Americans with financial abundance enjoy many legal ways to reduce the amount of taxes they owe. The same tax code enforces strict and narrow mandates on Americans without financial surplus. This disparity results in many well-off people paying a far lower tax rate than people with modest or subsistence incomes. Is this arrangement fair? This question seems to be at the core of the Romney tax return issue, and it points to an important difference in how Americans experience equality.
To be fair, the designation of what is fair depends on a situation’s circumstances and how they are experienced by those affected by them. Still, equal treatment would seem a logical place to start in determining what is fair. As far as taxes are concerned, the common sense of mathematics dictates that paying 15 percent of a $1 million annual income impacts the taxpayer’s daily life less than paying 15 percent of a $20 thousand annual income. And paying 15 percent of $1 billion impacts the taxpayer’s daily life far less than paying 35 percent of $20 thousand. Rocket science, this is not.
It’s obvious, then, that the tax code is not designed to be fair, in the sense of equal treatment, and quite honestly I’m not so interested here in parsing out precisely what the current tax code is meant to do—the current state of extreme income inequality in the US* tells me all I need to know about that for now.
Rather, I’m interested in noticing how reactions to this policy replicate an intriguing phenomenon in power dynamics, one that has to do with what is experienced as fair.
In systems where some groups are given advantage over other groups, such as one that privileges whites over blacks or men over women—or in the case of the US tax code, the owning and investing classes over the middle class and working poor—we can observe that policies moving toward equal treatment can trigger a curious reaction from those in the privileged groups. When asked or required to practice equal treatment, some people in the privileged groups feel discriminated against.
That is, people in privileged groups often experience equality as discrimination.
While this may seem puzzling or even irrational, think about it: if you hold more power and privilege than others, establishing equality generally requires that you give up some of that advantage (unless, of course, the disadvantaged groups receive enough privilege and power to reach parity—another approach altogether).
For instance, if you are accustomed to paying 15 percent of your income in taxes, and you are required to increase that amount to 18 percent while others who have paid 35 percent in taxes now may reduce that amount to 20 percent, you may experience this policy as an act of discrimination.
This insight could help explain the impulsive reaction of righteous indignation from some in the privileged classes to policies that aim to create a more just tax code, or to the president’s suggestion that he is working toward an America where “everyone gets a fair shot, pays their fair share, and plays by the same rules.”
I suspect we can all agree, however, that it is not as pleasant to give up advantage than to receive advantage. Fair enough.
*Note: Click on the chart to the right of Charles Blow’s column, under Multimedia, to see where the US ranks among the 31 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in social justice, poverty prevention, poverty rate, child poverty, health, pre-primary education, and income inequality. I guarantee you will be surprised.