Cook: Robin Hood goes to college

Cook: Robin Hood goes to college

August 29th, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Since taking office in January, Chuck Fleischmann, our city's representative in Congress, has sponsored only one bill.

Only one. And majestic it is not. The bill seeks to waive the requirement that existing traffic signs meet minimum retro-reflectivity standards.

Our representative has, however, had perfect attendance: Out of nearly 700 roll call votes, he has been present for every single one. In a country where the standard for good congressional behavior seems to mean you don't text pictures of yourself in your Fruit of the Looms, I guess we should be proud of Fleischmann.

I do, however, have an idea for the second bill he could sponsor. I call it the Robin Hood Goes to College Act, named after the merry prankster who stole from the uber-rich to give to the poor.

My hunch is that Fleischmann -- and maybe a few of you -- will want to retro-reflexively retch all over it.

Congress should pass a law that creates an income ceiling, a cap on how much an individual can earn each year.

The ceiling starts at $10 million.

Beyond that, the law would say, any additional annual income earned by any U.S. citizen would be collected and placed in a pool, a savings account that would be used for one reason and one reason only.

Tuition for college.

"You're probably going to take some criticism for that one," said Bento Lobo, First Tennessee Bank Distinguished Professor of Finance at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Lobo, an expert on issues such as the asymmetric impact of monetary policy on currency markets, laughed -- and then laughed again -- when I first told him the idea over the telephone, sort of like someone was in the background in his office telling him a joke. Then I realized it was my idea.

"How would that benefit people earning the money?" he asked, before outlining a list of reasons why the Robin Hood Act is retro-wrong.

The incentive to work would be removed, he said. The figure -- $10 million -- is arbitrary. "Why not $5 million or $15 million?" he asked.

There are other ways to rein in growing tuition costs -- student savings,

higher taxes, government spending increases.

Finally, the Big One: Who has the right to tell folks what to do with their money?

"As long as they're not evading taxes, I think it's their money to do with as they wish," Lobo said.

In 2009, more than 88,000 millionaires -- 4 percent of the population -- were living in Tennessee, reported the Memphis Business Journal, including our two U.S. senators: Bob Corker, whose wealth increased to $21 million last year, and Lamar Alexander, at $10 million.

That means 96 percent of us (thousandaires?) would theoretically benefit from this idea. It's not like we're opposed to taking money from people to fund college. In Georgia and Tennessee, the Hope scholarship helps students each year with college tuition and is entirely funded by lottery revenue.

The folks scratching the lotto tickets are often poor and getting poorer. It recently was reported that households earning under $13,000 a year spend nearly $700 -- or 9 percent of their income -- on lottery tickets.

"I think it's a great idea," said Christina Leiter, a freshman at UTC. "Ten million dollars is more than enough money to sustain themselves or their families. It's more money than some people make in a lifetime."

I spoke with Leiter -- and several other students -- on campus last week, where the average debt for graduates is $29,000.

"I see it as a scale. Why not try and make it more balanced?" she said. "There could be future Einsteins in the projects in New York City that can't afford school and some guy living on top of a mountain making millions of dollars because he invented the Snuggie."

I know, I know. It's crazy talk. Since the opening scene of our country's story, we've been throwing tea parties in opposition to big-handed government and unfair taxes. Often I agree, and if there were a harbor, I'd dump my tea, too.

But I also know plenty of folks -- firefighters, police officers, nurses, anyone who rides the bus or brings her own lunch to work -- who grind their fingers to the bone and will never see a million dollars. Or the floor of Congress.

If the scale Leiter mentioned is going to be unbalanced, why can't it tip in the favor of common, picket-fence people and not Snuggie inventors?

I'll admit. The notion is Looney Tunes, and I apologize for upsetting some of you. I shouldn't have mentioned it so early in the column, like the first bite of a sandwich that's gone bad.

It really is outrageous, isn't it? Imagine: Being elected to Congress and only sponsoring one bill!

David Cook can be reached at