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Redefining fair

Poem and illustration by Shel Silverstein, from the book  A Light in the Attic

Poem and illustration by Shel Silverstein, from the book A Light in the Attic

When I think about my time playing field hockey in High School, I think about oranges. At every game, on rotation, one of the team mothers was responsible for bringing a bag of orange slices for us to eat during halftime. I loved the oranges because they were always fresh and juicy—a welcome break from what was in my eyes the most stressful activity on Earth. To say that the oranges were the only things I loved about field hockey would be a lie. But there wasn’t much else. I loved that I was good at a sport in spite of myself, and the way it felt to lift my field hockey stick high in the air, swing in exactly the right formation, and drive the ball farther than most people ever expected. Being able to do that just came naturally. But I hated playing field hockey. The girls we played were brutal, and it was not uncommon to see someone whack someone else in the shin with a hockey stick or push someone to the ground, all in the name of scoring a goal and stealing the win.

I complained to my parents about having to play. I hemmed and hawed every time we had a game. I told them I wanted to quit. And then one day my mother wanted to know why. I was really good at field hockey. Why did I want to quit?

“I don’t like the competition,” was my answer.

If I had to pick five words to describe myself, and my outlook on life, those five words would be it.

And yet even if we never officially play any sports we spend most of our lives competing—many of us losing more often than we win. Is it any wonder that we, as a nation, are overworked and stressed?

Yesterday news broke that the Obama administration would announce a plan to redistribute tax burden from the middle class to the wealthy. Details were released on Saturday, and the plan will be announced on Tuesday during the President’s State of the Union Address. It will aim to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, limiting their profits from investments and making it harder for them to pass untaxed assets onto heirs. Much of the proceeds would be used to expand tax credits for higher education and child care, and create a new break for two-earner couples.

We know this plan stands no chance with the GOP-controlled congress. It's got to be a purely political move. But to help illustrate that the primary opposition to a plan like this is not so much fear of becoming a totalitarian state or scrutiny of which economics system really works best as it is plain old self-serving greed, at least one Republican has already taken the bait.

Senator Marco Rubio appeared on Face the Nation yesterday, while simultaneously promoting his new book, American Dreams, asserting that the Obama administration is operating on the "outdated" notion "that in order for some people to do better, someone has to do worse." He thinks that "raising taxes on people that are successful is not going to make people that are struggling more successful."

Rubio went on to state the following:

"The good news about free enterprise is that everyone can succeed without punishing anyone. It also would also be counterproductive. But here is my bigger point. I am all for reforming our higher education system. In the 21st century, to have the skills you need for a middle-class job, you need higher education of some form or fashion.

It may not be a four-year degree. The problem is, [Obama] just wants to pour that additional money into the broken existing system, which a lot of people will graduate with A.A. degrees that don't lead to anything but another four-year degree that may not lead to a job.

What we need to do is create competition with alternate methods where people can acquire certification programs that take less than two years, and get you to work right away as a welder, an electrician, an airplane mechanic. I wish he would spend more time on that and less time trying to raise taxes and pour money into an outdated model that no longer works in the 21st century."

I want to write now to those who may agree with Rubio, and think that the Obama administration's plan is punishing to some, outdated, won't work, or essentially is not 'fair'. Here is some food for thought:

From a young age most of us are taught that we’ll need to compete to make it in life. Some who have enough wealth in their families are blessed with the hiring of all manner of coaches, personal trainers and extra help to give them an advantage so they can compete better and win more, whether it be at making the Varisty football team, taking the SATs, graduating from college with honors, spending some time living abroad, investing, starting a business, or even eating well. Others with big work ethic and a lot of talent but a limited budget have watched those born to the wealthier families get a head start and found that it's nearly impossible to catch up. On the other end of the spectrum, those heavily steeped in poverty have learned that poverty colors nearly everything about one's perspective on opportunities for advancement in life. It’s hard to compete to win, no matter how talented you are, when the competition has a leg up.

What I mean by that is simple: privilege should not equal success. And what a plan like the one the Obama administration is set to announce on Tuesday really does is redefine 'fair' in a way the majority of Americans and society as a whole can benefit from in today's world.

One of my favorite books when I was growing up was A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein. I must have borrowed it from the library at least a dozen times, poring over it alone in my room night after night, before my parents bought me my own copy. One of Silverstein’s best poems in A Light in the Attic is “Prayer of the Selfish Child”:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my toys to break.
So none of the other kids can use ‘em. . . .

How many of us—and not just in America, because there are many globally who also see life through this lens—are the Selfish Child?

I think that competition is normal and sometimes even healthy. And I think that to go through life with a victim complex and aligning ourselves with a demand that we get to be lazy while society provides to us everything we could need or want is wrong. Equally, I think that walking over one another to get to the top with little care for fellow humankind, and then selfishly hoarding every bit of wealth and status we’ve accumulated once we’ve made it there for generations is wrong.

We’re whacking each other in the shins and pushing each other to the ground. Someone has to play referee.

To me, 'fair' is sharing the wealth a bit more so that others are better able to compete. What Obama’s plan will do is move the starting line for some a bit closer to the starting line of those who are already so far ahead. Let’s face it, to be in the top 1% of earners in my state you now need to be making $511,000 annually; a big starting advantage over a couple with two children jointly bringing in just at or even much less than six figures. If you make half a million dollars a year, you are far from being in the middle class. Given that we now have people who are that far ahead, is this new plan really such a terrible thing? And let's keep in mind that the proposal would raise the Capital Gains tax to where it was when every pro-business Repiblican's hero, Reagan, was in office.

In today's world, if we want to truly be realistic and aim to create a plan that will work the best for and help the most people, giving tax breaks to an ever-shrinking middle class, providing a broader range of people with an option for higher education, and offering child care that is more easily available so more women can stay in the workforce if they want to—or in many cases, need to—will only benefit society. It is not a global plot to take away citizens' individual rights, put large corporations out of business, or create a more effeminate society. It is an economic plan aimed at curbing the record-level wealth gap and making sure all people have a fair starting point to compete to get ahead. The work of getting ahead, of course, is up to the individual.

I've read and heard some of the public comment that since we all had to pay for college it’s not 'fair' for those after us to now get a break. And I do understand that many are still paying off the debt higher education has lead them into—I know I am. But we’re talking about government-paid community college here, not Harvard. This would benefit many who aren't even yet in or have through no fault of their own fallen out of the same race with the middle class, let alone the nation's top earners. Rubio would rather put them right to work... As welders, electricians and airplane mechanics.

We learn that the American Dream is a life where we get to control our own destinies. Where even a child from a poor family could one day become President with hard work, passion and effort. The American Dream, to me, is not you can grow up to be whatever you dream of being... as long as what you dream of being is a welder, electrician or airplane mechanic. No matter how smart or talented you are, you'll be stuck working in fast food to make ends meet and help pay your way through finishing a mechanic certification program because that's all the farther your family's money will ever be able to get you in life.

Maybe this is hard for some people to hear. It's never easy to deal with what you discover when you start peeling back layers of any particular cultural onion. But it is easy to believe that the most deserving people always win, and that the people who fall behind are in that position because they're uneducated, lazy or otherwise less capable. Sometimes that is the case, more often than we would like to believe there is much more to the story. And for those who do fall into the uneducated category, why is that? Let's look at why that is. Maybe peeling back the skin of the cultural beliefs we hear over and over and illuminating what really lies at the core will put us on a true road to recovery—not just economically.

Free community college is a stepping stone to a broader, farther-reaching plan for more accessible public higher education. I'll go further—vocational schools should be teaching students how to work with and alongside technology, not just preparing them to be welders, electricians and airplane mechanics. But more than anything we've got to get people educated at higher levels. It's important to prepare all of our students, regardless of age, race or financial background, to compete and succeed in a competitive global economy.

Free enterprise will never truly offer quality goods and services at little or no cost because business owners need to profit. Making things affordable always incurs some hidden cost, whether it be environmental pollution that makes whole communities sick, the loss of local businesses to chains and big box stores, an overworked and underpaid working class, the working poor, debt, discrimination, or the actual price markup; and the burden of paying it lands mostly on our strapped middle class and the poor—those with the least leverage to compete to get ahead—while our top earners continue to line their pockets and move even farther ahead.

We're whacking each other in the shins and pushing each other to the ground. Someone has to play referee. A healthy balance of private and public sector with sensible regulations aimed at protecting consumers and all of the general public is only 'fair'.

I am proof that providing some government aid to those who are struggling does work. When I was laid off at the height of the recession, federally-extended unemployment benefits helped me to better compete in what was left of the job market. Today I have nearly doubled my pre-layoff income without leaving the field of my college degree—in the arts no less. But during that period of my life I was questioned frequently by the well-intentioned on what I was doing with my time. I heard a lot about how I needed to live in the real world and get a job waiting tables or at a shop rather than continue to accept unemployment benefits. The common perception was that I was sitting around watching TV all day, waiting for a government check. The reality was plenty of hustle and time spent learning how to think strategically about marketing myself and my work, then actually doing that. I am much better off for it, and that is certainly fair.

'Not fair' is intentionally keeping many hardworking and worthy people down to ensure that a few who have risen to the top stay there. 'Not fair' is intentionally starving public sector services of funding so they have a harder time meeting the needs of the people they serve, making them appear unsuccessful. There’s a difference between healthy competition and selfish, thoughtless greed. I hope we’ll all soon start to remember that.

Alyssa YeagerComment