Monday, July 12, 2010

Who Speaks for Me?

Maybe I’m better off not reading political news at all. The main economic topics these days appear to be letting the Bush tax cuts expire, fixes for social security (including taxing entire income and using means testing for allowing benefits to be received), the mess that is Medicare, extending unemployment benefits, and the massive deficit. Reading the comments after many of the articles makes it all even more depressing. I recognize that I’ve got it pretty good, and I feel badly for people who are having economic difficulties. But, in reading the articles by the main stream media, and listening to what our Congresspeople and President have to say, one thing strikes me: Who is speaking for me?

Let’s lay out who I am:

1) I’m 35 years old

2) I’m not an ethnic minority

3) I’m not a mother

4) I’m single and heterosexual

5) I have a Bachelor’s Degree, a J.D., and a career

6) I’m financially responsible and have no debt other than my mortgage

7) I have well over six months of living expenses in a savings account, just in case

8) I pay $400 a month for life insurance and supplemental long term disability insurance, just in case

9) I max out my 401(k) and also invest other earnings for retirement

10) I’ll end up somewhere in the Top 5% of income earners this year, possibly even the Top 1%

11) I’ve never collected unemployment

12) I’ve never applied for food stamps

13) I’ve never had an abortion

14) I’ve never been arrested

15) I’m (knock on wood) healthy and have health insurance through my job

Some might argue that I’m lucky. Maybe I am. I didn’t get diagnosed with breast cancer at age 27, like one of my friends. (She’s in remission and is doing fine.) I never got “caught” when I did stupid things as a teenager. The other side of the coin is that I’ve worked very hard to get where I am today. I’ve been working since I was thirteen years old, where I started cleaning locker rooms at a local gym for $1.35 an hour. I busted my butt in high school, college, and law school, and the many jobs (like working the drive through at Wendy’s) that I had along that journey. While I attended my fair share of parties, I’ve never done a drug stronger than marijuana (and even that was many years ago), and I’ve never partied at the risk of failing a class or losing my job. I’ve always used birth control. I’ve spent money, but I’ve also saved money. I put a 25% down payment on the condo that I bought last year, and drive a car that is nine years old.

The fact is, economically and otherwise speaking, I’m doing fine. I see a lot of chatter on the news and on the Internet about what the government may or may not do next, and how the government is going to help “the poor,” “families,” “the unemployed,” “the immigrants,” “the people who don’t have health insurance,” “the corporations,” “the minorities,” “the homosexuals,” “the military,” “the people whose homes are going into foreclosure,” and every other group under the sun. Problem is, I don’t belong to any of those groups. Arguably, I fall into the “women as minorities” group, but because I’m not a mother or married, not particularly concerned about the abortion debate (I just don’t see Roe v. Wade getting repealed), don’t feel that I am unfairly paid, don’t believe in the glass ceiling, and have never suffered domestic violence, very rarely does anything the government does directly for women today have any impact on me. (I’m not arguing that equal rights hasn’t helped get me to where I am today, because it certainly has. Let’s keep the discussion to what is going on right now.)

Unfortunately, the only group I appear to potentially fall into is “the rich.” For the record, I don’t think I’m rich. I prefer the term that was, I believe, coined by someone over at the Wall Street Journal: HENRY -- High Earner, Not Rich Yet. In the news, you don’t particularly see anyone arguing for the benefit of the HENRYs or “the rich.” I see words get put into people’s mouths, and anyone accused of wanting to keep the Bush tax cuts is automatically accused of supporting “the rich,” even though the Bush tax cuts will affect far more people than “the rich.” The HENRYs, like me, may not fall into “the rich” yet, but we will eventually. It all depends on how you define “rich.” Is it Top 5% of earners? Is it making over $250,000 a year? I don’t know the answer. But no one wants it to appear that they support “the rich.” “The rich” are apparently all evil people who are only where they are because they cheated, lied, and stole. At what point did the lines between the different classes become so bold? It seems that rather than appreciate that some people have been able to succeed, others seem rather bitter about it, and want to take away what was rightfully earned.

The most frequent argument I see is that “the rich should pay their fair share.” This ignores that the Top 5% of earners pay 60% of the personal income taxes paid in. The Top 1% pays 40% of the personal income taxes paid in. Last year (when I was arguably “not rich,” since this was prior to my making partner at my firm, and I only fell in the Top 5%), my federal income tax withholdings were approximately $45,000; social security was $6,200; Medicare was $2,800. The state of Illinois withheld $5,500. If there are loopholes to getting out of paying this much, I don’t know what they are, even though “I’m rich.” I didn’t get to take advantage of the $8,000 tax credit when I bought my condo last August, because I made too much money. I’ve never gotten a stimulus check. Have I paid my fair share yet? What is a “fair share” of personal income? There is a huge difference between someone like me and someone who makes $20 million a year, yet under some standards, we both may be considered “the rich.”

I don’t mind paying taxes. They pay for our infrastructure, our government, and many other things. Paying taxes is part of life. I also don’t mind giving to charity and helping out people who have fallen on hard times. But at some point, enough is enough. I am where I am today in large part because of the decisions I made in the past, and the decisions I continue to make on a day to day basis. I get up every day and go to work. Sometimes I work all weekend long, or until the wee hours of the morning when I have deadline. I opted not to have children. I opted to go to college. I opted to work hard. I have no doubt that many people who work minimum wage jobs also work hard. But face it, you are where you are and I am where I am largely because we made different decisions along the way.

So no, I don’t want the Bush tax cuts to expire so I have to pay nearly 40% of my income to the government. I don’t want Social Security to be based on a means test after I spent 40 or 50 years paying into it. (In the unlikely event that there is even anything left in it.) I don’t think it’s right that the government doesn’t have to balance its budget, but instead keeps seeking more money from taxpayers rather than get a hold of its massive spending. I resent hearing the term “redistribution of wealth” left and right in the media these days. Maybe this attitude makes me greedy. If it does, so be it. I'm tired of feeling embarrassed, guilty or ashamed of making the money I make, and feeling like I should have to give it to someone else who is less fortunate.  If you continue to take away from your highest earners, I can’t help but think that at some point many of them (including me) will start to do the math, and possibly seek lower earning jobs that have less responsibility and less stress. At a certain point, it ceases to be worth it anymore. If I have to give the fruits of my labor to someone else, then why should I bother working so hard? In my opinion, this attitude will strip away the ambition and drive of many people in this country, and it is this that will be the death of our country. Wasn’t our country founded on the idea of the “land of opportunity?” Is it now the “land of opportunity to take others’ money?”

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