Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 2010 / 10 Teves, 5771
Tis the Season To Spoil Our Children?
By Mona Charen
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | The advice columns are beginning to reflect the season. A dismayed mother wrote to the Washington Post, "I love the holidays, but they bring out the greed in my children. From Halloween to Christmas Eve, all I hear is 'gimme, gimme and gimme.' How can I make them think of others instead of themselves?" The always wise Marguerite Kelly offered some sound suggestions — like having the kids make fudge to give out to friends and neighbors "so your children will find out how good it feels to be a giver as well as a getter."
I sympathize with the mother. From the time my children reached the age of 7 or 8, I was overwhelmed by the orgy of gift giving at this time of year. Don't misunderstand, I'm not Scrooge. Nor would anyone compare me to John D. Rockefeller's mother. In "Titan," biographer Ron Chernow relates that Rockefeller's mother, a strict Baptist and rigid disciplinarian, once said, "I'm glad that I know what my son wants for Christmas so that I (can) deny it to him."
Mrs. Rockefeller's stern determination to instill discipline in her offspring was clearly extreme, yet she lived in an age when even wealthy children were expected to be satisfied with a toy airplane or a new doll. Now, even unwealthy children expect far more.
The "hottest toys" for 2010, according to one website, were said to include "Professor Lupin's Laboratory," a Harry Potter-themed Lego that sells for $149.88; Barbie "My Favorite Time Capsule" dolls that range from $35 to $55, and the Nintendo Wii, which sells for $200 not including the games. That's real money. And they don't just get one or two toys. My kids tend to get many toys on Hanukkah (or did when they were younger — though most were not expensive) — so many that when we donate old toys, they fill huge black plastic trash bags.
Even if we were to limit the number of toys the children received from us, they would still get quite a haul from grandparents, aunts, uncles, and assorted family friends. And it would be churlish to tell generous friends and relations to restrict their giving.
No, for good or ill, in our abundant society (though with 10 percent unemployment, many more kids are doubtless having to settle for less than anyone would like this year), it's impossible to staunch the flow of presents.
Serious Christians have long complained about the commercialization of Christmas. And one hears some Jews grumble that Hanukkah has been perverted into a gift-giving extravaganza only because Jewish parents don't want their children to feel sorely neglected at Christmastime, not because it's an authentic part of the festival. Of course, before the rise of mass marketing in the 19th century, neither winter holiday featured more than modest exchanges of gifts. Santa Claus (at least as he is understood today) is of fairly recent vintage as well.
But exuberant gift giving is sewn into the national psyche now. Besides, the economy has come to depend upon it. Holiday shopping accounts for between 25 and 40 percent of annual sales for retailers.
The challenge for parents who don't want to spoil their children, it seems to me, is to inculcate gratitude. When kids get an opportunity to share with the less fortunate, they cannot help but be aware of their own good fortune even as they brighten someone else's day. We have taken wrapped new presents to a women's shelter — though to my disappointment, we were asked to remove the wrapping before the presents could be offered to the kids (a lamentable sign of the times perhaps). And while we weren't serenaded by angelic towheads — we didn't even get to see the recipients — we did accomplish the basic mission.
In fact, instilling gratitude should be a year-round activity. Even in the midst of economic hard times for many, we cannot lose sight of the incredible bounty this country has bestowed on all of us. While we shouldn't teach history as an exercise in chauvinism, we can and should nevertheless convey to every American child that one of the most precious gifts anyone can receive is to be born in the United States of America.
The sense of outrage among Democrats seems to arise from the genuine conviction that extending the current tax structure is both morally and politically wrong.
On the politics, it's hard to see how they reach this conclusion. Speaker Pelosi could have scheduled a vote on extending the Bush tax cuts before the election. That she declined is evidence that a significant number of Democrats feared that a vote to raise taxes on anyone — even just "the rich" — might not serve them well back home. Have the angry Democrats who are convinced that this compromise was political poison looked at polls? According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, 69 percent of Americans support the compromise package.
Democrats' rage at the rich blinds them to the true views of the American people. William Voegeli, writing in Commentary, took note of a 2010 ballot measure in liberal Washington State. The measure would have imposed an income tax only on individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $400,000 (about 1.2 percent of Washingtonians). Sixty-five percent of voters said no. Voegeli suggests that people of moderate incomes may reject the principle that "rich people should be forced to surrender some of their wealth, just because they are deemed to have too much," because it will eventually be used to "justify policies that force non-rich people to surrender some of their wealth, just because."
But there was another message that Democrats appear to have missed. It was delivered on Nov. 2, and could be called the Biggest Rejection of a Majority Party's policies in living memory. Voters were not unaware that Democrats wished to increase taxes on "the rich" — and yet they emphatically tossed them aside anyway. Are we dealing with a psychological problem here? Are Democrats projecting the anger they feel toward the ungrateful voters onto their own leader, who is only facing political reality?
As for the moral argument — that the undeserving rich should be separated from their obscene profits — well, it isn't moral at all. It isn't motivated by concern for the poor or even for the middle class, because increasing taxes on the rich only makes it less likely that lower-income people will be hired.
Nor can it be justified by reference to the inequity of the current system. Our tax code is so heavily progressive that the top 5 percent of income earners pay 60 percent of income taxes. The top 1 percent pay more than 40 percent of income taxes. In fact, the top 1 percent pay more than the bottom 95 percent combined. Our tax code is the most progressive among OECD nations. And it's worth repeating that the rich pay so much not just because they earn so much, but also because they pay a far larger percentage of what they earn.
Though it drives Democrats crazy, most Americans seem to have a visceral sense that people are entitled to success and that fairness amounts to ensuring equal opportunity, not equal results. And finally, a practical consideration: If removing the uncertainty about tax increases boosts the economy's recovery, the primary beneficiaries will not be the rich, but the currently unemployed — Sanders, Feinstein, Landrieu and the rest notwithstanding.
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