those who are in Congress exhibit a kind of "I've got mine and I deserve it" attitude, as do many of those who contribute to their campaign funds. But I continue to hope that some of the privileged will have the moral insight to understand the nature of privilege and support tax policy that will require them to pay more taxes. That may seem like wishful thinking, but I believe, as Dr. King said, that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

America the Beautiful?

From time to time I get into conversation with friends about our National Anthem. I suggest that a text written in the midst of war, particularly a war with one of our closest allies, might not be the best choice, even if the tune were not so difficult. As a descendant of the brother of Katherine Lee Bates, I also am bold enough to suggest that "America the Beautiful" would be a good replacement. One of my friends - and he remains a friend in spite of this - tends to dismiss Aunt Katherine's poem as Victorian sentimentality. I concede that Aunt Katherine's sensibilities are dated, but every time I read or sing her words I see in them the kind of challenge that this country needs if it is not to slip into the role of an imperial power exploiting those who are weaker than we are.

Consider these words from the second stanza:
America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
 Or these from the next stanza:
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev'ry gain divine
What Aunt Katherine was expressing, in the language of her time, was an awareness that we are not a perfect people, a perfect nation, and that we need mending. As a child growing up in Falmouth, Massachusetts, she had a concern for the welfare of Native American children and an awareness that the way her - and my - ancestors had treated those who were here before us was the reason that those children were not as privileged as she was. She was, actually, not nearly as privileged as I have been. After her father's death soon after her birth, her family struggled for years, but it was in those years of struggle that Katherine became aware of the needs of others, including native American children.

I would be surprised if Aunt Katherine's words ever became our National Anthem, but I hope that they will always be part of our national memory, challenging us with their appeal to our "better angels."