There is an absurd meme that has been circulating in conservative circles for the past year involving redistribution of wealth. I first encountered it by word of mouth from my dad, then a libertarian columnist from Florida, and now Fox News. It goes something like this:
Liberal college students are offered the opportunity to contribute their GPA/test scores to classmates who have a lower GPA - “redistribution of academic wealth.” Students balk at the suggestion that they should contribute the fruits of their labor to others that didn’t work as hard.
It’s not hard to see why this notion is catchy to conservatives. It makes young liberal college students look naïve. It makes academia look hypocritical. And it makes conservatives look sagacious and worldly. Of course, it’s also a really, really stupid analogy, for several reasons:
- The rich aren’t being asked to give all of their money to the poor, they are being asked to give a tiny fraction more of their income to the federal government to be used overwhelmingly for projects that benefit everyone, themselves included. Only a small percentage of the budget goes to the poor.
- The stakes are not the same - college students that fail tests don’t become homeless and starve on the street. They just change their major or drop out and move home with their parents.
- A college population is not analogous to the general population - college students are in college to learn, and have all been pre screened by application boards to assure they are capable of doing so. The reality is that the general population has a large number of people incapable of participating in the marketplace, either due to physical disability or inadequate labor market.
- The distribution of grades on a test does not match the distribution of income in America. On tests, scores are between 0 and 100, and the median score usually falls around a 70. Income ranges from $0 to several billion dollars, and the median is $44k (in 2003). If a professor consistently gave tests with a distribution like that, he or she would be fired for incompetence.
The analogy is bad, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fix it. Here’s a better one: let’s say that 25% of your class failed a test for one of the following reasons:
- They already took the class years ago but it has been a really long time and they no longer have the mental ability to pass the test (analogous to a Social Security recipient)
- They had a death in the family or some other reasonable excuse that prevented them from taking the test (a welfare recipient)
- They were unable to attend the class because there were not enough chairs in the classroom and the fire marshall would not allow anyone else in (an unemployment insurance recipient)
Now let’s say that all the students that made an A on the test had the ability to band together and contribute to these failing students’ grades. They would still maintain their A, just with slightly fewer points. And the students failing would receive the lowest possible grade that still allowed them to pass.
You would be an asshole for not saying yes. Even if a small percentage of those failing students were lying, or somehow cheating the system, wouldn’t you still contribute? Even if you had a B, wouldn’t you contribute a few points?
That is a better analogy to the situation that we find ourselves in today. The rich will not be materially affected by a slight increase in taxes.