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Lemurs at the Fiscal Cliff

December 2, 2012


This classic New Yorker cartoon by Paul Noth sums up what a lot of us feel about the so-called Fiscal Cliff. Most people  know by now (as my students point out indignantly) that even lemmings don’t actually jump off the cliff to destroy themselves–they just think they can swim across.  And, being strong swimmers, they usually do, when it’s just a little stream in their path. The stronger swimmers find the best habitat on the other side. So, natural selection picks lemmings with the jumper instinct. The survivors of course write the history–“It works.”

We humans are supposed to be smarter than lemmings. We’re supposed to remember the costs of history–that’s why we teach it. After all, we’re primates. Primates supposedly started an unprecedented march of brain size amongst erstwhile rodents. The most deep branching of the primates, those believed to most closely represent our early primate ancestors, are the lemurs. Today confined to Madagascar, the lemurs probably once roamed much of what is now Africa and South America (before those two continents split off–another story). They are amazing, adorable, fascinating and scrappy little cousins of ours–please go see their spectacular exhibit in the Bronx Zoo (and contribute to their habitat preservation.)

But even amongst lemmings and lemurs, there are always a few that don’t jump off, that choose to wait out the apocalypse. And–interestingly–their genes, too, persist in the gene pool, sustained by natural selection. In every generation, no matter how apocalyptic, survival favors those who “wait a minute.”

So who is the lone lemur at the Fiscal Cliff?  This is no time for false equivalency. The people have spoken, and all three branches edged a few lemurs closer to sanity. The bill has come due.

So who gets to pay? The people who benefited the most from the last thirty years?  Or the 47% who don’t pay now, but consume Medicare etc.?

Romney was right: Our country would be a lot healthier if the tax burden spread farther, including more of those 47%. If only they earned enough to pay.

A columnist recently told us at Kenyon that it’s unfair to tax the rich because they already pay most of the taxes. There’s the problem–the last thirty years have so stretched the extreme of financial inequality that we look like a third-world country where only a small minority have enough cash to make a difference.

The time to fix this is now. You can make a difference. Let your senators and representatives know. We’ve learned the hard way that it’s no longer enough to vote every four years. Support our president’s first step back from the fiscal cliff.

One Comment
  1. Heteromeles permalink
    December 4, 2012 7:34 pm

    I think this is also a good time to bring up an old Silicon Valley joke. What do you get when you cross a sheep and a lemming? A venture capitalist.

    The reason to bring this up is that the wealthy mythologize themselves. If they’re the best at what they do, then OMG, of course they should be treated specially. If, on the other hand, they just got lucky when they jumped and swam across the river of risk-taking, then they’re just stinkin’ lucky, and really should give back to the community that did support them when they weren’t so lucky, and will support them and theirh children again after they’ve thrown all their money away on ill-considered risks.

    That’s the real problem: not to deny Mark Zuckerberg’s or Steve Jobs’ real intelligence, but I’ll bet if they were born today, neither of them would end up as rich as they are now. Ditto with any other tycoon. They were in the right place at the right time with the right talent set and (often, cf Mitt Romney) with the right social connections. That lightning never strikes twice.

    Since the 2012 election was a demonstration that being wealthy is not equivalent to being politically powerful (thank you for that lesson, Mr. Rove), it’s about time that the 0.01% earned their way back into our good graces by carrying that disproportionate share of the tax load that they’re expected to carry. If they’re really at the point where money is just about keeping score, then it’s high time they get off the hoarding-the-wealth game and start playing the make-the-world-a-better-place game that their older peers prefer.

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