The first brave superannuation martyr has finally stepped forward. On 26 February 2019, as recounted by Guardian reporter Paul Karp, someone offered to lay down their life for their franking credits:
An attendee of Tim Wilson’s franking credit inquiry just offered to be euthanised, because clearly the logic of Labor’s policy is the elderly are ‘past their used-by-date’.
This is perhaps the most honest thing that’s been said in this whole debate. Or at least, the most revealing. It’s taken weeks of hearings and months of anguished boomers posing in front of water views, but we have finally named the existential horror draped around the throat of retiree tax policy.
The anxiety filling Tim Wilson MP’s hearing venues comes from somewhere far more desperate than the thought of going on the pension and having to shop at Aldi. We know from recent research published by the Grattan Institute that those working today generally will have enough to retire on. That’s not the point. Patiently laying out the underlying wealth of self-funded retirees who currently receive ‘refunds’ for franking credits likewise fails to connect.
But ‘Give Me Dividend Imputation or Give Me Death!’ gives the game away at last. The problem isn’t simply wealth. It’s what Heidegger (an unrepentant Nazi, just to get that out of the way) called our ‘fugitive knowledge.’ This is not about fear of running out of money. It’s about fear of admitting that you won’t.
Sell the shares and live off the capital? That means you’ve started the clock. You’re admitting you don’t need an infinite source of income, that you, in turn, are not infinite. That you’re going to die.
Wilson clearly thought he was harnessing the power of material self-interest to score a neat political point. Instead he finds himself as Blade Runner’s Tyrell, creator of the replicants, faced with a room full of agitated Roy Battys confronting the final, unsolvable problem: ‘I want more life, fucker’.
Everyone knows they’re going to die. But there’s knowing and knowing. Kierkegaard puts it this way: we all know that human beings in general die. But ‘for me, my dying is by no means something in general; for others, my dying is some such thing’. This somewhat elusive idea finds its best expression in the deathbed musings of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich:
The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: ‘Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,’ had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius—man in the abstract—was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. […] ‘Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.’
Those complaining about the loss of imputation dividends might well retort here that they know full well they will die—and their concern is precisely with what happens after they do. As reported in the Australian, John Gaul, 80, described Labor’s policy as a ‘death tax’ that would prevent him leaving anything to his children.
It’s passing strange that the same people insisting people should keep their money because they’ve earned it are also so keen to defend gifting money to people who didn’t earn it. Besides, the Grattan findings suggest most people leave a nest egg only slightly smaller than they retired with.
In any event, leaving money to your kids won’t stave off your own fear of death. Or rather, it can at best ameliorate only one fear of death. As long-transplanted Australian philosopher Mark Johnston put it in his book Surviving Death, there are at least two different ways we fear death. There’s the fear that there won’t be anyone left behind to raise my kids, continue my research, and feed my goldfish.
But there’s also a fear that there will be no further experiences to have, nothing it’s like to be me anymore. Kathy Behrendt has argued for a third fear too, a sort of fear-of-nonexistence-as-such. Borrowing from Philip Larkin’s Aubade, she calls this ‘A special way of being afraid’. ‘The mind,’ says Larkin, ‘blanks at the glare.’
In the face of that sort of fear, passing on wealth will do nothing. You can’t take it with you, but leaving it behind isn’t much help either.
Kierkegaard—whose life was uncommonly lacerated by deaths before his own passing at the age of just 42—held that the thought of dying should, paradoxically, teach us how to live. The ‘uncertainty of death inspects every moment,’ an uncertainty that is the ‘schoolmaster of seriousness’.
Mr. Gaul, if you’re reading this (he’s not): I hope you make 100, but statistically, I’m sorry to say, you probably won’t. Sell the shares. Take a cruise. Catch a show on Broadway. Pop into Christie’s this June and buy your kids one of David Gilmour from Pink Floyd’s guitars. Go have some fun.
Because you’re Caius too, friend.
Patrick Stokes is associate professor of philosophy at Deakin University and a Melbourne-based writer and comedian.