“Skin in the game…”

Written by: Mitchell Robinson

Primary Source : Keep Talking, November 11, 2015

Gov. Bobby Jindal, a participant in the Republican “undercard” debate last night, joined the list of conservative pundits in demanding that every person in the nation, regardless of their income or employment status, must be required to pay some taxes–“even $1!”–on the premise that everyone should have some “skin in the game.”

The term “skin in the game” refers to a person or group having incurred some level of monetary risk by being invested in a particular project or task. Some sources point to Warren Buffet as the originator of the term, while others attribute the term to Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, in which the money lender Shylock demands that Antonio wager a pound of his own flesh as collateral in the event that his friend defaults on the loan Shylock has provided. In any event, the term has decidedly unsavory connotations, and says as much about the user as it does about the target of the phrase.

Now, aside from the fact that every person already pays “some taxes,” in the form of Social Security, payroll taxes, sales taxes, etc., and that imposing additional tax burdens on the poor while simultaneously cutting taxes on the wealthy is a particularly Dickensian financial strategy that would raise no appreciable revenues, let’s also consider the analogy itself: “skin in the game.”

The issue of taxes is not a “game”–it’s how we raise the financial resources to pay for the necessary social services and infrastructures at the local, state and national levels that we depend on as citizens. Roads, bridges, police and fire departments, schools, hospitals–these are not pieces in some political game of Monopoly–each of these things represents real persons and institutions that contribute in important ways to the fabric of our society. To casually throw out this kind of analogy is not only ignorant, it’s offensive. And it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how our economy–and human decency–works. It also illustrates a callousness of thinking about the working poor, or the unemployed, that should give us pause as we consider the kind of person we want in elected office in this country.

Perhaps more to the point, exactly what risk is Mr. Jindal at by virtue of his decision to run for President? What “skin” does Mr. Jindal have in this game?

To date, the governor of Louisiana’s campaign has raised nearly $10 million, which puts him at the bottom of the list of Presidential contenders, but in the top 5% of Americans in terms of wealth. When added to Mr. Jindal’s previous personal net worth of between $4-11 million, the race for the Presidency has allowed the governor to roughly double his own wealth. In fact, with the advent of Citizens United, current campaign finance laws eliminate nearly all of the risk involved with running a political campaign, and have turned running for office into fund raising operations as much as candidacies for public service.

If Mr. Jindal and his friends are really serious about everyone having some “skin in the game,” here’s a suggestion: let’s require that any candidate for President who currently holds an elected office must resign from that position before declaring their candidacy. There’s not much risk involved in seeking a job while knowing that you already have a job to return to if unsuccessful, right Bobby? If we want these candidates to walk the walk they’ve been talking, then let’s remove their “soft place to land” by demanding candidates resign their office before running for President.

And while we’re at it, let’s establish a requirement that all funds raised by candidates’ campaigns through PACs, Super PACs, and any other fund raising groups affiliated with their campaigns must be donated to charity, after settling any legitimate campaign expenses. That would really weed out the candidates who are using the race for the White House as a way to build their “brand” (I’m looking at you, Mr. Trump and Dr. Carson) from those who are serious contenders for the office.

Perhaps then we’d see a real, substantive campaign for the Presidency–not a reality show masquerading as political theatre.

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Mitchell Robinson
Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education, and coordinator of the music student teaching program at Michigan State University. Robinson has held previous appointments as assistant professor and coordinator of the music education area at the University of Connecticut; assistant professor of school and community music education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.; and director of wind activities and wind ensemble conductor at the University of Rochester. Robinson’s public school teaching experience includes 10 years as an instrumental music teacher, music department facilitator and high school assistant principal in Fulton, N.Y.