An old friend of mine recently concluded an email by noting that The Social Network, the Aaron Sorkin movie about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, “really makes you aware of how much good luck and timing are involved with great inventions and great fortunes.”
The Social Network made me aware of a number of things — such as that I am glad I’m not in college today — but luck? Does anyone really think that Mark Zuckerberg, a single-minded genius, owes his wealth to luck?
But my friend is a liberal. She is blessed with a Rush-quoting, flat tax-advocating twin sister. Let’s call them Rosa, after Rosa Luxembourg, and Maggie, in homage to Baroness Thatcher, whom the sensible sister admires greatly. Okay, the other isn’t quite Rosa Luxembourg. But you get the picture.
The twins grew up in a Memphis household straight out of a novel by Peter Taylor, the troubadour of old-line Memphis. I’ve known them since the eleventh grade and wouldn’t trade anything for both friendships. But I have nevertheless often pondered: How did it happen that they have such different attitudes?
Needless to say, the twins have similar backgrounds. I’ve told them repeatedly how lucky they are not to be Siamese twins. Rosa would have to go to Tea Party rallies, and Maggie would have to sit through socially conscious sermons at Rosa’s activist church. Oh, yes, and eat vegan.
Rosa has never met a social program large enough. When I told her about seeing food stamps abused in my neighborhood grocery (a “client” bought a pomegranate — I kid you not! — to get change to buy liquor, which can’t be directly purchased with the government-issued funny money), she argued that the food stamp program simply needs more employees. That way they could help people make healthier choices!
Maggie has perhaps made less wise choices than Rosa, and now, as a result, she must work harder and longer. This has caused her to be acquainted with the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA). Maggie gets furious at the money FICA confiscates from her paycheck. Mystified, Rosa says that Maggie isn’t making enough money to complain about taxes. But if you aren’t making very much, you tend to hate Mr. FICA wasting even a fraction of your paycheck on leisure-class stalwarts like Mr. Pomegranate.
Rosa told me once about somebody she knew who sat on a board and picked up quite a bit of money doing so. It was all because his grandfather had created a company that was later sold to a giant in the field. Rosa thinks this is unfair. She is a nice enough person not to have viewed it as unfair to her, but as somehow just unfair on a moral basis, unfair to the food stamps office that needs more money to hire more people to supervise more lives. You could argue that was pure luck. It was in many ways, but it was also luck produced by the hard work and business acumen of a previous generation. When I was a callow youth, I believed that such fortunes should be taxed so heavily that we’d all start out equal. Now, I would argue that you have a right to pass your holdings, the product of work and foresight, along, and that it is all fair and square. Besides, you don’t have to worry about great fortunes in America. Heirs almost always fritter them away.