What’s Yours is Mine :)


As an undergraduate student in a social work program, I had become accustomed to sharing ideas and conceptions about our society, its ills, their causes, and their remedies, with many of my liberal peers. Many of those beliefs were reinforced by our professors, including the virtue of wealth redistribution. What’s more American than paying taxes?

One day, our Social Welfare Policy professor decided to challenge us and our vehement convictions. Walking to the front of the class, he began writing a string of numbers: 99, 92, 87, 84, 76, 51, etc…

Turns out they were grades from our last test. When he turned to us and said we were going to have an experiment I knew I didn’t like where it was going. He then tallied up all of the points we had cumulatively scored on the test. Let’s call it 2400. He then posed the question to the class: How do you want to distribute these points among the class? I will accept whatever decision you make“.

After a moment of tittering among us, he continued. “There are 2400 points here, you could say, divide them evenly and make sure everyone gets a 76no one does really well, but no one fails either“. Or, we could decide to just take points from the top performers and award them to the lower scorers. Yet another option would be for everyone to contribute some of their points to a pool, and then assign them according to need. Finally, we also had the option of keeping things as is: we could just keep our original scores.

Instantly people began talking, and asking questions of him. “No, no” he said, “You all are a group, you decide what you want to do“.

It was a telling process that followed, as those who performed poorly on the test began talking about being fair, and suggested that those of us who did well should share some points, etc. Those of us who did well (myself included) objected. Why should we do worse on our test than we deserved? It wasn’t my fault others didn’t do well! Then the low scorers began cajoling us “what about your social work values?”, “don’t be greedy!

As one of the top performers on the test I was conflicted. For a while I had unquestionably believed that those who did better in society (financially) had an obligation to share that wealth to help others who were less fortunate. Now I was that rich person who didn’t want to give up my hard earned salary to support others! It was quite a difficult situation to be in, and really challenged my assumptions about the validity of wealth redistribution.

At the end of the day, I came to the conclusion, that the exercise wasn’t fair- it presupposed that my relative success on the test had in some way caused others to do worse. I strenuously rejected this notion. Perhaps I have been lucky to have generally performed at a higher academic level than some of my peers, but it certainly didn’t mean that I should have to sacrifice my success!  Some time later (since I thought about this for quite a long time), I realized that this example was closer to real life than I had wanted to admit.

In the same way that I did not believe that it was my fault that others did not do as well on the test, many in our society do not believe that it is their fault that others do not do as well economically. Why should they sacrifice their hard earned income just because others don’t do as well? I could point out that our society is full of historical inequity, male privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege, nepotism, and structural barriers that do in some way both contribute to the success of some and the failure of others. But, many do not see this connection- do not want to see it- or do see it and simply shrug it off. In the same way, I did not consider how privileges I have had in my  life (male status, excellent primary education, etc) might have inherently positioned me to perform better on the test than others- and so I really didn’t see why I should give up my points.

It is interesting in  retrospect to consider what I would do. Would I advocate for absolute communism in the class? Everyone gets equal points despite  unequal contributions? Would I push for a highly progressive tax system? Virtually no taxes on the “poor” and lots on the “rich”? Would I support a regressive tax system? Tax those at the bottom at relatively higher rates than myself? Would I fight to protect the status quo? Let the points lie where they may and to hell with the failing students?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but the experience does give me slight pause when I talk about wealth redistribution. Given all of the social factors that contribute to wealth inequity, surely some equalizer needs to be introduced- but where do you draw the line? Do you give food stamps to the poor- but only just enough so they don’t die? Do you seize the assets of the rich- and simply give them to the needy?

More than likely, we simply elect others year after year to struggle and fight over the answers so that we don’t have to.



9 Responses

  1. I think I would have shared if every single person got the same score. The thing is, in real life, the people who do well still get more, even though they pay taxes, so I think it’s different. But then again, you know my views on communism 😛

    I would support a tax system that taxes the rich heavily, and the poor not at all. I believe that everyone should have an equal standard of living; even if the poor don’t have luxuries, at least allow them to have a nice home, etc. But allow me to speculate: the rich will always be the rich, because along with their salaries come power, and along with their power comes the ability of tax evasion.

  2. Kevin, I found this article to be very fascinating. It shows a true example of how decisions that seem obvious are truely not so easy to make when you are in the top position. Real life scenarios, like this, imply that we can’t hastily point fingers at the rich to push their money over to make up for everyone else. I have never thought of it in this unique way. Your teacher seems pretty damn wise lol. Anyways, If i was in your class, my 2 cents would have been to let the lower graded students pick a representative from their group and debate against someone like you or another high scoring individual and debate your key points. Its hard to toss back a group decision, when the results are spread across the board. A middle ground would hopefully be reached… No one would be over thrilled, or over saddened. However, like you said, in the real world, we elect someone else to make these hard REAL LIFE decisions for us. Which ultimately decide REAL LIFE consequences in a real way. This is a reason why I have a hard time focusing on real life situations, I dont know which way to feel, and I dont want to upset one party,, and that will always happen. Theres two sides to the coin we flip. It really doesnt matter who flips the coin lol. The results always will upset someone.

  3. What a great exercise! It would really strike at what people find important, rather than trying to make things up. The closest thing I was involved in with that kind of exercise involved candy. :\

    Great blog…I shall read more!

  4. hi lizii- you are better than I! After working hard all semester for an “A” I wasn’t thrilled about my average dropping for no fault of my own.

    I agree with your tax ideas mostly. the poor should be taxed, but at a very low rate. in an ideal world though, we would have wage controls so that working individuals would not be “poor”

    Your speculation is borderline truth and borderline cynical. im trying to walk that fine line, and find hope in the cracks

    pat- buddy, good to have some thoughts from you here!
    Your idea about student reps is interesting, but brings up another issue- how do you choose the student rep? is it the most popular kid? can one student really best represent all of the students on one side of the issue?

    you mustn’t worry too much about hurting peoples feelings. someone will always be rubbed the wrong way, and i take the point of view, if someone is going to be rubbed the wrong way, let it be those who will suffer the least from the rubbing. I guess in “real life” that relates to relative financial security.

    plus if we don’t engage in dialouge or debate because we are unsure, we have not remained undecided, rather we choose to support the current way of doing things, the status quo. if 2 gentlemen are fighting and one is thoroughly beating up on the other, we can stand back and say we aren’t choosing a side, but really, since one is
    loosing and we don’t come to his aide, we have sided with the aggressor via our inaction.

    antiSWer- great to have you on this site, thanks for stopping by! The candy sounds interesting, although likely smaller stakes ^_^

    What did you get out of your exercise?

  5. The thing with equality of wealth distribution and food distribution etc, is that some people may not be on the high level you are at because there are many uncontrollable, extraneous factors or variables that play a significant part. It’s not about giving away hard earned money, it’s about making sure that everyone is at the same level. Once everyone has reached a somewhat equal level, once they are out of poverty etc, it will not only be beneficial to them but it’ll also be beneficial to the “rich.”
    If some miracle happened, and the world somehow managed to take every single person out of poverty, what else would we have to lose? The rich would be looked up to, because they helped the most after all, and they will then keep their hard earned money through which they did something good for everybody including themselves.
    This article was interesting. It makes me happy to know that there are people like your teacher out there in the world. It’s very hard to find someone so wise. And I’m really glad he taught you guys this. This is a really well learned lesson, it’s difficult and it really gets everyone thinking about the rights and wrongs of society. It’s not about earning the most, it’s not a competition, it’s about doing something to live in the perfect world we all want to live in. And we can’t just sit around and wait for other people to do things. We can’t sit around and wait for them to give money to the poor to reach that perfect world. It’s every single one of us that need to step forward.
    Sorry about the long comment! Haha. I get carried away 😄

  6. How are you Kevin? This is very interesting and I really enjoyed reading it…kudos to your professor for presenting the issue in a unique matter. Some of the comments remind of a situation when a homeless person approached me in Washington DC and asked for money for food. I didn’t have any on me, but instead offered him an apple and a granola bar I had left in my lunchbox. He turned and walked away without even so much as a “thanks, but no thanks.” Of course, he didn’t want the money for food, more likely drugs or alcohol (this isonly an assumption on my part). I think a true resolution would involve giving the poor better access to the food resource without the intermediary of money involved, which always provides the catalyst for corruption.

  7. Firerocket- thanks for a thoughtful response!

    I agree that there is an dual benefit not only for the “poor” in being uplifted, but for society in general (increased productivity, economic growth, civic engagement, etc)

    Tattered- good to see you back. I generally offer individuals experiencing homelessness food or good as opposed to cash, although sometimes I will give money. I have had your experience though, when the individual reveals the true reason for their request in asking for money, i.e. (not food)

    cash benefits should be the option of least resort. it is better to make non-stigmatizing resources available to individuals (i.e. universal health care, subsidized child care, etc)

  8. Kevin,
    I know I’m a bit late, but I was browsing through your blog and really enjoyed this entry. I certainly appreciate your professor’s attempt to draw a parallel between your classroom experience and our economic system and find myself sympathizing with your desire to keep your A. However, I think that there is an important distinction to be made with this comparison. Generally speaking, answers to tests are usually right or wrong, with very little ambiguity (i.e. 1+1=2). Compensation for work is on the other hand is not so black and white, but instead is completely value-laden. Thus the massive unequal distribution of wealth in this country is not based on the fact that an MBA works harder than an MSW or a surgeon works harder than a janitor; this is decided by those in power and we have been conditioned to believe it and worst of all, abide by it. We have been conditiond to believe that the CEO of a pharmaceutical company deserves to earn almost 500 times that of a school teacher in West Philadelphia, because they work harder (note the sarcasm here) than that school teacher. And this is why I feel the way I do about the big C word. It would remove the “He is worth more than you” notion in our society and it forces us to recognize that all individuals are necessary to our society’s functioning and all roles are arguably equally as important to society – whether it is performing open heart surgery or cleaning toilets. And now I’m stepping down from my soap box for the night… 🙂

  9. Thanks for the useful info. It is so interesting

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