We Are All Waiters Now

Why higher taxes would make Americans happier, and why, despite this, we still won’t raise them

Thomas Geoghegan

Now that the Democrats run Congress, the question becomes, What should they do?” Yes, raise the minimum wage. And yes, fix the Medicare drug program. But will this bind a new majority to the party?

We’re often told, Democrats have no ideas.” But that’s a silly thing to say. Washington, D.C., is crawling with foundation-types bubbling with new ideas, and if anything, the Democrats are awash with new ideas. Many of these new ideas may make their way into law. And we need not have the cynicism of Mario Cuomo, who once said, In America, a new idea is a cereal that grows hair.”

But what the Democrats don’t have is a serious commitment – the political nerve – to make people happier in the only way they can: by raising people’s taxes. How happy more of us would be if only we could pay higher taxes! More of us at last could joyfully retire.

In May 2005, the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) put out a sort of Michelin Guide to the pensions of the world’s 30 wealthiest nations: the United States, Ireland and their ilk. While the United States is rich, comparatively it’s a beggar at the bottom, with a Burger King-type pension, paying on average 39 percent of after-tax income at retirement. Others pay about 70 percent on average. Germany, Sweden: pick a country. Some pay even more. 

Yet the right says we can’t do even 39 percent.

For Democrats, this ought to be the real Social Security crisis: Why aren’t we at 70 percent? The OECD economists think that’s what our debate should be. We have the money. We’re the richest per capita – even if, per capita,” most of us get no capital. Why aren’t we at least talking about 60 percent?

It’s not Bush’s fault. It’s the Democrats’. They fail to grasp that in a rich country, if we spend them on ourselves, taxes make us happier. That’s the point of a new book, Happiness, by a British economist Richard Layard. You can find much of the same thing in John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. Consumers can’t buy happiness – only taxpayers can.

Our New Democrats? They don’t get it. Kerry or Gore or Clinton will propose a tax increase, but only to be responsible.” It’s a Boston Puritan kind of thing, like castor oil. We do it for the sake of rectitude. We do it because policy wonks at Harvard and Yale think we’ll be the better for it. God forbid it give us any pleasure. No wonder we keep losing: If we have to raise taxes, why make it so joyless? 

We propose to rob Peter, in the top 1 percent, without ever getting any fun out of paying Paul. I say: Let’s give it to Paul, just to give him joy. Here’s how we have to sell a tax increase: Not to be fiscally responsible, but to be a little happier. Be like the Europeans. Have a little fun.

Let’s indulge in this higher GDP per capita. In richer countries, a strange thing happens: the higher the tax, the nicer it is to live there. And the more interesting life is. As the Nobelist Amartya Sen might say, the whole purpose of GDP per capita is to let us live at a higher level. When we spend our GDP on ourselves (as we do with pensions), higher taxes increase our higher powers.

Without higher taxes, then, for all our wealth we end up starving, wasting away like anorexics, refusing to let ourselves enjoy a cornucopia. We run down our public universities. We destroy our mass transit. (Sitting in traffic, do we enjoy making ourselves mentally ill?) But the worst of it is that we cheat ourselves of the taxes we could spend on ourselves.

Our collective failure is that we have chosen not to flourish: We have denied ourselves what Aristotle calls eudaimon, because the Greeks didn’t have a word for fun.” There is only one question to ask: Will a tax like this make us happier? Oh Americans don’t think that way.” Don’t they? As a labor lawyer, I meet men my age, in their 50s, who murmur, My God, if only I’d started saving.”

They’d be glad now if a higher Social Security tax had cut into net pay as the old private pensions, which unions negotiated into contracts, once used to do. With the collapse of labor, we got rid of the union-contract pension. At the same time, we didn’t raise Social Security to do what a labor movement used to do: namely, force people to save. Now we get, well, 39 percent, instead of the 50 or 60 percent we would have gotten if we had kept our labor movement or raised our taxes.

Oh no, we’re told, people are happier going out and buying an extra pair of white socks at Wal-Mart. Trust me: as a labor lawyer, I represent a lot of people who shop at Wal-Mart. They aren’t as stupid as most economists think. They’d be happy to pay more in taxes if they could spend it on themselves.

But surely that must be mad: People want their money. They don’t think of their future, or the lives they’ll lead 20, 30 years from now. But why are Americans different from Austrians, Canadians, Swedes or anyone else? From what I see of Teamsters and nurses, I think Americans especially want someone to plan for them. It’s a little like alcoholics who want someone to stop them from drinking. Stop me from moving thirty miles away.”

Stop me from buying another SUV.” 

The Democrats should have done, or now should do, what the labor movement used to do with union pensions: step in, raise their taxes, so people can be happy and spend it on themselves.

Even Bush and the Republicans know that we should get pleasure out of taxes: That’s why, even when they cut taxes for the rich, they keep on running deficits. Besides, at a certain level of GDP per capita, people acquire a taste for more government. Even Republicans have a taste for more government. That’s why Bush and his billionaires are at war with their base. But the crack-up that’s coming is not just in the Republican Party. It’s really in the country.

Like idiots, we have furiously denied it. Let’s stop denying it so furiously. People don’t want taxes raised because they don’t trust that our nation’s leaders will give them value for their money. 

Before there were New Democrats, we used to know this. Even the OECD’s joyless number crunchers tell us, Why not raise the kind of taxes where you spend it on yourselves?” Remember, these are free market, center-right types, and even they think we’re making ourselves miserable.

Why we should step up to the plate

A few years ago the Republicans were taunting us: Why don’t you Democrats step up to the plate and tell us how you would fix Social Security?” They’d love us to stand up on behalf of this public pension that pays so much less than that of other countries: a pitiful 39 percent of working income. It would be okay if 39 percent let us live happily ever after. But it’s not enough for that purpose.

And when Bush’s Social Security plan went down, people on the left high-fived each other. Hey, the Republicans have finally lost one!” But alas, it was the opposite: the Republicans have won.

They’ve won in three ways:

First, they’ve defined the issue. It’s burned into people’s brains: We can’t raise the public pension any higher; we really can’t afford it at 39 percent. So the GOP has won. We aren’t going to raise it. We’re going to stay stuck in the public pension cellar. 

Second, they’ve already put the benefit cuts in place. They cut the Cost of Living index in a way that simply doesn’t reflect the real costs – housing, nursing care, etc. – that pensioners really face. 

Third, they’re free to keep on wrecking what’s left of the private pension system, at least for the middle class. The old union-contract pension, which was a defined benefit pension, is mostly gone, of course. That’s left us just with the defined-contribution or 401(k)” accounts. But by slashing taxes on business and the super rich, Bush took away the tax incentives that employers had for setting up these private 401(k) accounts. Bush claims to be the champion of private accounts.” The truth is, by cutting taxes, Bush took a big whack out of the remnant of the private pension system.

So already, thanks to the Democrats staying mum, the Republicans have won the Social Security debate. Maybe in all of America I’m the only Democrat supporter who would like to see the Democrats come up with a plan to save” Social Security. But the plan I would offer is not to save” it but to raise it. I would simply say: Don’t Save It. Raise It. Higher.

Call it: The Democrats’ 50 Percent Solution. Call it that because we raise the payout up from 39 to 50 percent of working income. We promise America: If you work for a living, you get back half when you retire. It’s a 50 Percent Solution in another way, for 50 Percent would close only some of the gap between us and our average” rival. If we pay only 50, we are still far, far short of what Italy, Austria and others pay. 

Yes, but how do we pay for half? I wouldn’t tell people how. I’d put that one off, or use the old stand-by: We’ll appoint a bipartisan commission to decide.”

We could even set a time limit. Say, by the year 2045, we will be paying half. In other words, tell the kids of the country, the 20-somethings, who don’t vote: Vote for us now, to get half when you retire.

I can see them, in their golden years, playing games on their computers.

But how to pay? We have to say something. I’d like to see our commission answer this: Why isn’t it fair if we make the top 1 percent pay for the entire raise for the bottom 50 percent.” I mean, both to fix” the existing Social Security deficit and raise” it up to half. After all, by the time the Social Security crisis hits in 2045, the top 1 percent will probably take in the same share of national income – the same share, of the U.S. economy’s total income – as the lower 50 percent.” They will get what perhaps 200 million Americans will get! When that happens, will the top 1 percent need a bigger pension? No. They’ll have even more of the national wealth, if not every single damned gold doubloon of it.

So let the top 1 percent pay for half the nation. Let them pick up the bill for the entire Social Security deficit which is being projected now and then pay for half of what it takes to get to 50 percent. (Maybe, on a sliding scale, the next nine-tenths of the top 10 percent who are just below Warren Buffet could chip in a bit as well.) That would get us up to, say, 45 percent, still below the wealthy-nation average of 70 percent. The rest of us would have to cough up the rest – but remember, these are the kind of taxes we’d be spending on ourselves. 

Isn’t that a fair trade-off? The plutocrats are still plutocrats, but they pay us a pension. But you’re destroying the contributory’ nature of Social Security.” I beg to differ. It’s still contributory for us, up to 39 percent if my math is right. And there’s a surcharge for them,” the top 1 percent or so, who will now put it in the Social Security Trust instead of their narcissistic foundations.

Yes, they may have to give up some of their works of charity, but then life is unfair. People in the top 1 percent already know that. Besides, they can always move up to Canada, or somewhere. Of course they would have to pay higher taxes. The day will come for America’s very rich when nowhere in the world is safe.

But can we really tax the rich?

No.

We are too scared to tax the rich. And the more money the rich take from us, the harder they are to tax.

It’s not that they buy off” the politicians: they don’t completely. It’s not, as sociologists believe, that people think, Oh, in America, I could be rich, and I don’t want to pay the tax.” Sociologists claim someone making $50,000 a year, or $25,000 a year believes: I can be like Gates or Soros. Or my kids will be.

It’s burned into our brains that Americans believe this. 

I have a question: In your own life, do you know anyone out there in a suburb with a mortgage who believes this? I sometimes go out to barbecues and parties with clients, and I think of businessmen” and guys in sales and ask myself, Do they believe that?”

No, not for themselves. Or their kids. Usually they’re disappointed in their kids. Over age 40, people know they aren’t going anywhere. Under 40, from what I can tell, the young are even more bitter.

Yet they’re terrified to tax the rich, and far more terrified on the whole than their ancestors of the New Deal and post-New Deal used to be. So why, if they have everything to gain from taxing the rich, are they so terrified?

Because the more money the rich take from us, the more it changes our moral character – we lose the courage it takes to engage in self-government. 

I borrow an old idea of the French, writers like Rousseau, Voltaire, Tocqueville, Guizot and many others: They believed that the particular constitution” or form of government – monarchy, aristocracy, etc. – literally shapes our personality. Citizens have one type of personality under Louis XV, a different under George III. In 1760, I could turn to my French peasant wife and say: Oh, the Bourbon monarchy has no effect on me.” But in a sense it would affect my whole personality. Or let’s say it’s 1939, and I’m hypothetically living under Stalin. At this point, if I am a normal, weak human being, I might secretly hate Stalin, but I’d be also quite willing at times, despite myself, to rat on a friend, or even turn in my wife. 

Though I’d like to think not, I’d probably take on the personality that lets me fit in to Stalin’s way of doing things.

Now it’s 2006, and I’m an American. We don’t have monarchy, or aristocracy – but it’s not a democracy. Most of the time, as in the latest election, most of us don’t vote. Most of us don’t know the names of our local candidates for Congress. 

Even if you do know the names, don’t think you’re better than the rest. You are still living under a form of government where most people don’t vote. Even if you’re different, our collective disconnect with our own government has some bearing on your moral character as well.

Aristotle would not call us a democracy. Or a republic, really. I believe Aristotle and the Greeks would describe the America of this century as a plutocracy. The top 1 percent has nearly all the wealth. That’s our form of government.

Classical plutocracy.

I take on the personality that lets me fit into a plutocracy. I’m not the owner of a business or a farm. I’m not a member of a labor union. I’m a servant, or a salesman. I sell myself to people in one way or another. In a plutocracy, everyone is a salesman. Everyone is a waiter. We live off not wages we negotiate but on commissions and tips. In this new economy, we don’t even see how our character is changing, or how we are constantly selling ourselves for bigger tips: I hope you like me.” But it’s turning us effectively into waiters in restaurants. There’s a problem with waiters, which George Orwell notes: They identify with the diners, and they vote for the right. Orwell hated waiters. He liked the back of the house. That’s where the minorities and foreign workers are.

The white males in the country – and I use this as a term of art to include people of all races – are working tables in the front.

Unlike Orwell, I like waiters. It’s partly because in the America of 2006, I have had to adapt my own personality to the plutocracy we’re in. But as much as I try to sell myself and please others, I wonder what it’s doing to me, and so many others. If we’re spending all our time trying to figure out how to please the rich, how to seduce them into giving us money, how to say, I’m Bob, I’m your waiter for the evening”– if we even stoop to touching our customers on the shoulder, so we can get an even bigger tip – we aren’t likely to be the people to confront them politically.

Many a sociologist has it wrong: It’s not that I expect that I or my children will live like the Super Rich. It’s rather that I have to like the Super Rich – I have no choice but to like them if I want a big tip. 

It’s a variation on a point that sociologist Richard Sennet makes. We bow, we scrape, but now we do it in the corporate world as a team.” People learn to be flexible, which means likeable.” As we get more income inequality and more service” jobs, all our business majors really learn is how to be flexible and likeable – to sell ourselves, to seduce, so we can be Donald Trump’s apprentice.

These are nasty habits for citizens to develop. Even the left, even the far left, is like this: So far as I can tell, activists spend all their time courting the foundations, and like waiters in restaurants, stroking, touching people, so they can get a bigger grant. In terms of the moral character, we on the left are no better than the politicians are.

Of course you dear reader are not like this. I’m more like Orwell,” you think. Yes, there’s a model for our time. Be a writer; that’s worse than being a waiter. They spend their lives playing up to editors, being flexible, wallowing in self pity as others get ahead. While writers have always been like this, the danger of a plutocracy is that we’re all like writers now. 

We need to put down the de Toqueville. It’s not like that any more. It’s not the America of Jefferson: We aren’t small farmers. Or the America of Lincoln: We aren’t the free-labor, free-soil types. Or of FDR: We aren’t the industrial workers organizing for higher wages. It’s the America of the Bush family, of big country clubs and estates: It’s the America where even the so-called middle class” are more or less waiting tables.

So we adapt our personality. If we vote to soak the rich, they may cut back their tips! I lose out. It’s because I don’t believe in mobility (mine or yours) that I dare not soak the rich.

Besides, if I try to soak the rich, what good will it do me? Let’s suppose I confront them. I put in a government that raises their taxes. There’s no guarantee I’m doing any good for me. That is, there is so much inequality, the money may go to the poor. Or just as likely, it may go back to the rich. If the government raises my taxes, how do I know they will spend it on me, in the middle? That’s why it is easier to raise taxes in Germany or Sweden, or even Canada. People know: If they spend it, they have to spend it, like it or not, on people like me.

So the more inequality, the more unnerving it is to raise taxes. It destroys the presumption that those in the middle will get it back. Whatever the motive, the result is the same. People are afraid in a plutocracy to raise taxes on the rich. The more money people in the top 1 percent have, the more impregnable they are to progressive-type taxation. 

It seems odd that a majority in polls want to help the rich end the estate tax. Why? The simplest explanation is probably this: They don’t know what the estate tax is, or who it affects. That’s what makes it hard in our time to explain any re-distribution scheme. For me as a lawyer, it has been scary to read the studies on juries – over and over, they find most people on juries can’t follow the simplest instructions. Only 50, sometimes 25 percent comprehension. That’s why the Democrats lose out on their complex public policy solutions that only Paul Krugman can understand. In some way it has to be simpler. Maybe there has to be a break-down, one by one, for every American, with his or her name on it: Put in your work record to see how much more you’ll get.” Surely, we ought to be able to come up with a My Space for taxpayers.

Every day, before we go off to work, each one of us could visit. It’s all mine at 67, if only I can hang on.”

Thomas Geoghegan is a Chicago-based labor lawyer. He is the author of several books, including Which Side Are You On?, The Secret Lives of Citizens, The Law in Shambles, Only One Thing Can Save Us, and Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?
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