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If You Think Your Taxes Are Unjust, Just Think Again
By Kwame Anthony Appiah
Sunday, April 13, 2008; Page B02
Is the U.S. tax code fair?
That question is always in the air at this time of year, as Americans grumblingly prepare their tax returns and politicians
promise them gentler, or at least more equitable, tax policies in the future. But how do we decide what's "fair"?
It's a trickier question than
it appears at first. Over the past few decades, behavioral economists and social psychologists have shown that our sense of
fairness is both powerful and easily manipulated.
In the 1970s, the Nobel Prize-winning
economist Thomas Schelling used to put some questions to his students at Harvard when he wanted to show how people's ethical preferences on public
policy can be turned around. Suppose, he said, that you were designing a tax code and wanted to provide a credit -- a rebate,
in effect -- for couples with children. (I'm simplifying a bit.) In a progressive
tax system such as ours, we try to ease the burden on the less well off, so it might make sense to adjust the child credit
accordingly. Would it be fair, do you think, to give poor parents a bigger credit than rich parents? Schelling's students
were inclined to think so. If the credit was going to vary with income, it seemed fair to award struggling families the bigger
tax break. It would certainly be unfair, they agreed, for richer families to get a bigger one.
Then Schelling asked his students
to think about things in a different way. Instead of giving families with children a credit, you'd impose a surcharge on couples
with no children. Now then: Would it be fair to make the childless rich pay a bigger surcharge than the childless poor? Schelling's
students thought so.
But -- hang on a sec -- a
bonus for those who have a child amounts to a penalty for those who don't have one. (Saying
that those with children should be taxed less than the childless is another way of saying that the childless should be taxed
more than those with children.) So when poor parents receive a smaller credit than rich ones, that is, in
effect, the same as the childless poor paying a smaller surcharge than the childless rich. To many, the first deal sounds
unfair and the second sounds fair -- but they're the very same tax scheme.
That's a little disturbing,
isn't it? Especially if your judgments about social justice and taxation are central to your moral and political beliefs.
Intuitions about fairness are some of the most basic moral sentiments we have -- arising, developmental psychologists tell
us, soon after we're toddlers. Stanford psychologist William Damon has conducted studies in which he asked
groups of children to make bracelets. Afterward, the group got a pile of candies as a reward and was told to divvy them up
among themselves. From the age of 5 on, the arguments kids had about dividing the loot were all about what was truly "fair"
-- equal amounts for everybody or more candy for more productive bracelet-makers?
One thing we know is that
our sense of what's fair can be hard to reconcile with a "rational" assessment of costs and benefits. Not least in the realm
of taxation, policymakers ignore the workings of moral psychology at their peril.
Consider the first major defeat
of the Clinton presidency. In the spring of 1993, the administration proposed, and the House passed, the nation's first comprehensive
energy tax, a BTU-based levy on fossil fuel consumption designed to reduce not only the deficit but also greenhouse gas emissions
and the country's dependence on foreign oil. Then senators from oil-producing and farm states came out against it, while heavy
industry and energy companies mobilized a battle for public opinion on local radio and TV stations.
Surveys showed that most Americans
were swiftly convinced that the tax was unfair because some people, such as truck drivers or farmers with their tractors,
had no choice but to burn more fuel than others. When the president tried to assuage the noisiest opponents with a host of
exemptions, he only made things worse. (What, special breaks for coal, natural gas and
jet fuel? No fair!)
How, in the first Bush administration,
did the movement to repeal the estate tax prevail? Not just because it was craftily renamed the "death tax." The number of
Americans who told pollsters that they opposed the "death tax" was just a few percentage points higher than the number who
said they opposed the "estate tax." As Yale scholars Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro have shown, it mattered
more that proponents of repeal made a moral argument (however specious):
that the tax was unfair because, for one thing, it involved taxing earnings twice.
Defenders of the tax typically
countered with an appeal to self-interest: But you're not paying it, because it applies to just 2 percent of households. They
didn't quite grasp how powerful appeals to fairness are. In fact, when the barnstorming Teddy Roosevelt proposed the tax a century ago, he made the case for it precisely
in terms of fairness: He talked about what the wealthy owe to a nation that made their success possible.
Roosevelt, of course, was
one of the great leather-lunged orators. This primary season has seen an ongoing dispute about whether soaring rhetoric of
moral uplift has any relevance to the hard work of devising and implementing public policy. But once you start thinking about
how powerfully affected we are by our sense of fairness - and about how powerfully that sense can be affected by the way issues
are described to us - it's hard to dodge the fact that whiffy moral rhetoric can have practical consequences when April 15
At some level, we're those
kids with the candy bars. We may change our minds about what's truly just, but not about how much fairness matters. As faltering as our intuitions about fairness in public policy are, success comes
to the politician who can enlist them effectively. It's not enough to craft good policies, you have to convince people that
they're wise and just. Some individuals, for reasons we grasp only dimly, are a lot better at that than others, however smart, engaged and sensible.
Almost doesn't seem fair, does it?
Kwame Anthony Appiah is a professor of philosophy at Princeton and author of "Experiments in Ethics."
When interviewing for a new job, you may be placed in the uncomfortable situation of having to explain an unjust termination in your work history. It's important to stick to the facts and to not
become emotional in front of a prospective employer who may be wondering if history will repeat itself.
Step One: Stick to the facts when you
explain an unjust termination to a prospective employer. Don't interject feelings, emotions and unnecessary details. If your
unjust termination led to legal action on your part, merely discuss the outcome of the case
and leave it at that.
Step Two: Avoid becoming emotional when
you explain an unjust termination during a job interview. If you start to cry or become
angry when discussing the case, the interviewer will become immediately concerned about your overall temperament and whether
or not you will be a high-maintenance employee who will always be upset about something in the workplace.
Step Three: Do not speak poorly
of your former employer, even if your termination was illegal and unjust. Any negative comments
will be interpreted as unprofessional on your part, and your interviewer will only be left to wonder if you will say the same
negative things about this company after you leave.
Four: Keep your explanation of your wrongful termination and any legal
consequences as simple as possible. Your interviewer probably doesn't want to hear a long, detailed story about the incident.
The prospective employer simply wants to know who was at fault, without unnecessary elaboration.
Step Five: Explain as simply as
possible what lessons you learned from the experience and how you have grown as a person since the unjust
termination. By finding a positive aspect to the experience, you will let your prospective employer know that you can
recover, assimilate and adapt into almost any work environment.
Six: Refrain from worrying about the incident and how it will affect your chances
of getting hired by the interviewer. Answer each question about the incident and then move on. Try not to appear rattled after
going through your explanation, and avoid circling back later in the interview to bring up additional points.
If you have been the victim of an unjust termination,
rehearse your response to any questions from interviewers. Always assume that you will be asked about the incident at every
interview and be prepared. Appearing surprised or flustered by a question about your wrongful termination will be an automatic
red flag for the interviewer.
On Monday, a dozen women will be ordained Catholic priests in a forbidden ceremony in Pittsburgh.
But can the womenpriests movement ever succeed?
By Angela Bonavoglia
July 31, 2006 | On Monday,
12 women in bright white robes will board the Majestic, the flagship of the Gateway Clipper fleet, at the Station Square dock
in Pittsburgh. The ship will become a floating church - and the stage for what might be the most central controversy in Catholicism
today. The robed women are in the vanguard of the growing womenpriests movement, the most flamboyant and incendiary challenge to the Roman Catholic
Church's unrelenting discrimination against women. Declaring herself "present" (in Latin, ad sum), each of the 12 will
be ordained priests or deacons by women bishops - themselves secretly ordained to the episcopacy by active Roman Catholic
male bishops whose names will remain locked in a vault until they die. This ceremony is totally verboten: Women's ordination
or even advocating for it is forbidden by the Catholic Church, under pain of excommunication, which means no sacraments, ever,
not even a Catholic burial.
By their visibility and accessibility,
a small band of women are forcing a confrontation. They are asking, Is sexism a sin? How does the church reconcile its teaching
that women and men are created in God's image, that once baptized, there is "no male or female" and "all are one in Christ
Jesus," with its contention that women cannot represent the ultimate sacred or hold ultimate power through ordination because
they are, literally, the wrong "substance"? The statement from the Diocese of Pittsburgh condemning the ordinations asserted
this argument against women's ordination: that priests must resemble Jesus physically. That belief is based, in part, on the
notion of the substance of a sacrament: in the case of the Eucharist, bread and wine; and of holy orders, a man. Comparing
people to food, the press release said: "Just as a priest cannot consecrate the Eucharist if he
uses something other than unleavened white bread and wine from grapes, so too a bishop cannot confer Holy Orders on anyone
other than a baptized man."
The organizer of this event,
who will become a priest Monday, is Joan Clark Houk, 66. With a wide smile and cropped salt-and-pepper hair, she is a cradle
Catholic who remembers May crownings, daily rosaries and Catholic Daughters. Like many other Catholic women -- myself included
-- her love for the faith, the Eucharist and the Mass, the rituals and traditions, is deep and indelible. "From my birth as
a Catholic through this day, I have never doubted my Catholicism, never been away from the Church. I am Catholic, and will
always be Catholic, " she wrote in her letter to Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, then head of the Pittsburgh Diocese, telling him
about her upcoming ordination. She also took aim at Canon 1024, which restricts ordination to baptized men. "It is a sin for
the Church to discriminate against women and blame God for it," she declared. "In obedience to the Gospel of Jesus, I will
disobey this unjust law."
The Roman Catholic womenpriests
movement came into public view on June 29, 2002, when seven women were ordained priests on the river Danube between Austria
and Germany, out of any bishops' clear jurisdiction. Presiding was the controversial Argentine Bishop Romulo Antonio Braschi.
Though no longer in good standing with Rome, he had been ordained a bishop and could therefore provide the apostolic succession
required for ordination. In church speak, the new women priests consider themselves ordained validly but illicitly (because
of canon law). Within two months, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,
now Benedict XVI, excommunicated all seven women and publicly chastised them for having "wounded" the church.
That action did nothing to quell the movement, which advocates
"a new model of priestly ministry," a servant rather than an imperial priesthood, and seeks no break from Rome. In the years
since the first ordinations -- as Muslim women have boldly led prayer services and the first female bishop has risen to head
the U.S. Episcopal Church -- another 32 women (including today's 12) have been ordained Catholic deacons or priests, and 120
more are in training. These events have taken place on the Saone River near Lyon, France; Lake Constance between Germany and
Switzerland; the St. Lawrence, between the United States and Canada; and in Barcelona, Spain. Secret "catacomb" ordinations
have been held, too.
Today's ordinands are both longtime activists and more sedate
recruits. One of the most notorious in church circles is Janice Sevre- Duszynska, to be ordained a deacon today (the step
before priestly ordination for these women). She once presented herself at the ordination of a male seminarian at the Cathedral
in Lexington, Ky., asking Bishop Kendrick Williams to ordain her, too. Sevre-Duszynska crashed the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops meeting in Washington in 2000, taking over the mike to read her "Statement for Justice for Women in the Church" until
her power was cut off. An ardent peace activist, she has served time in the federal prison for civil disobedience. She thinks
Catholic clerics should be out there doing the same. As she said to me, "Why aren't Catholic bishops out in front of the Senate
Office Building or the Pentagon in sackcloth and ashes crying out for an end to the Iraq war?"
Houk's history in the church is lower key. Active in parish
ministry for 30 years, she has prepared Catholics to receive the sacraments, conducted Christian education classes, and pastored
two parishes without resident priests. Her call blossomed when she got her master of divinity degree at Notre Dame University
in Indiana, sitting side by side with male seminarians, learning how to preside at Mass, celebrate Eucharist, hear confessions
and anoint the dying.
Like many of the other women being ordained today, Houk is not
celibate. She has been married for 30 years and has six children and five grandchildren. One of today's ordinands is divorced.
Another describes herself as "lesbian by birth." Bridget Mary Meehan, a petite woman with a tight cap of blond hair, cheerily
declares herself a "freelance nun" because her order is out of the pope's jurisdiction. She also heads Women-Church Convergence,
a national association of women's worship communities, many of which have been quietly ordaining women priests for 30 years,
since the founding of the U.S.-based Women's Ordination Conference.
In fact, the womenpriests movement did not spring out of whole
cloth but has its roots in the worldwide movement for women's ordination in the Catholic Church. The women who launched the
U.S. movement in the 1970s were energized -- as are women today -- by the legendary "Philadelphia 11," who in 1974 forced
open the doors of the priesthood in the U.S. Episcopal Church. They were "irregularly" ordained by retired and resigned Episcopal
bishops, an action that resulted in the denomination's approval of women's ordination the following year.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
As I've traveled around the country talking with women about
the church, why they stay, what they love, what they're fighting to change, invariably a woman --sometimes young, most of
the time older -- will rise and share her great dismay at the thought of women priests. Indeed, the Catholic Church is steeped
in a rich sacramental tradition, and some cannot separate that tradition from the men who have claimed to exclusively represent
it. But that has been changing. While in the 1970s, 29 percent of Catholics supported women's ordination, today some 60 percent
do. In addition, as Peter Steinfels, author of "A People Adrift: The Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in America," explains,
"the burden of proof has shifted." It used to be that advocates had to explain why women should be priests; today, the hierarchy
has to explain why not.
Frankly, in attempting to defend the church's ban on women's
ordination, Catholic spokespeople sound a little like used-car salesmen. They have a lot full of old models. You don't like
this argument? No problem. What about the one over there? The Last Supper used to anchor a central argument. There, the teaching
holds, Jesus commissioned the 12 male apostles to be the only leaders of his church, from whom all other leaders, male too,
had to proceed. The idea of ordination came much later. The problem is, no one knows who was at that Passover meal. And, as
theologian Elizabeth Johnson once said in a lecture, do we really think that Jesus, who was so welcoming to women followers,
decided that night to leave all the women, including his mother, out in the cold? To which I would add another question: If
women were allowed at the meal (which they had probably prepared), then when Jesus said over the bread and wine, "Do this
in remembrance of me," did he also say, "only you guys"?
In an attempt to "level the playing field," education bureaucrats
are lowering standards for minority students. The result? The bureaucrats are dooming minority students to lives of missed
opportunities. By Hoover fellow Thomas Sowell.
Whenever I hear about "fairness"
in education, I think back to my own education half a century ago in Harlem. I think particularly of one teacher, Miss Simon.
Miss Simon was from what I
would call the General Patton School of Education. She was not my favorite teacher at the time, and I’d be very surprised
if I were her favorite student. Miss Simon required us to write every misspelled word 50 times. Not in class, but at home,
along with all the other homework that we had from her and all the other teachers with similar attitudes. So if you misspelled
four or five words, you had quite an evening ahead of you. There would be no "Lone Ranger" that night.
Many years later, on the streets
of San Francisco, I ran into a Harlem neighbor and we caught up on old times. It turned out he had become a psychiatrist and
owned a home and property in California’s Napa Valley. He is currently retired, living overseas with servants.
One of the things he mentioned
was that over the years his secretaries have commented that he seldom misspells a word. And I said, "You know, my secretaries
make that same comment. But if they knew Miss Simon, it would be no mystery."
Our choice is between requiring
students to do something hard now, or having make-believe equality and letting them go out into the world doomed to fail.
Suppose, however, that instead
of Miss Simon we’d had teachers with the enlightened views of today. Our teachers would have said, "It’s not right
to force these kids to be able to spell all these words. Their parents don’t have the kind of education that parents
in other neighborhoods have. They don’t have books and magazines in their homes. These are tougher words for them than
they are for other people."
I wonder what would have happened
to my neighbor and me in that case. Perhaps we would have ended up on welfare or in prison. People perfectly capable of achievement
would have been turned into clients, supplicants, mascots - symbols of other people’s goodness.
I thought about that some
years ago as I looked at the math textbooks my nieces in Harlem were using. What they were being taught in the eleventh grade
I was taught in the ninth grade. But probably the teachers felt very good about themselves for being so "fair."
In education today there’s
a widespread notion of "fairness" in some cosmic sense - not in the sense of treating everyone the same, but in the sense
of trying to redress pre-existing inequalities.
There’s no awareness
of the cost of this notion of fairness - not only to the educational system but to the very people we’re trying to help.
It’s an empirical question whether what we’re giving disadvantaged people by treating them this way outweighs
what we’re taking away from them in terms of their own accomplishment. But it’s an empirical question that is
almost never asked. Because to do-gooders, the results are less important than feeling noble about offering "help."
For instance, the College
Board is now trying to fudge the results of SAT tests—to "race-norm" the scores—on the grounds that blacks and
others have a tough time if they are held to the same standard as other people. It so happens that a hundred years ago in
Washington, D.C., standardized tests were given in the academic high schools. There were four high schools at that time, three
white and one black. The black high school came in ahead of two of the three white high schools on the standardized tests,
and they did not race-norm the scores. That was 100 years ago. Today, no one is so utopian as to hope for any such thing.
When you tell people things
like this, they say, "Oh, those were middle-class kids." You will be quite unpopular if you ask a follow-up question, "What
speck of evidence do you have showing that’s true?" It so happens I have more than a speck that it’s false. A
survey was done of the occupations of those kids’ parents: They included 52 laborers and just one physician.
Still people say, "Oh, but
that’s where doctors and lawyers sent their kids." As one of the former principals told me, "If this school was for
the doctors and lawyers, how come we had 1,400 black kids here at one time?" In fact, the data have been available publicly
for a quarter of a century: There were far more kids whose mothers were maids than whose fathers were physicians.
And so it’s very hard
to convince me that black kids can’t do what they’ve already done. The same thing applies with Hispanics. I went
to school with Hispanic kids who spoke English every day of the week. Hispanic kids today can learn to speak English.
Is it fair? No, it’s
not fair. It would be much fairer if they were born into a family where everyone already spoke English. But we have no control
over that. That kind of fairness has never been an option. Our only choice is between making them do something that’s
a little harder right now, or having make-believe equality and letting them go out into the world foredoomed to fail.
From the mightiest city to
the tiniest town the call is the same: It just doesn’t have to be this way.
Voters Tuesday approved property
tax increases in 23 of the 42 Minnesota school districts that went to the polls asking for enough money to pay for basic supplies.
State underinvestment has choked Minnesota’s education system to the extent that districts as large as Minneapolis and
as small as Ogilvie need to raise taxes just to buy textbooks.
“This is not fair, it’s
not right,” said Peggy LaVanger, chair of the pro-levy campaign at Rockford Public Schools. “Why do we have to
continually beg for money? We’re telling our kids they’re not important.”
Rockford lost its election
by about 1,000 votes. Officials will now cut about $900,000 out of a budget that was cut by $1 million last year.
Osseo Area Schools, which
cut 160 teachers and closed two elementary schools last year, saw its levy go down by nearly 3,000 votes.
Tammy Epley, the chair of
the pro-levy campaign in Osseo, said her district serves seven communities, each with individual identities and needs making
a levy campaign difficult.
She wonders why a campaign
needs to be run at all. “This is not fair to taxpayers,” she said. “The state has to live up to its promises
so we don’t have to keep coming back over and over again.”
Since 2003, school districts
have seen an inflation-adjusted drop of 13% in state aid. Even with steep hikes in voter approved levies, schools have 4.4%
less in income since 2003, leaving nearly every district vulnerable to deep budget cuts.
In 2001, lawmakers decided
the state would take over school funding. If taxpayers wanted extras, they could vote in tax levies to pay for them. When
budget problems arose in 2003, the state backed away from its funding promise and many schools were left without enough money
to run their business. They turned to the only source of income they had: Voter-approved “extra” levies. Today,
most districts fund 15% to 20% of their budgets with these levies, making elections do-or-die situations.
“To go to voters for
basic operating funds is a travesty,” said Barclay Carrier, the chair of the pro-levy campaign in St. Cloud.
“Most of our supporters
are angry that we have to (run a levy campaign)” said Paul Roelfing,
chair of the campaign in the Minneapolis Public School district. “This is not an excess levy. This is to fund things
like textbooks, things the state should be funding.”
Both St. Cloud and Minneapolis
passed their requests.
Although he is glad his levy
passed, Joe Tatalovich, the chair of the St. Louis Park pro-levy campaign, said that the money isn’t for extras.
“Our levy just stabilizes
the district,” he said. “It doesn’t add much and gives some insurance against stagnant funding from the
state so if the budget is bad and they don’t give us any increase (even against inflation),
we’ll stay about even.”
The next legislature will
be discussing a plan to revamp how schools are funded. Some hope this discussion will help alleviate this inappropriate funding
system. In the meantime, our children get a substandard education.
Education is essential to
our future workforce. Without it, we become another backwater state begging for companies that require cheap, inexperienced
labor. The starting point to being a first-tier economic state is our education system, and in 19 school districts across
the state, the prospect of having a good job just got a little more dim.