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Working hard or hardly working?

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One of my favorite bits of right-wing nonsense is the meme being replicated on the internets by Glenn Reynolds et. al. this morning about how the problem with taxing high income earners is that they won’t “work hard” if they have to give more of their money to shiftless people who don’t “work hard” (i.e., lower income earners being supported by government handouts in the form of income tax wealth redistribution).

Dr. Sharon Poczatek, who runs her own dental practice in Boulder, Colo., said
that she too is trying to figure out ways to get out of paying the taxes
proposed in Obama’s plan.“I’ve put thought into how to get under $250,000,”
said Poczatek. “It would mean working fewer days which means having fewer employees, seeing fewer patients and taking time off.”“Generally it means being less productive,” she said.“The motivation for a lot of people like me
– dentists, entrepreneurs, lawyers – is that the more you work the more money
you make,” said Poczatek. “But if I’m going to be working just to give it back to the government — it’s de-motivating and demoralizing.”

I rarely see the logic of this argument challenged, despite its evident absurdity. The logic runs like this:

(a) “Working hard” means performing labor that is motivated solely by the need/desire to make money.

Note that in this sense of hard work, people who enjoy their work so much that they would do it anyway even if they were independently wealthy aren’t “working” at all. More generally, the only thing that counts as “hard work” are those aspects of your job that you dislike so much that you would never do them unless you were paid to. Obviously this describes at least some portion of almost everyone’s job, but the extent of that portion will vary widely, depending on the job.

(b) Personal income levels are excellent proxies for measuring the extent to which people are “working hard” in this sense of hard work.

In other words, our society on average consists of people who “work hard” who make lots of money and people who don’t. Higher marginal taxes on high earners thus have a net effect of moving wealth from relatively hard working people to relatively lazy people.

I’m sort of tempted to ask Professor Reynolds if this seems plausible to him. Does it seem plausible to him — a law professor who is probably paid around 200K a year by the great state of Tennessee to do whatever it is he does while performing what is technically his actual job — that he is “working” five times “harder” (using Wingnuttia’s definition of “hard work”) than a guy roofing houses in San Antonio in July who makes 40K a year?

If you think about it for five seconds it’s actually totally implausible that the correlation between “hard work” in this sense and increasing income is even mildly positive. To believe it is, you have to believe that highly paid high status professionals hate their work far more than working class people who are doing dangerous, physically taxing, and/or extremely boring work for low pay.

All of which is to say that the idea that the rich are rich because they “work hard” and the poor are poor because they don’t is too idiotic for words. It is, however, perhaps the prime article of faith of contemporary GOP ideology.

Update: I think it’s important to emphasize that the meme here — people who make a lot of money work hard, and their taxes go to those who don’t — exists quite independent of sophisticated claims about the possible effects of increases in the highest marginal tax rate on productivity. Those subtle arguments have nothing to do with the cultural work that’s performed by stuff like Reynolds’ commentary and the reader responses he posts. That’s all about reinforcing extremely simplistic narratives about hard work being rewarded by “the market,” and progressive taxes being a poison that undermines social virtue. Of course it’s possible to translate the idiot dentist’s comments into something that might sort of make sense under certain circumstances, but that’s not what these arguments are about. They’re about reinforcing the narrative that the rich are virtuous, the poor aren’t, and the government is simply stealing when it engages in progressive taxation (of course the U.S. tax system as a whole is barely progressive but that’s just another detail that gets ignored in these contexts).

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