From each according to his ability,

To each according to his need.

– Karl Marx

A recent New York Times poll reports that belief in the “American Dream” has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years, lower today than even during the depths of the Great Recession that ended in 2009. Despite the headlines, this result does not mean that the dream is over. Defined as belief that it is possible to start out poor, work hard and become rich in this country, the dream is still affirmed by 64 percent of U.S. citizens.

In what, at least to those reporting the poll results, seemed to be a more surprising finding, far more people believe that “over-regulation that may interfere with economic growth” is a greater problem (54 percent said “yes” here) than “too little regulation that may create an unequal distribution of wealth” (only 38 percent said “yes” here). In short, more Americans seem to have confidence in the first part of what might be called Marx’s “Communist Dream” – I can get it if I really want – than in the second part, the distribution part, the part about giving to each according to need.

This is hardly surprising because the “getting from ability” part is relatively easy to understand – I work and get paid for it. It’s the distribution part that’s harder to understand. Consider the following three facts for the period from 1970 and 2013 in Maine:

 Total earnings for all workers increased by 13 times;

 Total retirement and disability benefits increased by a factor of 23 times; and

 Total medical benefits increased by 107 times.

Compared to the relatively easily understood concept of “I get paid for the work I do,” this list is a bit of a head scratcher. How can retirement and disability benefits and medical benefits go up so much more than earnings? For retirement, there are the earnings on the set-aside. Employers and employees pay into the Social Security system and the government lends that money and earns interest for as long as the individuals working and contributing continue to do so. Thus the money paid out reflects the earnings on this “saving” rather than a simple redistribution of later-year earnings paid in by younger workers.

But what about those medical benefits? How can they increase 81/2 times as much as total earnings? Simple, because medical costs have risen at a rate vastly higher than the rate of earnings growth and because our government is borrowing to pay those costs.

In 1970, the cost of our redistribution system in Maine – our version of “to each according to his need” – amounted to $831 per worker, or just over 13 percent of the average pay of $6,300 per worker. Of this, about $120 per worker was accounted for by medical benefits.

In 2013, the cost of our redistribution system amounted to $15,580 per worker, just over 35 percent of the average annual earnings of $44,000. And of this $15,580 redistributive cost, $7,200 (or nearly half) went to medical benefits.

To my mind, this fiscal prestidigitation goes a long way toward explaining the “surprising” New York Times poll results. People get the “put in the work, get the earnings” relationship. They may not like the results, but they generally understand them. But they don’t “get” the distribution part. Health care billing and payment is a mysterious process understood only by a mysterious priesthood, a fact underscored by last week’s joyous grilling of the hapless Jonathan Gruber. No one actually understands how the system works, so it felt especially good to pillory him for daring to call us stupid. Like Huck Finn’s encounter with the King and the Duke, this episode highlights another side of the American Dream – our urge to tar and feather those we feel somehow are exploiting our stupidity to defraud us.

And this fear is the reason people in this country will always choose harder work over more regulation. It is also the reason those who see the need for more, or even the same, redistribution programs must make them far less complicated and say up front exactly what they are rather than proffer ever more obtuse explanations.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]