I have heard that President Obama will talk to the American people about income inequality and economic mobility this evening in his State of the Union address, but mark my words: Any plan that does not involve limiting or abolishing inheritance is no legitimate plan at all. The effectiveness of the president’s proposals will be directly proportional to their ability to limit or stop all forms of inheritance.
Most individuals have a pervasive, selfish preference for their family, first; their friends, second, and anyone who shares something in common with them, third. This fault is not universal, but it plagues the vast majority of Americans. When we treat people preferentially because of their relationship to us, we are giving them part of our capital (money, advice, social connections, information) — that is, a potential advantage over others. All of these forms of capital are also forms of inheritance: resources passed down because of relationship, unearned.
Parents actively seek to give their children every advantage to succeed. But they either don’t realize or choose to ignore that they are in fact trying to increase income inequality between their child and every other child on the planet. After all, an advantage that every child has is no real advantage at all. In five or 10 or 15 years, their child will be competing with many other parents’ children for the same opportunities, jobs and resources. Parents want to give their child the best chance of winning these future competitions.
As a teacher, I do the same thing. These are my students. I take responsibility for them, and I want them to be better equipped than the students at the other schools around the state. Knowing that they will be competing for opportunities, jobs and resources motivates me to encourage them, push them harder and do everything in my power to maximize their potential. I assume every other teacher at every other school is doing the same, so I’d better be on my game. I want to give my students an advantage, an inheritance.
So now, President Obama, I publicly admit that I am part of the problem. I am doing my best to increase income inequality between my students and their peers around the country. Furthermore, everyone I know is spending whatever resources they have, little or great, to give advantages to people whom they know and love. The only way for you to decrease that advantage is to take away those resources. All of them.
If you take all of their money to create an inheritance for the poor, the middle and upper classes will still try to leave a valuable inheritance of work ethic, content knowledge, social connections and money-management skills. These cannot be made up by early childhood education programs. They are lessons learned over years and years of interactive, intense relationships with people who live life together. Even seeing students every school day for two years, I can’t scratch the surface of all those lessons, but I often interact with parents who have been intentional about these things, and you can bet that their children are at a huge advantage. Inequality starts so young. Whatever you do, it will have to restrict or abolish ideological inheritance as well.
It is a continuum, Mr. President. We are addicted to seeking the best for our family, friends and acquaintances — our people. You want to slowly separate us from our resources to fund government programs to level the playing field, but we will use whatever resources you leave at our disposal, great or small, to undo what you have done, to give advantages to those we care about. So take it all.
P.S. Or you could champion and facilitate cross-class relationships that would lead to authentic and personal inheritances being passed to the poor, not out of compulsion, but because people genuinely care. But that is hardly realistic … I guess.
John Guidry, of Lino Lakes, is a teacher.