Dear Reader:

Your recent article on Bush’s tax cut (“Congratulations! You Lose!” by Linda Lutton, August 17) is generating a lot of heat, but not much light. That’s because the underlying assumptions that divide the liberal from the conservative worldview aren’t being clarified. Permit me, in a nutshell, to explain what the argument is REALLY about:

In the conservative world, everyone gets exactly what they deserve. One’s position in life is a direct function of one’s hard work and efforts, and everyone is responsible only for themselves. We’re all completely free atoms interacting with other completely free atoms; as Maggie Thatcher once said, “There is no such thing as society.”

In the liberal world, society not only exists, but has a structure, and this structure plays a large part in determining your rewards. Paul Krugman, an economist who writes for the New York Times, puts it this way: imagine a society of small farmers and hunters and a society of gold prospectors. In both societies, hard work counts and laziness is penalized, but in the society of small farmers and hunters everyone is likely to be on a similar economic footing. In the society of gold prospectors, however, luck plays a larger role and large disparities of income are more likely to manifest. Krugman believes we are now a society of gold prospectors.

The analogy I prefer to use is one of musical chairs. The smartest and most hardworking people are likely to consistently get chairs in the game, and to them it will appear that their success is the outcome of their hard work. There is a structural problem, however–there aren’t enough chairs to go around. The liberals would say that there simply aren’t enough decent, well-paying jobs in society, for structural reasons.

As for my beliefs, consider that for many years the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates whenever unemployment got too low. If this isn’t proof that unemployment and poverty are (at least partly) structural problems, then what is? And if these problems are structural in nature, the solutions are too–a progressive tax code which effectively shifts money from the wealthy to the poor, a national health-care system, etc.

I might add that there are many indicators that unemployment and poverty are structural rather than merely personal issues. Alas, space prevents me from listing them.

Bruce Gould

N. Francisco