Letters | Basic income, human nature, etc.



Thank you for George Scialabba’s article, “The Free Banquet” (May 5, 2017). At the end of the article he asks “would there be enough money” to fund a universal income? He then mentions a variety of funding options but he leaves out a tax on wealth. Thomas Picketty, the author of Capital and others have suggested such a wealth tax and they have quantified the amount of personal net worth (PNW) by percentile in the World Wealth and Income Database (WID) to understand wealth distribution. It turns out that a household PNW of $5 million and above puts a person in the wealthiest 1 percent in the United States. Using WID data I estimate the wealth of the 1 percent is about $27 trillion in 2017 and growing, after the payment of all taxes and the expenditure of all that the 1 percent spend, at the rate of about $1.5 trillion per year. I suggest in my online petition the “People’s Dividend” on the website Change.org that the U.S. government enact a wealth tax equal to that growth and distribute the $1.5 trillion as an annual universal income of $4,500 to every adult and child in the United States. This payment would be tax-free and additional to all other income and benefits.

The $4,500 would amount to only a partial universal basic income, because it is less than the poverty level. However, as the number of people in the family increases, it comes close. For a family of two adults and two children the payment would equal $18,000 a year which is about 75 percent of the poverty level for a family of four. Another $6,000  of annual income would raise the family above the poverty line. Eventually, perhaps in a decade or two, the wealth tax on the PNW of the 1 percent will become large enough to fund a complete universal basic income.

Taxing wealth is important, not only because it represents a potential new source of revenue, but because the amount of wealth owned by the top 1 percent represents the cumulative result of many economic and policy factors such as automation, globalization, trade agreements, tax laws, government budgets, and social programs. And taxing the PNW of the 1 percent is infinitely simpler than changing all those other factors. By using the tax on the 1 percent for a universal annual income payment, 99 percent of the voters would be financially better off, and that will make it easier to get a majority of voters to favor a universal income proposal. Finally, the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States is a problem in itself. It has destroyed people’s livelihoods, reversed rising expectations and led to desperate and destructive political choices. A wealth tax on the 1 percent funding universal income is a simple way to correct this.

Tom Clarkson
Vienna, Va.


Gary Gutting rightly lauds Roger Scruton’s On Human Nature for its “accessible response to materialism that many regard as unavoidable in light of recent science” (“More than Animals,” May 19). He notes as crucial Scruton’s philosophical definition of the person as “an emergent entity rooted in the [biological] human being but belonging to another order of exploration than that explored by biology.”

Now, lest both the author and the reviewer be accused of engaging in a merely metaphysical sophistry, I would note that “emergence” as a real phenomenon finds strong support in the work of Robert B. Laughlin, a Stanford-based Nobel-Prize-winning physicist. In A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down, Laughlin asserts that cosmic evolution itself occurs as newness arises in and through the principle of emergence, nature’s inbuilt ability to collectively organize otherwise chaotic properties into new emergent realities. These new realities somehow escape the pull of the very different fundamental laws from which they develop and, in themselves, remain literally unimaginable viewed from their previous non-collective phase of existence.

For example, at the most basic level of electromagnetic waves, particles would seem to be impossible or illusory just as, at the level of particles, the periodic table of atomic elements seems as likely as the tablets of the Ten Commandments. But, despite their unlikelihood, emergent realities are not illusions; they expand the boundaries of the real. Though at different phases of the continuum of reality, Laughlin affirms, different rules apply, at all levels of the evolutionary continuum, the whole is more than equal to the sum of its parts.

This “bottom down” perspective takes issue, then, with reductionist science that breaks down the world into smaller and smaller parts in order to gain predictive power over the laws of nature. Rather, by looking at the histories of “large systems,” Laughlin claims that only collective phenomena can account for the big picture with which reality presents us. So when particles emerge from waves of non-matter, they cross an invisible, qualitative threshold becoming new, collective existents. This explains how quantum waves composed of nothing collectively emerge as the building blocks or particles of something, i.e., matter. The resulting material state cannot be predicted from its non-material matrix because these nano-particles then defy the laws of location and motion, interacting randomly and probabilistically, unchained, chaotic, and barely measurable. But collectively these particles emerge as atoms, the stuff of all stable and reproducible Newtonian phenomena.

It strikes this reader that Scruton’s interpersonal world emerges as self-awareness continues to cross Laughlin’s “invisible, qualitative threshold” beyond mere neural activity. Certainly Gutting’s appreciation of the scope of On Human Nature might suggest that metaphysics and physics might once again enter into some fruitful dialogue.

Paul E. Dinter
Ossining, N.Y.


A candidate for the best editorial of the year appeared in the June 2 issue. You provide a photo of dark-suited Cardinal Cupich offering a rosary to a homeless man dressed in a red winter vest and, two pages later, a photo of Cardinal Burke in his red outfit including a twenty-five-foot watered silk train flowing down from his shoulders. What would Jesus think? Pope Francis has offered clues.

Edward Vacek, SJ
Loyola University 
New Orleans, La.


Thank you for the March 10 issue! It is refreshing—and helpful— to see transgender issues discussed so thoughtfully (“The Church and Transgender Identity”). David Cloutier correctly identifies the social dimension of this issue as a conflict between existing preferences for a unified body-soul anthropology on the one hand and the fact of sex-gender incongruity among trans people like myself on the other. This conflict involves us in a lifelong struggle that we commonly try to repress or deny, even to run away from, but which in the long run proves inescapable. Ours is not a choice in any direct sense; all we can choose is whether or not to continue to dissemble as society would have us do, or to be authentic to our gendered souls, to choose our unchosen nature. We usually proceed with extreme caution, hesitating to make this choice, often for decades, out of deference to the human ecology in which we are embedded, should it come as a shock, even a scandal, to others. Yet in spite of the risk to every sort of social good and even to life itself, we feel compelled in good conscience to choose our true nature, to be before God who we were created to be. Male and female he created me. Many if not most of us believe at heart that we remain “deeply rooted in circumstances of birth such as those we recognize in intersex,” as Luke Timothy Johnson suggests.

Johnson also makes clear that gender is neither a moral nor a religious category, but biological and social. It would however be more accurate to say that sex is a biological category, and gender a psychological and social one rooted partly in the soul (or psyche) and partly in social constructions. That is why the kind of body-soul incongruity that we experience is a source of deep distress (dysphoria) that we desperately are seeking to heal by becoming whole in body and soul. Ignoring the gendered soul in this equation produces the current positivist academic dogma that gender is entirely socially constructed—the “gender theory” to which Popes Benedict and Francis have so rightly objected.

As for the body modifications that scandalize so many, few voices were raised in all the years that intersex infants were hormonally and surgically “fixed” to comply with a simple but mistaken sexual dichotomy. Yet the same treatments continue to be contested for those of us who seek with all our soul to unify body and soul. In a more compassionate society it might be possible to tolerate body-soul incongruence (as Native Americans do of those that are “two-spirit”), but as things stand, body-soul congruence is the path to social recognition. Finding that despite all our dodges and all the hours spent on the psychiatrist’s couch, our souls remain stubbornly gendered, is it so strange that we would want to tweak our bodies to obtain unity of body and soul, and with it social recognition? And to use that healed soul and social recognition together to serve the needs of others, contributing as whole persons to the social ecology, and to the body of Christ?

Amy Colbert
Seattle, Wash.

Published in the June 16, 2017 issue: 

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