A crowdfunding campaign to buy a toaster for Duncan Storrar – the Melbourne father-of-two who lit up the ABC’s Q&A on Monday night with his questions on why the budget had no tax breaks for people on the minimum wage – has now raised more than $23,000.
More than 1000 people have contributed to the fund, which started with a goal of $6000 because one of Storrar’s questions was met with now-infamous comments from assistant treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer about a cafe where the owner wanted to buy a toaster worth that amount.
Storrar has a tough life, it has emerged. He suffers post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from sexual abuse in his youth. He lives with his mother, and is separated from his wife who lives with their two children in a housing commission. He makes $16 an hour driving trucks part-time.
The Australian reported today that Storrar pays no net tax; the benefits he receives are more than whatever taxes he pays.
The runaway success of the crowdfunding campaign is a stunning proof of a confronting truth in economics about people’s attitudes to taxes and the social safety net they provide for millions of people in Australia. It was powerfully outlined by Thomas Schelling in his 1984 book Choice and Consequence:
There is a distinction between an individual life and a statistical life. Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without sales tax […] hospital facilities […] will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths — not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks. John Donne was partly right, the bell tolls for thee, usually […] but most of us get used to the noise and go on about our business.
Schelling, who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2005, makes the powerful point that, for all the taxes being paid by working people in advanced nations, their benefits are largely invisible in daily life. When someone like Duncan Storrar comes along, his story makes people wonder what is wrong with the system.
In fact the system is delivering real benefits to the quality of life of people on the margins on a daily basis: supporting people on the margins, treating the sick and elderly, providing education.
For those celebrating the headline-grabbing, people-power impact of the campaign to raise a large direct payment to Storrar, this should be cause to consider, carefully, the extended logic of the crowdfunding campaign. Its implicit message is that people on the margins are deserving of thousands more dollars in benefits. If so, then fine, but there will be a significant financial cost — through taxes — associated with making it happen. Would they be willing to pay?
Or, to borrow from Schelling, will they go back to being used to the noise, and go on about their business?
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