Thingish Things

America’s Social Compact

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Apr• 14•11

Prince Harry

I had a wealthy client some years ago who took to inviting me to the fanciest New York dinner parties. They were the type of parties where one or two guests might arrive wearing sashes, and no one would burst out laughing. Would you please pass the salt, Contessa? That sort of thing.

I was what you might call a filler — a warm body that could fill out any gap in the boy-girl-boy-girl continuum without getting all too drunk or starting an indoor fist fight.

A good chunk of the guests were typically European or British, and all them were, or appeared to be, rich, rich, rich. I got to know a couple of these well-heeled Brits a little over the course of a few dinners, and the thing that struck me most admirably about them was their deep military tradition.

Virtually of all of their class considered it a duty and an honor to serve. In the highest ranks of course — in the Scots Guards or the Coldstream Guards usually — but to serve nonetheless and to enter combat if circumstances required it.  It was the same for their sons as it was for their ancestors, going back, in some cases, to the Middle Ages. Serving is something one does, as the British so well put it. Witness Princes Harry and Andrew.

America’s elite no longer have that tradition, and we are certainly the lesser for it. Yes, there are McCains of this world who continue to serve generationally, but for the most part, we leave our fighting to the poor and lower middle class. (My father fought in combat in World War II along with virtually all of his college classmates; his sons only registered for the draft. We would have gone, but we didn’t volunteer to do so. There is a difference.)

I’ve always thought that was bad for the country. Not in an unfair sense — and, indeed, it is unfair — but in a social compact sense. Are we in this together or not? It’s why I support a resumption of the draft, and even compulsory national service for every young American, without exception.

This is the inverse of what President Obama was up to yesterday. The President, as is typical of his party, demagogued “the rich” — according to him, families making $250,000 annually — in a national speech, suggesting that they don’t pay their fair share of taxes.

That’s true. They don’t. They pay far more than their fair share of taxes. Truly wealthy Americans foot the bill for tens of millions of Americans who pay no federal income tax at all — about 47% of citizens.    We’ve all heard the stats, the top one percent Americans pay almost half of all federal taxes.  How is that fair?  By any objective assessment, it is not.

These two disparities — military service falling disproportionatley on the poor and political blame being heaped on “the rich” — strike me as entwined. Was this the America our forefather’s envisioned? Were two Americas intended or just one?

There is a larger conversation that needs to be had in this country, but it will need to be led by bigger minds — bigger spirits even — than the ones we are forced to listen to today.


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  1. Julia Alling says:

    “Truly wealthy Americans foot the bill for tens of millions of Americans who pay no federal income tax at all — about 47% of citizens.” But this notion is deceptive, the 47 percent of citizens who don’t pay income tax, don’t make enough to pay income tax. To say that they don’t pay income tax suggests that they are choosing not to, not that their income hovers in the range of subsistence. They are subject to payroll taxes that disproportionately impact their take home pay compared to the impact of the payroll taxes on someone who makes over $100,000 a year. Yes, wealthy people pay more taxes. They make more money because they have benefited from the service of many people who don’t pay income taxes, from janitors, to farm workers, to grocery baggers, to child care workers, to librarians, etc. The wealthy, for the most part, did not make their wealth in a vacuum, they did so because of the infrastructure of our society that enabled them to get to and from work/school by train, car, and plane. A society that ensured that their lights turned on, their water was clean, that their leadership trips to the vast American wilderness were overseen by forest rangers, that their streets were safe, that their civil liberties were protected. As someone who was blessed to have had access to a great deal of privilege, but who doesn’t make the money I might have if I had chosen (note the concept of choice, I had choice)to pursue a different career path, I am proud to pay taxes. It is in my mind the least I can do for the gifts that I have been given. JBA

  2. JBA-

    I would argue that those jobs were all created because of successful risk takers.

    But more importantly than that, I can now honestly say that I’ve been disagreeing with someone since the 70’s. Thanks for that.

    Great to hear from you, Julia!


  3. Your Friend says:

    I’m glad you had the opportunity to get to know these really rich Brits. When you have similar stories to tell about about really poor Americans, I’ll like the story better. I’m with Julia on this. You should look at all of the happiness studies out their now (like the ones that inspired the current British PM to start studying happiness in that country). Every one of these studies shows that people who live below the poverty line do not just experience abject poverty, the experience abject misery as well. The constitution gives us all the right to pursue it, but until you make a decent wage, there is no happiness in this country. I’m all for taxing the poor — as soon as we start paying them more.

  4. I have known many poor Americans. I still do. I am not saying tax the hell out of the poor — that would be obscene (although I do think that everyone should pay something, $1 , one penny.)

    The point I am making is that successful Americans should not be scapegoated for the country’s problems. To repeat the talking point, we do not have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem. Taxing more is not the answer. It is counterproductive and wrong-headed.

  5. Your Friend says:

    The only time in modern history that we had a balanced budget is under Clinton and that was because the tax rate was raised (ever so slightly) at the same time that cuts were made (don’t forget that he ended “welfare” as we knew it then). The two have to go hand in hand. To say that raising taxes on the wealthy is scapegoating them is too simplistic a view of an incredibly complex problem. The truth is that the wealthy got the tax windfall over the last ten years. They were doing just fine before that windfall and they’ll be fine after it changes back to the way it worked so well. You’re right, taxes are not THE answer, they are PART of the answer. In business you can only improve your margins by cutting spending so much — at some point you must increase revenue or your business will fail. Everyone hailed GWB as the president who understood business, but he must have forgotten that he learned that simple rule in business school.

  6. Me says:

    You’re killing me, kid. But I still love you:-)

  7. Your Friend says:

    This just in from the “careful what you wish for” department —

  8. […] couple months back I wrote a small item about the military tradition among Britain’s aristocracy.  I lamented then that, with a […]

  9. […] couple months back I wrote a small item about the military tradition among Britain’s aristocracy.  I lamented that, with a few notable […]

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