One thing I realized in reading Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia is that all of us concerned with the extreme inequality in American life need a better way to talk about taxes. I found the discussion of the tax bill in terms of how individual families across the economic spectrum would be affected misleading. That approach seems to make the way we think about taxes into whether people at the bottom end have their tax burden alleviated, and if so, it is good. Insofar as liberals are willing to defend taxes, they do so by arguing that taxes support government services. The argument against tax cuts then becomes a defense of government on the basis of the services government provides for the poor. When poor people argue against taxes in general, liberals tend to argue that they are arguing against their self-interest. Liberals argue that taxes are not the problem, it is the regressive structure of taxes that puts the burden on the poor and middle-class and shifts the wealth to the rich, as the recently passed tax bill does.
Steven Stoll makes the case in Ramp Hollow that it was the introduction of a tax, specifically of a tax on whiskey that forced the enclosure of the commons in Appalachia and made previously independent mountaineers into people irrevocably tied to and dependent on the national economy and eventually dependent for their sustenance on coal companies. This case suggests that tax when used as a mechanism against those who live off of a commons is a coercive mechanism in the service of enforcing a capitalist economy, where those who might be laborers must work to increase value for capitalists rather than work independently for their own sustenance to the extent they wish to work. Capitalists are willing to pay a tax if the tax changes the relation of the mountaineers to their land, their labor and the national government. Later discussions of the distribution of the tax are incidental to this initial demand that everyone pay the tax, a demand that requires those living off the commons to turn their commodities into value, and thus to monetize what was previously beyond the scope of the national economy. At this stage in late capital, the distribution of the tax contributes to inequality, but knowing the history explains how taxes on rural populations in the early days of the United States were the coercive efforts of the government to enforce one economic system on those who had no need for it, and who received little support from the government in return for it. Read more
One of the most compelling arguments that William Clare Roberts makes in his new book, Marx’s Inferno: A Political Theory of Capital, is that the market dominates not only workers but commodity producers. Rejecting the moralism of socialism, which suggests that capitalists just need to be kinder and gentler, Marx argues that the subjects of capitalism are not individuals who could make more ethical decisions, but the relations of production. It is because capitalism is unable to render individuals free that capitalism dominates everyone under its purview. Read more
Cross-posted from The Prindle Post.
My last post discussed the bifurcated incentivization structure of capitalism: owners profit while workers become disempowered by working harder. In this post, I want to address an accompanying myth to the myth that capitalism compensates you better for working harder which is that collective ownership divests individuals of motivation to work.
People say that the problem with collective ownership in producing an incentive to work is that no one takes responsibility. If you don’t own it, you won’t care to maintain it. But the incentive in capitalism isn’t that you work on a thing because you own it, you work because otherwise, you will starve. The ideology here is that we are working on our own thing and that we have more investment because it is ours. This is the case in capitalism for the self-employed and small business owners–the middle class–but the middle class has shrunk considerably. A 2011 Pew Charitable Trust study shows that a third of those raised in the middle class (earning between 30 and 70% of their state’s average income) fall out of it in adulthood. A recent article on The Washington Post on the cost of college shows that it isn’t college costs that have risen but the purchasing power of the middle class that has shrunk. Read more
Cross-posted from The Prindle Post.
In my youth my parents would defend capitalism by saying that it incentivized work in contrast to communism. If you thought you could get paid the same amount whether you worked hard or not, you would see no reason to work hard or better. It isn’t just my parents. A recent This American Life podcast, “Same Bed, Different Dreams (transcript),” includes a recording smuggled out of North Korea in the early 1980s of Kim Jong-Il saying that North Korean filmmakers have no incentive to make creative and interesting work because of communism. How did everyone from one of the last communist dictators to my parents come to believe that capitalism incentivizes hard work, creative and inventive work, while communism does not? Read more