An interview with writer Chidike Okeem on black conservatism—its heroes, principles, and misrepresentations.
A Christmas Carol … Reversed
When I was a college freshman, a program started whereby students who earned below a certain income would receive $1,000 in their tax returns to help them out with school. We students felt like we had won the lottery. It was wonderful to be “cared for” in this way. But, unfortunately, after I’d received this bonus once, I made a big mistake. I took a very good job, earned a decent amount of money and put it all toward my student loans.
After my sophomore year began, I filled out my tax form and toddled, rubbing hands together, to the IRS to collect my lottery money again. But I was told … I didn’t qualify! In fact, as an “independent contractor,” I ended up having to pay a large percentage of what I had earned in income tax, and received a very small return.
I muttered to myself: “I’ll show them. Next year I’ll earn a little less and fall short of the standard. That way I’ll win Obamabucks again.” (I was running low on malt liquor- and cigarette-funds) It’s not that I was being selfish. Maybe deciding not to earn much money was even a good Christian resolution. Isn’t it Christian to want less for yourself? In fact, if the taxman takes more when I make more and gives more if I make less, maybe he’s giving me an opportunity to learn the virtue of humility and to avoid the temptations of avarice and unwarranted ambition, right?
Wrong. After some thought I realized that there is a kind of “selfishness” that is or ought to be totally reconcilable to virtues such as industry and generosity. The fact that I thought “I hope I don’t earn so much again!” was not a sign of my humility. After all, I still would get the money that I needed if I didn’t work; it’s just that the money would not be earned by me. Hardworking “independent contractors” would earn it for me. No, I was only being tempted to commit the sin of sloth—which has a long, pathetic history of breeding apathy and amorality.
Now, lately I’ve heard a lot about raising taxes on those earning $200,000 or more per year. If you ask the average fellow student of mine about that, he will respond: “Meh. Pass me another malt liquor—and… could I bum a smoke?” We students have been through all this before, but we’ve been mostly on the receiving end. And most students won’t resist a tax that doesn’t threaten their activities. The mantra that you’ll hear from college students is: “Tax the people making more than we make!” (Okay, maybe it’s not fair to characterize students so simplistically, so I’ll tell you their nobler, underlying principles: “On principle, I’m in favor of anything that A: aids my nightly runs to Taco Bell and B: pleases my Political Science professor who specializes in African Economics—I need that C.”)
But when I got my bonus in return for working less, my gut reaction was to feel a little nervous. It was as if an ambivalent superior of mine (like the political science professor) were to suddenly give me a big wet kiss on the cheek and a $20 bill for my next Taco Bell run.
If I can get my education without doing anything myself, what do I have to do with myself? I don’t have to provide for myself at all, let alone become self-employed or a self-made man. The money I got without earning it had the effect of eating away at my conception of myself as a moral agent for whom life is full of effort, risk and endeavor. I was forgetting that what I do matters, and what I don’t do matters too.
Remember when the founder of Home Depot said that, had he not started his business years before certain tax increases, he never even would have tried to start his business at all? In today’s environment, even the young—to whom ambition is most natural and proper—look ahead to the post-graduation workforce with forethoughts akin to the Home Depot founder’s hindsight. While the business owner says, “Thank God I got going while the going was good,” the student says, “Thank God I’ve never gone anywhere at all, and thank God I never have to.”
If things keep going the way they are, I hope no one’s surprised when college students never leave the retreat of their childhood. I hope no one’s surprised when most would-be entrepreneurs opt to remain in the low-profile safety of mediocrity.
Interesting thought: Remember all those Dickens novels full of poor folks who envied the rich and rich folks who turned their noses up at the poor?
Well, nowadays, when I earn the least and therefore get the most in financial aid, I’m a “poor” person who turns his nose up at the rich. And when I earn the most and get the least financial aid, I’m inclined to regret the work I’ve done. I’m a wealthier person who has cause to envy the “poor.”
Funny isn’t it?
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