The Fine Art of Giving Back
Given the uncertainty of the economy and debate about the “stimulus package,” I find myself in discussions about the government’s “taking” resources from one set of Americans and giving it to another.
There are those who favor less taxation; and those who favor greater taxation so that the government can fund social and recovery programs.
In one such discussion on twitter, the person arguing against taxation said the following:
I believe if a man works & builds wealth, he should keep it on an equal proportion as someone who does not work as hard.
On its face, it would appear the speaker was advocating for a flat tax; where all were obligated for the same percentage of income. As the discussion continued; however, it was clear that my interpretation of her statement was not the same as the speaker’s (or shall I say tweeter’s). What the tweeter went on to say, in not-so-many words, was that the man who makes a great deal of money should get to keep it because he earned it through hard work. But the “someone who does not work as hard” should get to keep his money only in proportion to “how hard he worked.” Therefore, the man who didn’t “work as hard” should not get to keep the same percentage of money as the one who “worked hard.”
My question to her was what does it mean to “work hard”? Does this mean mental work or physical work? Because for me, physical work is much harder than mental work — because my body is not trained to do physical work. Would it follow that the woman employed in construction works much harder than I and should, therefore, get to keep more of her earnings? I would argue; yes. But I gather from the debate with my twitter pal that she would argue; no.
I have similar discussions at my office, where everyone spends his time doing “mental” work. One group invariably posits that those with wealth obtained it by “working hard” and those without wealth obviously “didn’t work as hard.” Because if they did, they’d be wealthy. This is the American Dream (or some would argue; the American Myth). We had similar discussions in my law school classes. Some students truly believed that the poor chose that station in life by being lazy. Mitigating factors such as disability, cultural disadvantages and perpetuation of a class system were unrelated to one’s station — went the argument. In fact, these factors really did not exist to the extent that one could not overcome them, argued my fellow students.
I grew up in a family that was not wealthy — by any stretch of the imagination. But my parents worked very hard. My mom taught elementary, worked on her master’s degree, and supervised two children and our many after-school activities. In addition to the mental work required of a public school principal, my father also moved equipment, directed traffic at school events, drove kids home who missed their buses; and spent hours at home creating schedules for 750-plus students, using a peg board and little round discs; before there were computers and software that did so. In addition to all that, my father coached the wrestling team at the junior high in the evenings, my brother’s little league basketball team on Saturdays, taught a senior ladies’ Bible class and ushered at the church on Sundays.
Although my parents both worked really hard, we were never wealthy.
My parents did this because there were people less fortunate than we that they could help. And that is my counter to the “keep the wealth” argument. I believe some of us are blessed with certain gifts — be it the ability to make money; build houses; advocate in court; or to cook — that obligate us to “give back.” For me, it’s because I feel that God blesses some of us with certain extra gifts. And with this blessing also comes the the responsibility take care of those less fortunate than we. For others, it’s what their moral compass tells them is right.
A few months ago Wine Spectator awarded Wolfgang Puck its Distinguished Service Award for 2008, “for his impact on American food and wine and his extensive charitable work.”
Here’s what Wine Spectator said about Chef Puck in its November 15, 2008 issue:
When Wolfgang Puck arrived in the United States in 1973, he knew little about America, and Americans knew nothing about him.
The 24-year-old chef accepted a job in Indianapolis because he knew there was a famous car race there, and imagined the city might resemble wealthy, sophisticated Monte Carlo, home of the Grand Prix. Once he realized his mistake, he headed to Los Angeles, where he joined the vanguard of chefs who were creating California cuisine. Building on that success, he established a restaurant empire that now stretches from Washington, D.C., to Hawaii.
Along the way, Puck became deeply involved with a wide range of philanthropic activities, providing meals to the needy and raising funds to fight diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. “When I was a kid, my mother told me, you should give and not just get, and you will get more pleasure,” Puck says. “I never understood what she meant when I was a kid, but now I realize we are so fortunate, we live well, we have what we need and then some. You have to give back any way you can.”
Watch and listen to Chef Puck’s acceptance speech, upon receiving the award. I think it offers a fine example for us all.