Millions of Americans defend their decisions to minimize their tax obligations, saying they are simply taking advantage of existing, unfair loopholes in tax laws. “I may disagree with the law, but as long as it lets me legally reduce my tax burden, I’m going to take it.” I am among those Americans who continue to use that justification for securing our affluence. This morning, I read a book review that caused me to begin thinking much more deeply about the morality of “living by the letter of the law.” The book, entitled Poverty, by America, was written by Matthew Desmond, a Princeton sociologist and author of several other books (Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City; Race in America; The Racial Order; and others). According to the book review, Desmond argues persuasively that the U.S. has more poverty than any other advanced democracy because the rest of us benefit from that embarrassing fact. He advances the argument that expenditures on our social programs direct most of their benefits to those who need them least. He argues that understanding the roots of intractable poverty requires us to examine not only the uber-rich who benefit from obscenely favorable opportunities to take advantage of public policy loopholes. Instead, we must look at “ourselves… we the secure, the insured, the housed, the college educated, the protected, the lucky.” Desmond does not suggest the average American beneficiary knowingly and willfully takes advantage of and perpetuates policies that keep people in poverty (though I think some of the recipients of the greatest financial benefits are, indeed, aware of what they are doing). One solution—perhaps the only one that might truly solve the dilemma—is for Americans to join together to become poverty abolitionists.  For that to happen, hearts and minds must change. People like me must not only willingly give up tax benefits and governmental subsidies, we must aggressively demand massive changes in policies so that will erode entrenched poverty. Until we take actions to do that, we will be complicit in the perpetuation of poverty. The book review caused me to look at my own complicity in the problem. I plan to read the book. That might be even more sobering.


French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to push through legislation to increase the retirement age in France from 62 to 64 has set off a firestorm of sometimes violent and destructive protests. The news I have read so far has not answered some important questions about the legislation, such as 1) at what point would the change take effect?; 2) would people close to the lower retirement age be subject to the change?; and 3) what are Macron’s arguments in support of making the change at any specific time, rather than waiting until some point in the future? I have plenty more questions that short snippets of “news” do not even begin to answer. In fact, the “news” I have read so far is abysmally uninformative; it is as if the writers/editors had places to go when given the assignment to deal with the story and, therefore, whizzed through it as quickly as possible so they would not be late for their dates. But I have to take responsibility for my ignorance; I cannot lay all the blame on journalists. It is up to me to do my own investigation into the matter if it is sufficiently important/interesting to me. Yet I have gotten used to being spoon-fed the “news” and, therefore, have almost forgotten that I have a responsibility to think for myself and explore issues for myself. More sobering stuff. Nikki Haley, recently announced candidate for the Republican nomination for president in the 2024 election, has suggested changing the retirement age for people who are now in their twenties. As much as I find most of Haley’s positions offensive, I think she is showing some bravery in suggesting changes to a system so deeply entrenched in the American psyche. Yet most of the people who share my political perspectives will almost certainly attack Haley for even considering the possibility of making any changes; back to Matthew Desmond’s arguments, we bristle at anything that could impact the more affluent among us. I will be the first to admit that a deep, deep, deep analysis of Social Security, Medicare, and the taxes that fund them must be conducted before any changes are made. We need to find the truth about how and whether taxes collected for those programs have been/are being siphoned off to fund other governmental activities and programs. But the idea that ANY governmental program is absolutely untouchable is, in my view, absurd. Life is all about change; some positive and valuable, some negative and harmful. We need to truly understand the effect of change and alternatives available to us…and their positive effects and their potentially harmful impacts. Ach! I’ve gone off course again.


I feel hypocritical for writing what I’ve written so far this morning, because I would fight tooth and nail to prevent changes to either Medicare or Social Security if those changes would reduce my benefits. But if I force myself to think logically—remove emotion from the consideration, entirely—I think I might have a different, and more defensible, position. I belong to a church that espouses an almost rabid respect for open-mindedness, but I would be willing to bet that the majority of people who participate in it would react to proposals to “mess with” Medicare or Social Security in the same way I would. Self-protection is natural, but it can be a grim reminder that one’s philosophies are put to the test in the real world.


If today unfolds as planned and as I hope it will, a friend will come over later on. We will relax and chat and luxuriate in one another’s company. Before that, though, I may explore the possibility of arranging to get a massage. My shoulders and upper back are incredibly tight and tense and more than a little painful. Massage might alleviate those unpleasant symptoms of…whatever it is that causes those unpleasant symptoms.  I have scheduled a haircut for early Monday morning; perhaps I can follow-up on that with a massage. I can afford to pay someone to give me a massage; many people cannot. Perhaps I should, instead, contribute the money I would spend on a massage to some worthy cause. Thinking about Desmond’s writing gives me pause. Ach! I do with the world were more equitable. I wish all of us who are financially secure were willing to be satisfied with less so that everyone might be on more of an even keel. Pure fantasy. A wish and a dream.


Winter continues. Nighttime lows in the upper twenties and lower thirties are expected for the next four nights. I shiver to think about it. But that’s what blankets and warm clothes are for. And for the fortunate among us, reliable heating systems and warming fireplaces.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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