Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
This past week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a resolution supporting the “Green New Deal,” a sweeping collection of policies aimed at fighting climate change while helping the working class. According to a draft FAQ briefly posted on Ocasio-Cortez’s website, the Green New Deal would offer “economic security” for those “unwilling to work.”
Conservatives were shocked and horrified. You might disagree with them on little things — like if Russian collusion is a serious threat to democracy or if it’s Benghazi for liberals — but even in 2019, they were sure we could all agree that if you’re able to work and choose not to, society shouldn’t have to keep you fed.
If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you might think I’m about to defend paying people who don’t work. “Here we go again, another shameless attack on American tradition from that naïve college socialist whom I hate-read because politics in America has become pure entertainment.” Well, fasten your seatbelts and clean your room, bucko, because for once, I think conservatives are absolutely right.
People have an obligation to give back to society. For many people, that means working. The point of working is to produce goods and services, i.e., resources. As long as we’re working in a world of scarcity — even the relatively low level of scarcity the modern U.S. faces — people should only be given resources if they help to produce resources. You give some, you get some. It’s straightforward.
That’s why I support a 100 percent tax on capital income — income generated by owning something instead of making it, such as through charging rent or trading stocks. If you’re able to work, you should get resources only if you’re producing them.
Capitalists, by definition, do not produce; only laborers do. Capital’s role is entirely constructed: if the police didn’t violently enforce property law, nobody would need capitalists. We’d still need the means of production, of course — you can’t produce goods and services without the tools you need to make them. But there’s no reason that we need a tiny number of private owners who earn just for owning. We could have worker ownership — or another form of collective ownership — of society’s productive resources.
I’m a moderate on this. I believe in common-sense solutions that work for America. And common sense tells working people something simple: They’re being ripped off. As one famous (fictional) boss put it, “They make the honey and we make the money.” That just doesn’t seem fair.
Clearly, some people have good reasons not to work — in fact, about 86 percent of non-workers fall into these categories. Children, the elderly, many people with disabilities, new parents, students and others are unable to work or shouldn’t be expected to, and of course we should support them. A system that denied these people resources would be unjust. But the principle is simple: If you can reasonably work and you choose not to, you shouldn’t be skimming resources off the backs of others.
Some people are both laborers and capitalists. Small business owners, for instance, often work alongside the very people they employ. By directly producing things themselves, they are laborers. By controlling the means of production, they are capitalists.
Likewise, some capitalists were once laborers. Take Jeff Bezos. Now, Bezos is not “self-made” — he went to Princeton, spent years working in finance and started Amazon with a $245,573 investment from his parents. Nevertheless, Bezos once packed and addressed Amazon orders himself and drove them to the Post Office. That’s labor.
But today, the situation is different: Bezos reportedly makes workers pee in bottles and creates new words like “complexifier” that you can only appreciate if you have 17 MBAs. For this important work, Bezos gets $30,000 every 11.5 seconds. As with most of the ridiculously wealthy, that income stream is overwhelmingly capital income. Bezos may have been a worker once, but he isn’t now.
Taxing away capital income avoids the need to make this sort of distinction. Capital income by definition only goes to people in their capacity as capitalists, not workers. Bezos can keep his labor income. A capital income tax only affects earnings that don’t come from productive work.
In short, conservatives are right: Capable people should be expected to contribute to society if they want to get anything back. It’s just that that goes for the rich too. As one thinker put it many years ago, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” (Emphasis added.)
John-Paul Teti is a senior computer science major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.