Spread the Wealth

by John Holbo on October 24, 2008

First, credit where due. Ross Douthat made a couple of wholly sensible posts about that ‘spread the wealth’ business. For example:

Is opposition to wealth-spreading in principle really now a litmus test for being a conservative? I thought that being on the right meant that you wanted a welfare state that’s small in size and limited in scope – that’s what I signed up for, at least – and the most just and reasonable way to shrink and/or restrain the American welfare state that I can see is to make it more redistributive, rather than less so. To quote William Voegeli quoting Paul Pierson in a fine essay on the dilemmas of small government conservatism: “If conservatives could design their ideal welfare state, it would consist of nothing but means-tested programs.” In other words, a conservative welfare state would eliminate our current network of universal entitlement programs, and replace them with cheaper, means-tested programs that, well, spread the wealth – that spend your tax dollars to provide temporary assistance to the unemployed, underwrite health care costs for the aged and very poor, set an income floor underneath American seniors, and so forth, rather than taking money from the middle class with one hand and giving it back to them with the other.

Whereas if conservatives back themselves into a corner where they’re denouncing any kind of redistributionism as pure socialism, they’re undercutting their ability to push for this vision of a more means-tested welfare state – because that push, if it ever has any chance of succeeding politically, will have to rely on explicitly redistributionist arguments to succeed.

But then he followed up by linking to Jonah Goldberg’s response to his argument, and labeling it ‘thoughtful’. Let’s look and see.

I think what Ross isn’t hearing in Obama, and isn’t getting in conservative opposition to his spread the wealth line, is the belief that spreading the wealth in and of itself is a good idea. My understanding of the new crusade for more activist government from folks like Ross, Reihan, Frum, Brooks, Yuval, Ramesh et al, was that it was good public policy (and politics) to help certain people for a wide array of reasons. Specific interventions are necessary for specific purposes: improving healthcare, helping families, etc. The fact that some wealth gets spread around is a necessary consequence of these actions, but not a good in and of itself. For example, when congressmen support an unnecessary defense program for the dollars it brings to their district, that’s not good public policy right? That’s just pork, or “spreading the wealth around.” If, however, a happy byproduct of supporting necessary programs is that they create jobs back home, well, all the better. Similarly, if you believe that spreading the wealth around is the point of public policy, you are getting very close to a socialist worldview.

Indeed, Barack Obama made it sound like he thinks spreading the wealth isn’t the consequence of good public policy but it is in fact the chief aim of public policy. That was even more clear, I think, when he told Charlie Gibson that he would consider raising capital gains taxes for “purposes of fairness” whether or not they increased revenues. In other words, spreading the wealth is the public policy aim, not the regrettable byproduct of it.

Before I get into it, let me just note the telling tone at the end. Goldberg himself regards ‘spreading the wealth’ – that is, rough economic equality – as, per se, neither positive nor even neutral but a ‘regrettable’ arrangement. That is, if you have two societies and you know nothing more about them than that in one the rich are not so much better off than the poor, whereas in another the rich are hugely better off than the poor, you would default to the position that there was probably something ‘regrettable’ about the former arrangement. I call that nuts. I’ll return to this point.

Now, to the crux of the argument. The problem with Barack Obama’s ‘spread the wealth’ idea is that, unlike conservatives, he isn’t concerned to do it to ‘help families’, ‘improve healthcare’ – anything like that. He isn’t proposing this because he thinks doing so might actually improve the health of the economy overall, and thereby grow the whole pie. He’s doing it out of pure Harrison Bergeron style hyper-egalitarianism. Goldberg’s way of putting this in his column is as follows:

Obama’s “America’s promise,” meanwhile, harkens back a century to the writings of such progressives as Herbert Croly (author of The Promise of American Life), who demonized individualism while sanctifying collective action overseen by the state. Obama often articulates a vision of government inspired by the biblical injunction to be our brother’s keeper. Few would dispute the moral message, but many disagree that such religious imperatives are best translated into tax or economic policy. (Where are the separation-of-church-and-state fetishists when you need them?) But individualists haven’t had much of a voice in McCain, at least not until last week.

Again, I’ll start by noting an incidental incoherence. If individualism is the way to go, where is the self-evident rightness in the biblical injunction to be our brother’s keeper? See also: F. Hayek, “Why I Am Not A Conservative”. Goldberg always has trouble with this one.

But here’s the main problem. It is obviously false that Obama ‘demonizes individualism’. I’ve read quite a bit of Croly and heard a lot of Obama speeches and they don’t sound like each other at all. They don’t have similar political philosophies. If you listen to Obama and hear Croly all that proves is that you need to get your hearing checked. Or your head checked.

Jake Tapper has a transcript of the whole exchange with Joe the Plumber, in case you haven’t read it yet. Please note two features: the conspicuous lack of anything that sounds anything like Croly. And, perhaps relatedly, the conspicious lack of anything against which Goldberg has an argument, even a bad argument; except that he doesn’t like the conclusion that it would be a good idea to raise taxes on the wealhy.

So, why does Goldberg think Obama sounds like Croly? Goldberg knows he needs arguments against Obama, but he’s only got arguments against Croly. This is another example of what I was talking about a couple weeks ago: “There are no serious objections – not even bad ones, so far as I can tell – to the general policy directions Obama favors. There is a complete lack of engagement with anything remotely resembling what Democrats might actually want, or propose, or enact.”

What might Goldberg reply? He would probably point to that Charlie Gibson interview, in which – to stretch a point – you might think Obama said that he would be in favor of cutting capital gains taxes even if doing so would, perversely, cut revenues. That is, he would favor a smaller pie, so long as it was a more equal one. Now the first thing to say about this is that, in truly extreme cases, that’s actually the ‘fair’ thing to do. And ‘fairness’ does get weighed in the balance, among other things. (Who thinks otherwise?) But, more to the point: no serious person seriously believes that lowering capital gains tax reliably raises revenue in the long term, overall, even though lowering a rate will predictably produce a short revenue burst. So the fact that Obama did a little dance around Gibson’s question, to avoid getting awkwardly pinned by a false view of rate-change effects, is hardly evidence that he wants to institute Harrison Bergeronism.

Goldberg might also say that he doesn’t think that inequality is, per se, better, merely that he thinks redistribution to produce equality is, per se, regrettable. But this is more or less a non-starter because it has to presume we are starting from some sort of natural distribution. The way we are now, in 2008, is the way things are ‘distributed’. Any change of policy that will produce a systematic change in the overall landscape would then be redistribution of wealth, ergo a bad thing. For obvious reasons, a one-size-fits-all argument against making changes that will, predictably, alter the overall contours of any given social, economic landscape, is too strong for it’s own good. (It’s a bit more complicated, yeah. But basically it comes down to that.)

No one wants re-distribution and nothing else. No one wants redistribution as an end in itself. Taxing Joe the Plumber is no one’s idea of a good time, apart from any worthwhile social good that might result from doing so. No one wants perfect equality and nothing else. Some people desire a bit more equality, if it can be procured without severe costs to freedom and to the size of the overall pie. But there is nothing wrong with this; nothing wrong with having moderate preferences for certain overall patterns of distribution on grounds of ‘fairness’. There is nothing distinctively liberal about it. It’s just the American way. Progressive taxation has been with us since the Civil War. (Indeed, the last time the US government was funded by a non-progressive tax base that didn’t consist entirely of tariffs on imports, it was supported by taxes on “distilled spirits, carriages, refined sugar, tobacco and snuff, property sold at auction, corporate bonds, and slaves.” Isn’t that interesting?)

Liberal preferences concerning equality are quite moderate, in addition to being but one factor among many. Liberals are tolerant of a good deal of inequality, but, if asked to pick between rough equality and gross inequality they will – other things being equal – prefer a bit more social and economic equality, thank you very much. Furthermore, when you have good reason to believe, as we do, that economic policies favoring a bit more equality are more likely to grow the pie than shrink it, there’s really nothing weighing on the other balance, unless you actually think that severe inequality is a good in itself. And that’s why I think Goldberg puts his foot in that one. No one seriously thinks it would be worthwhile to pursue gross inequality as an end in itself, even at the cost of shrinking the overall economic pie, but I think Goldberg has been backed into a position where nothing less than a stand on this surely indefensible – hardly conservative – ground will allow him to hold his ground against Obama’s basic philosophy and stock arguments. His other option is to persist in pretending that Obama sounds like Herbert Croly.

To sum up: As Goldberg goes, so goes the Corner (and the vast majority of conservative pundits.) Per Douthat’s post, current arguments against Obama tend to be 1) incompatible with the expression of anything like genuine conservatism. To this I have added that they are 2) incompatible with the recognition of what liberalism is. To put it another way, Jay Nordlinger could hardly be more wrong:

I believe it was John Podhoretz who once said, “All conservatives are bilingual — we have to be. We speak both liberal and conservative. But liberals are monolingual — they don’t have to be anything else. They speak liberal, and are completely ignorant of the conservative tongue.”

It would seem, to the contrary, that conservatives are presently non-lingual, by and large. They currently speak neither the language of liberalism nor the language of conservatism. Liberals, on the other hand, speak both tongues to the satisfaction of broad swathes of the electorate (see also: the latest polls).

That’s enough triumphalist concern-trolling from me for now.

{ 119 comments }

1

a 10.24.08 at 5:19 am

“No one wants re-distribution and nothing else.”

I do. I don’t want *perfect* re-distribution, but the inequalities of wealth in the U.S. have become so egregious that it is simply necessary to take something from the rich and give it to the poor. For the souls of the rich as well as the wallets of the poor.

2

john holbo 10.24.08 at 5:33 am

I don’t think you really do want re-distribution and nothing else. That is, you don’t won’t re-distribution independent of the good it would do – leaving aside the souls of the rich, which I’m generally inclined to think aren’t serious policy concerns, to the wallets of the poor, which I think are relevant concerns. Suppose, for some reason, redistribution would not address the problems that you see. Would you still want it, in itself? (I know, it’s a bit hard to imagine these things coming apart. But that’s what I mean when I say: no one wants redistribution in itself.)

3

Charles S 10.24.08 at 6:05 am

Redistribution without benefit simply requires that the harm done by the redistribution equal the benefit, so if taxing rich people X amount in aggregate and giving it to poor people causes poor people’s incomes to drop by X amount in aggregate, then you have only redistribution, without any other benefits. The national GINI score goes down, but no one is better off. If we nationalized Ford Motor company by allowing poor people to strip Ford’s factories and offices for scrap metal, it would be redistributive, but the gain would be overwhelmed by the loss, but it would be redistributive.

Where inequality is large enough, unproductive redistribution is tempting (because inequality is in-and-of-itself harmful to the fabric of society), but probably not really worth it (since unproductive redistribution is also harmful to the fabric of society).

The land reform program in Zimbabwe seems like an example of unproductive redistribution.

4

Bruce Baugh 10.24.08 at 6:20 am

When I was growing up, conservatives ridiculed liberals for believing that they could help the poor and needy via policy without first looking to change poor and needy people’s outlooks. Now it’s conservatives’ turn. I simply don’t have any time for people like Ross and their drifty floaty visions of policies until they come to terms that their party is the home of choice for crooks, perverts, and scumbags with self-aggrandizing ambitions. The Republican Party is in trouble with its bad policies because it’s run by bad people, and until there is a systematic, coordinated effort by Republicans who’d like to be better people with better policies to purge the bad guys, this is all just mental masturbation.

5

Michael Turner 10.24.08 at 6:31 am

Hi, this is Joe the Plumber. I read this whole thing, and also the transcript of what Obama said to me that day, and jeez do I have a headache now. It’s all so complicated. I can hardly remember anything more than that “spread the wealth” part, which I already knew.

Still, one more thing jumped out at me, as I looked over the transcript. I can’t believe I missed it that day. I can’t believe the McCain campaign is still missing it. Here it is:

Obama: “… I do believe for folks like me who have worked hard, but frankly also been lucky, I don’t mind paying just a little bit more than the waitress that I just met over there who’s things are slow and she can barely make the rent.”

Whoa. Think about that. Obama’s been lucky. So he’s used to getting lucky. He’s just met this waitress. She’s have trouble making rent. Obviously: he was about to get lucky with that waitress.

If I were McCain, I’d be push-polling on this one all over Pennsylvania.

6

Chris Bertram 10.24.08 at 7:42 am

I realize that we have issues of general principle mixed in here with US electioneering rhetoric, which is never a good combination, but I’d seriously disagree with the characterization of Douthat’s posts as “perfectly sensible”, especially as regards the contrast between means-tested benefits and universal entitlements.

7

Chris Bertram 10.24.08 at 7:47 am

And another thing, I’m busy teaching Parfit on equality and priority (and egalitarian responses thereto) this week. Not sure I can be as confident as you are about what “no one wants”, nor about grounds on which they might or might not want it.

8

John Holbo 10.24.08 at 7:54 am

Chris, I should have been clearer about Douthat. I regard his philosophy as sensible in the following sense: I think it’s coherent and, if you asked me to construct a philosophy of ‘conservatism’ along these lines, I could do so. It would express values that many people actually have, although I don’t share all of them myself.

I love Parfit but I haven’t read those bits for a long time. Remind me about what Parfit would say about my post. As to what ‘no one wants’, I’m pretty sure of this much: Obama is no Derek Parfit, and I doubt that many democrats are either. (Can you imagine what the Republican talking points would be against a Parfitian democrat. ‘My opponent wants to divide you like an amoeba! But I promise to be a unifier, not a divider!’ Something like that.)

9

Dan 10.24.08 at 8:20 am

My first response when I read “No one wants re-distribution and nothing else. No one wants redistribution as an end in itself.” was to ask, have you actually read any academic political philosophy recently?

10

tatere 10.24.08 at 8:38 am

No one seriously thinks it would be worthwhile to pursue gross inequality as an end in itself, even at the cost of shrinking the overall economic pie…

If by “an end in itself” you mean with no regard to who ends up on which end of the inequality – just inequality for the sake of inequality, the kind of very abstract goal you describe in #2 – I imagine that’s true.

But it sure seems to me that the aim of Republican policies for a while now has been to pursue gross inequality for the benefit of certain people, very much as an end in itself, and pie be damned. Everything else is subordinate to “First thing, give us all the money.” So it doesn’t surprise me that anybody, from any political direction, who looks to interfere with that project is going to give them hives. Or that, rather than just come right out and say “It’s our damn money now and you can’t have any”, they put out a flurry of spurious and incoherent rationalizations.

11

Bruce Baugh 10.24.08 at 9:07 am

The other thing that I find hard to get worked up about is this: Is there in fact any reason to believe that, in practice, means testing produces greater efficiency overall? I say this as someone who went through the SSI mill, which is ghastly inefficient and immoral to boot, with criteria defined and administered in ways that make various kinds of cheating all but necessary to qualify and which subject applicants and recipients to a bunch of really humiliating, degrading hassle. My impression is that what Republicans push for in the name of means testing promotes frugality, prudent caution, and the like much the way their enthusiasm for banning abortion reduces the number of abortions – that is, it doesn’t. It just lets them feel superior and mean.

12

Robert the Red 10.24.08 at 10:02 am

From Goldberg: Specific interventions are necessary for specific purposes: improving healthcare, helping families, etc.

Isn’t this directly spreading the wealth? That is, these things are goods and services, which is what wealth is for.

13

Zamfir 10.24.08 at 10:26 am

Bruce Baugh, your poitns about means testing working out not to well in practice are absolutely true, and there is another snatch, even when the test procedure works perfectly: strict means-testing produces high effective marginal tax rates for people leaving them, as getting a better job etc will cost you dearly in losing benefits.

European welfare states look especially large on paper because they do what Douthat fears, namely taking money from middle classes and then giving it back to them, to smooth the transition from benefit-dependent to standing on your own feet. That has more to do with sensible tax policy than with evil statism.

Douthat ‘ideal conservative welfare program’ would be economically disastrous, especially for the people in it.

14

Lex 10.24.08 at 10:33 am

The imponderable balance between economics and morality at work… A single, non-means-tested, basic citizen income would, of course, be by far the cheapest form of welfare state to administer, saving untold billions in office costs, and would eliminate any problems over marginal rates, etc. Combined with a radical simplification of the tax-code it could even be revenue-neutral. But it would involve paying the same amount of money to rich 18-yr-old jerks as to poor single mothers, and would allow people who so chose to bum around and smoke crack instead of working.

Of course, a whole bunch of people bum around and smoke crack already, and not much seems to be able to stop them, but I’m fairly confident the crack-smoking-bum argument would be morally effective in killing such an economically-rational program stone dead.

15

Martin Wisse 10.24.08 at 10:41 am

I certainly want redistribution as its own end. A society that is more equal is a better society.

It’s never a good idea to take conservative ideas too seriously, they all turn out in the end to be “I Got Mine”, but Goldberg is more right than Doucehat in this disucssion. Conservatives have never signed up to a ” welfare state that’s small in size and limited in scope” as opposed to no welfare state; it’s just that no welfare state at all is not (yet) an option.

16

Stuart 10.24.08 at 11:12 am

I certainly want redistribution as its own end. A society that is more equal is a better society.

Doesn’t that mean you want redistribution because it would lead to a better society, not as its own end?

17

John Holbo 10.24.08 at 11:15 am

“I certainly want redistribution as its own end. A society that is more equal is a better society.”

Just to clarify: I actually meant to distinguish redistribution, as an end in itself, and equality as an end in itself. Take two situations. Bill has $10 and Sally has $10. Or, alternatively, Bill has $15 and Sally has $5 and the government steps in and taxes Bill $5 and hands it to Sally. No one would, I take it, think that the fact that the government stepped in was an extra good thing. That is, they wouldn’t prefer the second arrangement to the first, on grounds of the extra satisfactory way it was achieved.

And to clarify the equality point. I think almost everyone values equality somewhat – perhaps quite considerably. But no one, or very few, regard equality as an exclusive value, or a trump over all other values. That is, people don’t read “Harrison Bergeron” and think that whole system sounds rather wonderful and ethically perfect. Equality that destroys all other values is not a good thing. Rather, equality is a value to be balanced against other values in some more sensible way.

My point is that Goldberg’s complaint only really makes sense on the assumption that Obama takes one of these bizarre, extreme views.

18

Lex 10.24.08 at 11:42 am

@15: a society where no one lives above subsistence level is very equal, but is it good for anyone, when a little more inequality might make everyone better off? Your argument is very dumb, really, not to mention historically ignorant. The Industrial Revolution was crap for a lot of workers, and no doubt they should have had a bigger slice of the pie, but as the pie grew, they got [eventually] mains sewerage, public education, vaccination, and ultimately longer life-spans for all. Perhaps this would have happened by magic in a scenario where no one got rich. But I doubt it.

But then perhaps you are only talking about waltzing in and redistributing the wealth after someone else has gone to the trouble of generating it? It’s thinking like that that gives socia1ism a bad name…

19

Robert Cressionnie 10.24.08 at 11:50 am

The one aspect being overlooked is that neither Obama nor McCain is promoting anything new. Redistribution scams have been in place for many years. Much of the inequality of wealth that exists in this nation and around the world is as much a result of failed policy and government regulated advantage as any other reason. One can discuss and debate economic inequality from now to infinity but the bottom line is the question of whether it’s right or wrong for bureaucrats or anyone for that matter to seize the possessions of one in order to give it to another?

20

bjk 10.24.08 at 11:58 am

Douthat must be the conservative most often approvingly cited on liberal blogs. I couldn’t tell you why. As part of the femalification of conservatism, he seems to think that conservative principles apply between coitus and conception, and are negotiatiable otherwise.

21

Slocum 10.24.08 at 12:10 pm

But there is a big philosophical difference between the wealth spreading that is inherent in a safety net and the wealth spreading that involves redistributing income among people in income brackets far above safety net levels. Would you support a system that spread wealth from the Warren Buffet to the upper-middle class with the goal of reducing the difference between the 99.99999th and 75th percentiles?

Practically, though, I think this is all going to be work out in unexpected ways. Obama’s stated plan is to increase taxes only on the super-sized incomes of the top few percent. But I think there will be ‘good news’ for all fans of income equality here, since I’m pretty sure that the top few percent (those hedge fund managers, Wall Street titans, and tech billionaires) are not going to be earning nearly as much in the next few years as they have been in the 90’s and 00’s. So if all you wanted was reduced inequality, you should be happy about the economic downturn, but I don’t think the plans to pay for all kinds of new programs by jacking up taxes on these few golden geese are going to work out as expected.

22

bjk 10.24.08 at 12:23 pm

The argument for lower marginal rates is that the wealthy, because they save more of their income, create more wealth for everybody. The libertarian argument that their is a right to keep what you earn is bogus. Obama has criticized trickle down economics, but the fact is that since the Reagan tax reform of 1986, the tax burden has shifted up the income scale quite markedly.

About.com, not known as partisan hacks, have the facts.

Tax Burden of the Wealthy

The top 5% pay 60% of federal income taxes, and the top 50% pay 97%. How is that not a great triumph of trickle down economics?

23

engels 10.24.08 at 12:31 pm

whether it’s right or wrong for bureaucrats or anyone for that matter to seize the possessions of one in order to give it to another

Since the police ‘seize the possessions of one in order to give it to another’ every day–if you don’t believe me, try hotwiring and possessing a new car for a few hours and see what happens–I’d have thought the answer to this was a relatively uncontroversial: “it’s okay!”

24

Lex 10.24.08 at 12:38 pm

Not so much the meaning of ‘is’ as the meaning of ‘have’…

25

Chris Bertram 10.24.08 at 1:13 pm

#8 As to what ‘no one wants’, I’m pretty sure of this much: Obama is no Derek Parfit, and I doubt that many democrats are either. (Can you imagine what the Republican talking points would be against a Parfitian democrat. ‘My opponent wants to divide you like an amoeba! But I promise to be a unifier, not a divider!’ Something like that.)

Actually I wouldn’t be all that surprised if Obama _is_ a prioritarian (rather than an egalitarian) and I wouldn’t even be surprised if he had become one after reading Parfit! My thought here was that insofar as there are telic egalitarians, of the kind Parfit opposes, then there are people who think that equal distributions are in some way better than unequal ones, even where no-one is better off and some are worse off as a result.

When you wrote

_No one wants redistribution as an end in itself. _

you were neglecting those people.

26

Barry 10.24.08 at 1:18 pm

bjk:

“Obama has criticized trickle down economics, but the fact is that since the Reagan tax reform of 1986, the tax burden has shifted up the income scale quite markedly.”

Because the share of income going to the top few percent has increased quite markedly.

Amazing that right-wing economists have all flunked algebra.

27

bjk 10.24.08 at 1:43 pm

No kidding. It’s not the case, however, that that wealth would have otherwise gone to the middle class and poor. That is the lump of wealth fallacy. The wealthy creating wealth, and paying more in taxes, is a good thing. The choice is not between redistribution and inequality but between a smaller pie and inequality.

28

MarkUp 10.24.08 at 1:45 pm

#19-”One can discuss and debate economic inequality from now to infinity but the bottom line is the question of whether it’s right or wrong for bureaucrats or anyone for that matter to seize the possessions of one in order to give it to another?”

Oh, oh, can we make that retroactive? Did the receipt Jefferson got from the French come with paper proof of rightful ownership [by the folks already living there]?

As an aside, I drew up a deed for the Great Dismal Swamp, [and all lands there abouts, and within 3 days foot travel from Elizabeth City, and to the head of any and all waters encountered therein] after talking to a few locals, in particular Mr. Lenny Lenape, who said it was ok so long as they could continue to live there and fish and what not. Of course once you pay me 100 lbs of gold and it’s yours well…. so long as you don’t go getting all socialist and redistributing wealth and stuff – that’s the only covenant in the deed. It’s a real pretty deed though.

29

Rich Puchalsky 10.24.08 at 2:05 pm

I vaguely remember once reading some USSR apologetics of the “Westerner visits and swoons over Potemkin villages” sort, and they seemed to have the idea of “left deviationists” — cadre who after crushing the kulaks, or whatever, would keep on redistributing within the village to try to get everyone to have the exact same amount of everything as everyone else. Even the Bolsheviks didn’t like those people.

More seriously, the whole “redistribution for its own sake” thing is such a straw man that it’s not profitable to address it. Someone who redistributes for its own sake, not for the sake of helping the poor, or of social equality, or for the sake of redressing a historical crime that led to the unequal distribution, is very easily typed as someone only interested in power over people, because there’s just an action left without any of the motives for that action.

Libertarians generally criticize redistribution as immoral even in a good cause because they criticize the principle that the government may take from someone and give to someone else for any reason. Goldberg, of course, can’t make a coherent argument about this because he doesn’t even understand Hayek (or anyone else). But the libertarians themselves always have trouble with explaining why the government in fact can take money from people to pay for armies, police, jails and other things that I’d rather not pay for, at least in current quantities. They themselves are incoherent unless they’re willing to go for anarchism.

So I salute the future conservative intelligentsia, the coming anarchists. Maybe we could get a realignment and America could be divided between the socialist party and the anarchist groupings. Yeah, right.

30

milo 10.24.08 at 2:16 pm

You wrote:

The problem with Barack Obama’s ‘spread the wealth’ idea is that, unlike conservatives, he isn’t concerned to do it to ‘help families’, ‘improve healthcare’ – anything like that. He isn’t proposing this because he thinks doing so might actually improve the health of the economy overall, and thereby grow the whole pie.

You have no idea what you are talking about. FAIL.

31

Slocum 10.24.08 at 2:24 pm

No kidding. It’s not the case, however, that that wealth would have otherwise gone to the middle class and poor. That is the lump of wealth fallacy.

Well, yes, but the redistributionists don’t care — they’d rather a poorer (even a much poorer) society with lower income inequality than a wealthier one with greater inequality. Hence, for example, the idealization of the ‘Happy Little Kingdom’ of Bhutan (and, on the other hand, the sneering at iPods and ‘cheap trinkets’ from China).

32

Chris 10.24.08 at 2:24 pm

How is that not a great triumph of trickle down economics?

Because of the failure to trickle down. Real incomes have stagnated for the bottom 3 or perhaps even 4 quintiles for *decades*. The rich get richer and nobody else gets anything, or to put it another way, a rising tide that lifts all boats only benefits people who can afford a boat. The fact that taxes have shifted that way reveals that *income and wealth distributions* have shifted that way – which is redistribution, all right, but not in the direction most people (in this thread or this country) agree with.

In fact, a lot of the extra wealth of the extra-wealthy was “invested” in predatory loans that transferred even more wealth from the working class to the upper class. Lending doesn’t create wealth in and of itself; it only sometimes allows the borrower to do so. (Lending to failed businesses is another example of non-wealth-creating investment.)

Trickle-up economics, on the other hand, works flawlessly – almost all of today’s wealthy are wealthy because they own the corporations where everyone else spends their money. Putting more money in the hands of Joe Sixpack will tend to lead to him buying more sixpacks – and that’s excellent news for John S. “Married to a Beer Heiress” McCain III and the rest of his economic stratum. The reverse is only true if Joe works in a yacht factory.

33

John Holbo 10.24.08 at 2:26 pm

Milo, you do realize that the bit you quote is a paraphrase of what Goldberg is saying, not an assertion on my part?

34

J Thomas 10.24.08 at 2:29 pm

The wealthy creating wealth, and paying more in taxes, is a good thing.

I agree it would be a good thing. But look around. We give wealthy people big tax breaks and what did they do with the money? Some of them invested overseas. Some of them took their tax windfall and bought T-bonds.

Creating wealth would be a good thing. But when it’s a choice:

They pay their share of the taxes. OR:
The same money goes to the same place but we promise to give it back with interest.

Where’s the wealth creation there? Except for the guys who get the interest.

When I look at how well the rich have done at wealth creation in the last decade or so I figure it’s time to send in the second string.

35

Ben Alpers 10.24.08 at 2:33 pm

And, perhaps relatedly, the conspicious lack of anything against which Goldberg has an argument, even a bad argument; except that he doesn’t like the conclusion that it would be a good idea to raise taxes on the wealhy.

Actually I think he doing everything to reach the conclusion that Obama/Democrats=BAD, McCain/Republicans=GOOD. Everything else is just a step toward that goal.

It’s a category mistake to see anything written by Jonah Goldberg as constituting “thought” or an “argument” about political ideas. Goldberg’s output bears the same relation to political thought that Andrei Zhdanov’s bore to literary criticism. It’s all a (rather crude) means to a partisan end, and is best understood in that context.

36

bjk 10.24.08 at 2:36 pm

The issue is not income but after tax income, which is what matters. Trickle down economics means that half of all taxpayers pay practically no tax, and many at the bottom have negative tax rates (EITC and so on). By the measure of after tax income, real income has gone up for every income group.

See here, from a pro-redistribution group. Check out the fourth graph.

Increasing Real After Tax Income

37

bjk 10.24.08 at 2:41 pm

Also, the use of household income is misleading. Households are getting smaller. Many more single people.

38

MarkUp 10.24.08 at 3:23 pm

What is a “tax”? What is a tax increase. If through the machinations of modern politics corporations or other entities can affect, to their financial benefit most often, the fee’s paid for their goods or services and/or the process and involvements of government, are they not also in effect a tax?

If we get a “tax holiday” on gasoline only to see the price stay the same or perhaps drop less than the total of “taxes” removed is that a real holiday or just another form of redistribution?

Absent being a stockholder in XOM, any price increase of their product w/o an offsetting rise in my income is effectively a tax increase. Just as with gov’t, that may not be a necessarily bad thing if the proceeds are invested wisely. Is the costs in marketing prescription medications outside the medical profession a tax or a simple cost? What is a wise use for the invested “tax”? There lies the rub.

39

mpowell 10.24.08 at 3:34 pm

Responding to Slocum, it is true that these policies will not really have their full desired impact during this economic downturn. At this it is just a question of who bears the brunt of the tax load during this downturn. But these policies will really come into play when the economy begins to expand again. Somehow, we have to find a way to insure that more of the wealth generated in the next economic expansion goes into the hands of the middle class and poor. When the wealthy get all the money, they just invest it. But if consumption isn’t increasing, there is nothing worth investing in. Then you get bubbles. You can delay the inevitable it turns out through credit expansion, but this only makes the crash worse. Supply-side economics is really silly because the fundamental risk with capitalism is over-production. Let’s work to mitigate that risk.

40

roger 10.24.08 at 3:37 pm

I think Holbo is right about the nutsiness at the core of the rightwing objection to “spreading the wealth” – which is, by the way, a perfectly good potsmoking phrase that I’m sure Sarah Palin has used before, unless they say ‘don’t bogart the joint’ up there in Alaska – but to cast this solely in terms of economic fairness is unfortunate. This is also about democratic politics. As long as the wealthy are entrenched without any countervailing force threatening to “spread the wealth” around, the more democracy will be hollowed out. After a certain level of wealth has been reached which allows for a vastly expanded consumer lifestyle, the remaining wealth exists for the purpose of prestige – and will be spent, as we have seen over the past thirty years, in rentseeking ways – through buying politicians, for instance – to maintain exactly the system in which they have benefited. This also means, of course, barring entry to those who would also want to become wealthy. And indeed, the decline in American social mobility is what one sees as a result of 30 years of Reaganism. If you examine the the upper management elite, the CEO class, you’ll notice that most of them are very visibly the products of the Keynesian years – they are often from blue collar families, they often graduated from state universities, and they worked their way up. But they have worked tirelessly to make sure that this won’t be true of the next generation of the upper management elite – those will be the children of the wealthy, will have generally gone through Ivy League schools, and will have taken positions in higher management jobs straight out of the gate.
This reverses a long cherished Jeffersonian principle. It has been oddly coupled to a Jacksonian politics in McCain’s “serfs for feudalism” campaign. It will end badly.

41

Michael Drake 10.24.08 at 3:43 pm

“Goldberg knows he needs arguments against Obama, but he’s only got arguments against Croly. “

Maybe this is related to the strategy of looking for your lost set of keys where the street lamp happens to be shining. Except that Goldberg is purposely ignoring the other lights that are shining near the one he’s looking under. And that the keys are clearly visible under one of them.

42

someguy 10.24.08 at 4:03 pm

Anyone who has read a few CT threads knows that quite a few people do favor redistribution for the sake of redistribution.

Despite John’s hand waving this thread is no exception. First comment. Pretty funny stuff.

Of course Obama doesn’t favor redistribution solely for the sake of redistribution. Only a little bit which still makes me very uncomfortable and is a defining difference.

http://www.issues2000.org/economic/barack_obama_tax_reform.htm

“Q: Do you agree that the rich aren’t paying their fair share of taxes?

A: There’s no doubt that the tax system has been skewed. And the Bush tax cuts–people didn’t need them, and they weren’t even asking for them, and that’s why they need to be less, so that we can pay for universal health care and other initiatives.

But I think this goes to a broader question, and that is, are we willing to make the investments in genuine equal opportunity in this country? People aren’t looking for charity. We talk about welfare and we talk about poverty, but what people really want is fairness. They want people paying their fair share of taxes. They want that money allocated fairly.”

I have provided the context with the link and the quote.

But this stands on it’s own ->

“We talk about welfare and we talk about poverty, but what people really want is fairness. They want people paying their fair share of taxes.”

Plenty of people including Obama would agree with that statement in stand alone form.

Goldberg’s capital gains example highlights that.

If that isn’t redistribution for the sake of redistribution it is just a hair away.

Federal income tax is a fraction of tax revenues collected. SS taxes which have a cap at around 250K make up the bulk of tax revenue collected. Saying the top 1% pay 40% of all income tax isn’t meaningless but it isn’t completely accurate.

So, if Obama were to say->

I want to raise income tax levels back to what they were during Clinton, so we can pay down our debt and ease the cost of the enormous burden of future obligations we are piling up. I wouldn’t be all like ahhhh the cosmic injustice of it all the rich are already pay 50% of all income tax. Ahhhh the humanity. Sob. Sob.

Instead I would be like well we need to be careful about marginal rates and respectful of others property but that is a burden that those folks can probably manage to tolerate and well the benefits to our common good would be enormous. All right Obama!

But he isn’t saying that.

He is saying I want to raise taxes to invest more in our nation and promote the common good

-which I am ok with in general but strongly disagree with the particulars-

and I want to raise taxes out of a sense of fairness.

-which makes the very uncomfortable-

and the second half can stand alone with no implicit link to the first half or any implicit link to anything else. No matter how hard you wave your hands and insist otherwise.

I think I am firm ground with the black and white argument. But forget that. Let’s say it is all a matter of degree.

In which case I can simplely assert that Obama places too great an emphasis on fairness and not enough emphasis on X for my tastes.

Going farther, I concede the link always exists and I am wrong.

Here is the bottom line that you completely miss.

I can and do concede that all of the general principles of American liberalism are correct.

But that doesn’t contradict any of my conservative beliefs or change the fact that I am a conservative.

I make the concession not only because it is right, but because as soon as you make that concession and narrow the argument, you expose the ridiculous nature of American liberalism in practice.

Yes, I think poor kids deserve a chance, no I don’t favor a universal pre-K program. The response from an American liberal is that I am morally deficient. Like, I said, hysterical.

You really have no place to go. Even if I concede all of your priors and argue about the particulars liberals are still going to spit on me and call me a conservative.

43

someguy 10.24.08 at 4:05 pm

Darn it those cross out lines shouldn’t be there.

44

Ben A 10.24.08 at 4:29 pm

I think someguy more or less has this one nailed.

1) There is too pure egalitarianism of the Harrison Bergeron variety despite hand-waiving, and it is politically potent
2) There are of course any number of very fine non Harrison Bergeron arguments for increasing taxes on people > $250K
3) Obama’s rhetoric (quite obviously) partakes of both HB and non HB arguments
4) That’s fine, he’s got an election to win, etc., but if you’re worried about HB-style egalitarianism (which you needn’t be: it could be fine in a US poltical context) you have reason to be more worried about Obama than about, e.g., Bill Clinton

45

Bruce Baugh 10.24.08 at 4:51 pm

Still no conservative or libertarian citation of evidence for the efficiency of means-testing relief in the US, I see.

Which is typical. “Oh, I’m full of compassion, we just need to make sure it gets to the right people” almost inevitably decays into “It’s mine dammit and who cares about them anyway?”

In the meantime, for all those arguing about how the rich deserve it all: sure. The moment you can demonstrate that not one scrap of that wealth comes from the stolen wealth of others – say, no sundown towns in the background of anyone they’ve ever done business with, no beneficiaries of the Japanese-American internments and the like, a solid legacy of property always sold legitimacy right back to its acquisition from Native American tribes, no family benefitting from the New Deal, GI Bill, government-backed loans of any kind, no benefitting from government-enforced sanctions against minorities, women, non-straight people, and so on – then you’ll get my sympathy for saying that you shouldn’t be taxed for the benefit of others. In the meantime, I support taxation levied most on those who’ve benefitted most from the myriad injustices that comprise history, to attend to those who’ve been its victims.

46

lemuel pitkin 10.24.08 at 4:55 pm

John, you’re reading a *Jonah Goldberg* column. And you’re *thinking* about it.

The waste of human talent almost makes me want to cry.

47

mpowell 10.24.08 at 4:59 pm

This debate about whether Obama really prefers redistribution for its own sake or not just ends up being ridiculous. What he is actually proposing is a return to Reagan era taxation levels. What he intends or not is simply a red herring at this point. When Obama is proposing 70% marginal tax rates we can start debating whether that’s redistribution for it’s own sake, or if their are good economic arguments to support those kinds of tax rates. But that’s not where we’re at and all the conservatives moaning about spreading the wealth around just sound like a bunch of morons.

48

roger 10.24.08 at 5:12 pm

mpowell is right. Unfortunately, reality takes a holiday in an election season. The rich will (gasp!) survive the Obama presidency.

49

MarkUp 10.24.08 at 5:26 pm

”just sound like a bunch of morons.”

Who, by some polls, still have the support of what ~37-47%, with some 7-15% still in play. If only I could still afford to get drunk [Duncan Taylor Bowmore 33 if anyone wants to help me out].

50

anon/portly 10.24.08 at 5:47 pm

“Federal income tax is a fraction of tax revenues collected. SS taxes which have a cap at around 250K make up the bulk of tax revenue collected.”

From cbo.gov, for 2007:

Individual income taxes: 1164 billion
Social insurance taxes: 860 billion
(Total: revenues: 2568)

51

geo 10.24.08 at 5:53 pm

bjk@ 36: See here, from a pro-redistribution group. Check out the fourth graph.

Here are the 3rd, 4th, and 5th paragraphs from the report you cite:

“Between 1979 and 2005, the top five percent of American families saw their real incomes increase 81 percent. Over the same period, the lowest-income fifth saw their real incomes decline 1 percent. (Census Bureau)

In 1979, the average income of the top 5 percent of families was 11.4 times as large as the average income of the bottom 20 percent. In 2005, the ratio was 20.9 times. (EPI, State of Working America 2006-07, Figure 1J)

All of the income gains in 2005 went to the top 10 percent of households, while the bottom 90 percent of households saw income declines. (EPI Snapshot, March 28, 2007)”

Are you sure this is evidence for your side?

52

someguy 10.24.08 at 6:13 pm

anon/portly,

Ok. Income tax counts for 45% and SS Tax counts for 34%. I was wrong.

Thanks.

53

Anotherguy 10.24.08 at 7:03 pm

Does anyone have any clue what the hell someguy was talking about? Is he really that erratic and scattered or do I need to clean my glasses?

54

mitzi morris 10.24.08 at 7:12 pm

GOP bankrupt arguments about wealth spreading are all over the place. Obama is talking about rescinding all the tax cuts given to the top tier corps and earners, and redistributing this more equitably and rationally.

Obviously this has been a ruinous economy and disastrous war. Lots of adjustments are necessary asap.

55

MarkUp 10.24.08 at 7:30 pm

Individual income tax 1,236,259 49.1%

Corporation income tax 380925 15.1%

Employment taxes 814819 32.4%

Gift tax 1970 0.1%

Excise taxes 57,990 2.3%

Estate tax 26,717 1.1%

Total 2,518,680

http://www.irs.gov/taxstats/article/0,,id=102886,00.html

56

tps12 10.24.08 at 8:06 pm

Oh, oh, can we make that retroactive? Did the receipt Jefferson got from the French come with paper proof of rightful ownership [by the folks already living there]?

Exactly. “No government redistribution of wealth starting…NOW!” Vulgar libertarianism of the worst sort.

57

Rich Puchalsky 10.24.08 at 8:07 pm

This thread predictably is descending into someguy’s “Obama said he wanted fairness! That’s only a hair away from redistribution for its own sake!” nonsense.

But John, really, you set this one up badly, so that it could hardly help descending. Let’s say that someone says “No one really likes walking just for the sake of walking. They like other things about it, like getting from place to another.” Then people jump in with “But I like walking because it makes me feel good” and “Walking makes people healthy” and all sorts of other things that you have to disavow because you’ve tried to isolate out an action, as if actions could occur without all of their concomitant effects.

There are all sorts of reasons why a more equal society is a better society. There are all sorts of moral reasons why people may want to redress the results of past injustice or protect people against future catastrophe. People can argue about how much redistribution helps vs how much it hurts. But you can’t start with a wingnut formulation of the problem and get anywhere.

Someguy: “I think I am firm ground with the black and white argument.”

I think you are too, someguy. The black and white argument is really what’s going on, not anything about redistribution.

58

J Thomas 10.24.08 at 8:13 pm

‘’just sound like a bunch of morons.’’

Who, by some polls, still have the support of what ~37-47%, with some 7-15% still in play. If only I could still afford to get drunk [Duncan Taylor Bowmore 33 if anyone wants to help me out].

It’s because a lot of the poor and middle class have morals. They don’t want to get something for nothing, so they don’t want the government to give them anything.

But the rich are fine with the government giving them riches. They have their priorities straight. It’s hard to get rich if you insist on morals.

If only I could still afford to get drunk [Duncan Taylor Bowmore 33 if anyone wants to help me out].

I’d never heard of it and I looked it up. $268 for 750 mls, plus shipping and tax.

When poor people ask me for a handout to get drunk, they have the courtesy to say they want to buy food. And on an empty stomach most of them can get drunk on $5, or at least mellow.

You beg almost like a rich person.

59

anon/portly 10.24.08 at 8:24 pm

As a conservative (or non-liberal) who thinks Obama’s economic policies are much preferable to McCain’s (not that I think that what McCain is saying in the campaign is likely to mean much once he’s elected, but there’s always the fear that it will), I don’t think John Holbo’s arguments are very compelling. For example, the idea that it’s a fallacy (or “non-starter”) for conservatives to think that “redistribution to produce equality is, per se, regrettable” “because it has to presume we are starting from some sort of natural distribution” is true, but so what? This begs the questions of which particular redistributing policies are not regrettable. Conservatives are still going to think that redistribution to produce equality, if not per se regrettable because of existing market and government distortions, will have a high likelihood of regrettableness.

Similarly the argument “[l]iberals are tolerant of a good deal of inequality, but, if asked to pick between rough equality and gross inequality they will – other things being equal – prefer a bit more social and economic equality, thank you very much” seems designed to get around the old “how to decide which point along the continuum between rough equality and gross inequality is optimal” problem, and would perhaps do so insightfully if only there was some chance that “other things” would ever be equal. But of course (to conservatives at least) other things will never be equal, in particular as the shift toward equality implies changes in incentives, government power, etc. Is there really a principled argument against a conservative saying that they too have “moderate preferences” for fairness, just like Holbo’s liberals, and that the moderate amount of fairness they like is the amount we have now?

Where I think (with some nonzero if close to zero probability p) conservatives can be convinced – i.e. the grounds on which I myself am convinced – to favor policies that explicity reduce inequality devolves from the particular attributes of particular policies. A link to Larry Bartels is a start…. Since most conservatives, despite arguments like the “non-starter” one offered by Holbo, will continue to believe that taking $1 from X and giving $1 to Y are per seishly two bad things, I think an hour spent airy-fairily defending redistribution in the abstract is of less value than a minute spent to argue how and why both X and Y can actually benefit from the arrangement. There are many strands of argument that could be compelling to conservatives, such as:

(1) Increasing income distortions. (Suggested line of argument for raising the minimum wage or EITC: lawyers rig the rules, public sector employees get favors from Democrats, corporate executives rip off the shareholders, sports stars make a pile from high ticket prices thanks to corporate executives ripping off the shareholders, artists make a pile from high prices thanks to corporate executives ripping off the shareholders, etc. etc. etc. – why should those on the bottom be the only ones without a sinecure?)

(2) The “benefit principle.” (Argument: increasingly the wealthy and upper middle class – often liberals! – get good schools, public safety, etc., the poor not so much).

(3) Actual public goods type benefits of spending more money on education and health care for, and not raising taxes on, the less well off. (Argument: better work force raises GDP). Meanwhile taxes do need to be raised somewhere….

Holbo is right that “conservatives are presently non-lingual” – at least I hope that the endless arguments for more phony tax cuts are not the true language of conservatism. But to say the liberals “speak both tongues to the satisfaction of broad swathes of the electorate,” is pretty bizarre, considering how well liberals were able to follow up the solid (economic) performance of 1992-2000 with the election results of 2000 and 2004. I think all the current campaign really proves is that if your best candidate is an old senate war-horse/flake (Kerry, Dole, Mondale), you’re in trouble come Nov. 4. If Obama has articulated public policy ideas that favor higher taxes on the wealthy and higher spending on the problems of the young and poor, not just as the usual pandering to liberal self-regard but in such a way as to even minutely bestir the consciousnesses of conservatives and moderates, that would be wonderful, but I’m skeptical. (Apologies for long-windedness).

60

MarkUp 10.24.08 at 8:52 pm

57 > ”(2) The “benefit principle.” (Argument: increasingly the wealthy and upper middle class – often liberals! – get good schools, public safety, etc., the poor not so much).”

Don’t forget the walls and gates! To the Bastille we go… with bricks and mortar in hand.

56 > ”You beg almost like a rich person.”

Hey I was honest about my needs though. Do you want my shipping address now? Overnight would be good if it’s not too much trouble. As for the cost, that’s a relative bargain, I just hope it’s a decent one.

61

roy belmont 10.24.08 at 9:54 pm

The phrase “my brother’s keeper” doesn’t appear in the Bible as an injunction. It’s a cry of terrified desperation, to an accusatory God, by a man who’s just killed his brother in a jealous rage.
And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother?
And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

The context of that cry is bizarrely convoluted, it’s a story I’ve never comprehended in any morally instructive sense.
Cain raises vegetables, Able raises flocks.
They both make the customary sacrifice, destroying part of their harvest as divine obeisance. Abel’s sacrifice is respected by the Lord, Cain’s isn’t. Cain gets jealous. God says some stuff that’s at least in the KJV translation pretty much gibberish to me:
If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door: and unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
Then Cain kills Abel, is confronted about it, and the memorable phrase gets uttered.
God then curses Cain, mightily and for keeps.
Cain complains that the curse is too heavy, and God says well hey, I’ll make it so anybody that kills you gets a sevenfold version. Then marks Cain with a special recognizable mark, so that no one will kill him.
Then off Cain goes to the land of Nod, marries, begets, and the rest of the Old Testament unfolds.
That Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve, the first human breeding pair, makes Cain’s wife and children a little problematic, though I’m sure that will have been covered and dispensed with by Biblical literalists somehow.
While the quote is inaccurately summoned, the convolution, the inconsistencies, the illogic, the gibberish, vengeance, arrogance, absence of mercy, rule by fear and intimidation, all seem well fit to the arguments of people like Goldberg.
Plus work and reward and deserving and cursing and winning and losing are all mixed in together in no discernible pattern, logically or morally. So it fits that way too.

62

notsneaky 10.24.08 at 11:27 pm

“But this is more or less a non-starter because it has to presume we are starting from some sort of natural distribution. “

BTW, this is exactly the reason why the Kaldor-Hicks justification criteria does not require that those hurt by a policy change actually be compensated, only that after the policy change, it would be possible for that compensation to take place hypothetically.

63

jcs 10.25.08 at 12:17 am

#61 Not to get this thread too far of subject, but since you bring it up. . . Rabbi David Wolpe of UCLA points out that this question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” goes unanswered by God, adding that the whole rest of the Bible gives the answer, and it is a resounding “yes.”

64

engels 10.25.08 at 1:13 am

increasingly the wealthy and upper middle class – often liberals!

Yes, but far more often conservatives!!! (eg. see here) So what is your point?

65

engels 10.25.08 at 1:41 am

So I don’t understand your point. Are you saying that US conservatives minds have become so addled from ingesting their own propaganda that they really believe that wealthy people are mostly liberals (like John Kerry! And George Soros!) and so they can be brought around to supporting re-distribution in order to spite them?

66

J Thomas 10.25.08 at 1:41 am

Since most conservatives … will continue to believe that taking $1 from X and giving $1 to Y are per seishly two bad things,

Well, let’s start with just the first of those because that’s what Obama was talking about.

Government collects taxes. There are a few exceptions. I understand that some nations that have a lot of oil don’t collect any taxes from their citizens but perhaps instead distribute money to them. And I read that the Confederacy never collected taxes but instead financed their operations including running a war only by printing paper money, that they ran the whole thing on inflation. And they did OK that way until the war went very bad. But most governments collect taxes.

We can argue about who the taxes ought to come from. But as a practical matter the government will take the taxes where it can get them. Colbert, who collected taxes in france for Louis XIV said the objective was like collecting goose feathers, you wanted the maximum feathers for the minimum squawking.

So who will officially be chosen to pay taxes? Well, there’s a story that somebody asked Willy Sutton why he robbed banks. And he said, “Because that’s where the money is.” It’s obviously practical that if you want to collect tax money you ought to collect it from people who have money. What good does it do to put poor people in jail for not paying taxes they can’t pay? And back to Louis, awhile later when the taxes on the poor were too high they revolted. A lot of aristocrats got their heads chopped off, and rightly so.

So it makes sense to get a lot of the money from rich people.

On the other hand, rich people are the best at evading taxes. It works a lot better to pay somebody $100,000 to figure out how to avoid a million dollars in taxes, than to pay somebody $100 to avoid $1000 in taxes. And paying $10 to avoid a $100 tax seems pretty unlikely to work.

Meanwhile, there’s no reason to expect any fairness at all in the politics of taxes. Suppose one year a politician gets elected by promising to take away your taxes and put them on me. Another year another politician gets elected by promising to take away my taxes and put them on you. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Will it average out? Who knows?

But if a politician promised he’d stop taxing you and put the taxes on me, and later another politician talks about putting back the taxes you had before, if that’s redistribution of wealth this time then it was redistribution of wealth the first time too. If it’s redistribution of wealth to give me a tax cut, then it was redistribution of wealth when you got a tax cut.

Bush took money out of my pocket and put it in yours. Now maybe Obama will reverse that, or maybe he won’t. But whose money was it in the first place? Was it your money because Bush’s Congress decided not to take it from you? If Obama’s Congress decides not to take it from me, does that mean it’s my money? I guess it was everybody’s money before they started collecting income taxes, and now every time the IRS changes their own statutes the money belongs to whoever they choose not to tax and not to whoever they do choose to tax.

Anyway, just as an aside, not something practical, I think it’s scandalous for individual citizens to buy T-bonds. The government doesn’t collect enough taxes to pay for its expenses, so it borrows money at interest. And US citizens buy the bonds? If you have money to buy T-bonds then you aren’t being taxed enough. Why should the government borrow your money and pay back more later, when they could have just taken it in the first place? If you can’t think of any better way to invest your money than put it in T-bonds then you don’t deserve to have it.

67

jholbo 10.25.08 at 2:28 am

Rich is right that I sort of flubbed the set up in a way which invites the someguy response. But I don’t really think that’s a problem with the argument.

“He is saying I want to raise taxes to invest more in our nation and promote the common good

which I am ok with in general but strongly disagree with the particulars

and I want to raise taxes out of a sense of fairness.

which makes the very uncomfortable”

Why does it make you uncomfortable? Presumably because you think it isn’t actually fair to raise taxes to that extent on the rich. Fair would be something else. Or, alternatively, you feel that some other value is offended against by this action. But once it is admitted that there’s no excluding our sense of ‘fairness’ – and other values – from informing our proposals for tax schemes, then we should settle down to arguing about what IS fair (not whether taxes should be fair). And at this point it is going to emerge that 1) Obama’s egalitarianism is not some monolithic “Harrison Bergeron” value, rolling over all other values and crushing them in its relentless path; 2) moderate egalitarianism, of the sort expressed by a progressive tax system, is not a shocking or radical or alien idea. It’s been with us since 1862 or whenever.

Now of course there can be legitimate disagreements over the steepness of the progressive slope. But at this point the argument shouldn’t be about whether the idea of taxes ‘for fairness’ sounds disturbing or not. It ought to be about how we feel about the fair balances that will have to be struck. What will be the costs and benefits of various more or less progressive schemes? Too much equality means less individualism? (Or does it?) If anyone wants to get off the bus completely – opt out of the progressive way – they ought at least to be clear that they are the ones proposing a radical departure, not Obama. If taxing ‘for fairness’ is socialist, then America has been a socialist country for a very long long time. Love it or leave it.

68

notsneaky 10.25.08 at 2:43 am

Re: 66. Leaky bucket. That and non-tax payers can buy bonds.
But yeah, that’s the whole Ricardian Equivalence argument.

69

roy belmont 10.25.08 at 4:57 am

jcs:
In case you haven’t, you might want to read the story of Isaac and Esau and Jacob.
And if you feel like replying after, don’t worry about the thread going astray. Most of the other participants here are professional readers of things. Their attentiveness is focused and nimble, and if they find this exchange distracting they’ll likely just ignore it. And at the end it gets right back on topic anyway.
Jacob and Esau were brothers.
Esau being the favored eldest brother, “a cunning hunter, a man of the field”; Jacob, the second son, a sodder of pottage and a dweller in tents.
Jacob desiring the patrimonial birthright which according to custom would go to Esau, the beloved of their father, Isaac.
Esau faint with hunger comes to Jacob and asks for food. Jacob says all right, for your birthright I’ll feed you.
Jacob and Esau are brothers, the sons of Isaac.
Esau thinking what good will it do me if I’ve starved to death agrees to the deal and it’s done.
The Bible says, at least in the KJV:
…and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.
The Bible has nothing to say about Jacob despising his brother.
Years later, and Isaac’s nearly blind. He asks Esau to take some game in the hunt and prepare for him some savory meat. Esau goes off to do this.
Their mother, Rebekah, overhears the exchange and calls her other son, Jacob, to her.
Their mother, obviously favoring Jacob, tells him to go kill some young goats and make some savory broth and his father will bless him for it, thinking he’s Esau, thinking it’s venison.
Jacob’s objection is not that this is dishonest, a betrayal of his father’s love, and a blessing that will cheat his brother of his inheritance, but that his father will find him out, because his skin is smooth and Esau’s is hairy and rough.
This will cause Isaac to curse, rather than bless him.
His mother says she’ll take the curse for him, if it happens. And he can wear the rough hairy skins from the goats he’s killed, to fool his father.
It happens like that.
Jacob straight up lies to his father, announcing himself coming in, as you do to the blind, as his brother, Esau.
Happy Isaac blesses his son, thinking it’s Esau:

Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine:
Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother’s sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee.

Later Esau finds out, but Isaac’s now bound by the promise he made to Jacob, according to the rules in the story, so he blesses Esau his own, different, blessing. Lesser. Isaac’s an extraordinarily wealthy man.
Esau now wants to kill Jacob.
Rebekah convinces Isaac to send Jacob off to a distant land to find a wife, and off he goes.
Along the way he stops for the night and this affords the the storyteller an opportunity for the most psychedelic image in the Old Testament, Jacob’s Ladder:

And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.

Clearly Jacob’s treachery and dishonesty have not earned him the disfavor of heaven. That passage ends with another really bizarre bit, one that Fairport Convention quoted from as the title of an instrumental on 1969’s What We Did On Our Holidays, but it isn’t germane here.
What is germane, apt, and pertinent, is the reverence paid to greed in this story, the celebration of gold over brotherly love, the resounding affirmation of treachery and deceit as, if not virtues, tacitly sanctioned paths to divine favor, and to earthly power, transitory as it might be.

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Lex 10.25.08 at 7:59 am

I thought it was a good idea to stop trying to run a society on the basis of Bronze-Age mythology?

71

sg 10.25.08 at 9:40 am

anon/portly, you sound so selfish. At the point where I need to justify to you why doing something morally right is good for you, you have already lost your way.

Redistribution is a good thing because it is a good thing. Rich people benefit from poor people being paid less than them (that’s how they make their money!), so we redistribute some of their wealth to make sure that those poor people can still live a decent life. That’s morally right. It doesn’t matter if the redistributive part benefits you or not – that’s the difference between doing something morally right and doing something convenient.

72

Alex 10.25.08 at 1:34 pm

The problem here is that it’s not an argument in itself to say that Obama supports redistribution for the sake of it, i.e. because he believes lower inequality to be desirable. He damn well should do, and I fear we’ll all be disappointed in him for not doing so. To just say that he does and leave it at that is to say that you shouldn’t vote for him because he disagrees with me; nothing more.

Worse, it’s an argument whose consequence is that any kind of disagreement is illegitimate. Of course a liberal Democrat won’t agree with a (very) neoconservative Republican; that is what they are for.

To put it another way – the problem here is Goldberg being an odious wanker again.

73

Slocum 10.25.08 at 4:12 pm

Redistribution is a good thing because it is a good thing. Rich people benefit from poor people being paid less than them (that’s how they make their money!)

No, that is what a lot of people on the left believe, but it’s absolutely false. The average working class person in the west is absolutely much richer, in most ways that really matter, than the nobility were 200 years ago. I don’t mean gadgets, I mean lifespan, health, and comfort but also life is much richer in information, entertainment, travel, etc. Where did that wealth come from — was it stolen from poor people somewhere? Obviously not.

..so we redistribute some of their wealth to make sure that those poor people can still live a decent life.

Yes, we do (and should) redistribute wealth to poor people to enable them to lead decent lives. But we don’t (or shouldn’t) redistribute wealth just to decrease the difference between the 65th and 85th percentiles.

It’s critical to recognize that the main way that today’s lower middle class got access to so many benefits that the rich of past centuries could hardly even envision is not by redistribution from rich people, but from creation of new forms of wealth that never before existed. Societies that focus more on redistribution than creation are epic failures (because they tend to suck at creation of new wealth), and the persistent failure of those on the left to recognize this is what worries the rest of us.

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Bruce Baugh 10.25.08 at 4:25 pm

There still isn’t any argument with reasons to believe that the web of tightly means-tested programs that Ross is on about would in fact deliver goods with less waste or other problems. It’s still an assertion of faith in the idea of strongly distinct populations: the worthy needy, who come cap in hand, tug their forelock, and jump through all the hoops set up to prove just how needy and groveling they are, and the unworthy masses, whose problems are all their fault and who should be encouraged by the whip hand to get sreious about joining the laboring classes, submit, get their paychecks, and go away. Universal coverage of any sort, whether it’s health care or education, offends these folks deeply because it denies them the opportunity to use others’ lives for their graffiti on moralistic homilies.

It’s all about keeping the necessities of a good life privileges to be granted as authorities may choose, rather than rights.

75

MarkUp 10.25.08 at 5:54 pm

”in most ways that really matter, than the nobility were 200 years ago.”

And poorer than the peons 200 years from now [in future scenario 12b-4ZE]but is that relevent, or just relative, and of course is dependent on the type of stick used to measure with. Is living 30 years longer struggling with how to pay for the chemicals that enable that and the added lokely costs of spending the last several years or more in a care facility having drool wiped off you chin really new wealth? “Obviously not.”

”I don’t mean gadgets, I mean lifespan, health, and comfort but also life is much richer in information, entertainment, travel, etc. Where did that wealth come from—was it stolen from poor people somewhere?”

I suppose we define stolen differently as well as read with dissimilarity ‘how the west was won’.

”but from creation of new forms of wealth that never before existed”

Can that process not also create new forms of poverty?

http://release.theplatform.com/content.select?pid=x7aVOMrlfkkijQwcLllwk6WjB5JE0zrF

Commerce is a redistribution of wealth. We’re talking circuitously about a subset thereof.

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ScentOfViolets 10.25.08 at 6:12 pm

Slocum 10.24.08 at 2:24 pm

No kidding. It’s not the case, however, that that wealth would have otherwise gone to the middle class and poor. That is the lump of wealth fallacy.

Well, yes, but the redistributionists don’t care—they’d rather a poorer (even a much poorer) society with lower income inequality than a wealthier one with greater inequality. Hence, for example, the idealization of the ‘Happy Little Kingdom’ of Bhutan (and, on the other hand, the sneering at iPods and ‘cheap trinkets’ from China).

This is just silly innumeracy. Society A has twice the GDP of Society B, and this is supposedly all that matters. But what if it’s also true that in Society A, one percent of the population owns 95% percent of everything else? What if the median income in society A is only $19K/yr, while in Society B, the median income in $60K/yr?.

I’d much rather live in society B, thank you very much.

There is also another aspect to ‘no redistribution, starting . . . now’: and that is supposing that the day-to-day distribution is anything like an optimal allocation. I suspect, and suspect very strongly that it is precisely in the pricing of labor that ‘economic theory’ fails the hardest and the most visibly. And it is precisely for the justification of this particular commodity that the Chicago School of economics is so relentlessly pushed by conservatives/libertarians. I’ve had people of this stripe argue that the reason the productivity gains were distributed the way the were over the last thirty years was precisely because it was the titans of finance and industry who became more productive, not anyone else. Point to specific studies that show for specific groups of occupations that this Just Ain’t So, and they retreat to the position that ‘nobody knows for sure’.

No, the people who are arguing against ‘redistribution’ are precisely the ones who wanted the distribution to fall out the way it did in the first place. There’s really no point in treating them as if they were arguing in anything other than bad faith.

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engels 10.25.08 at 6:13 pm

Slocum, okay so American workers have more information, travel opportunities AND plastic shit than ever before (I’m not as confident as you are about ever increasing life expectancies). But why would this amount to proof (nay, “absolute” proof!) that they are not being exploited? Why would it prove that Chinese workers are not being exploited?

78

engels 10.25.08 at 6:14 pm

Slocum, okay so American workers have more information, travel opportunities AND plastic shit than ever before (I’m not as confident as you are about ever increasing life expectancies). But why would this amount to proof (nay, “absolute” proof!) that they are not being exploited? Why would it prove that Chinese workers are not being exploited?

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ScentOfViolets 10.25.08 at 6:16 pm

Let me try this again – blockquotes don’t seem to operate across paragraphs in this particular environment:

Slocum 10.24.08 at 2:24 pm

No kidding. It’s not the case, however, that that wealth would have otherwise gone to the middle class and poor. That is the lump of wealth fallacy.

Well, yes, but the redistributionists don’t care—they’d rather a poorer (even a much poorer) society with lower income inequality than a wealthier one with greater inequality. Hence, for example, the idealization of the ‘Happy Little Kingdom’ of Bhutan (and, on the other hand, the sneering at iPods and ‘cheap trinkets’ from China).

This is just silly innumeracy. Society A has twice the GDP of Society B, and this is supposedly all that matters. But what if it’s also true that in Society A, one percent of the population owns 95% percent of everything else? What if the median income in society A is only $19K/yr, while in Society B, the median income in $60K/yr?.

I’d much rather live in society B, thank you very much.

There is also another aspect to ‘no redistribution, starting . . . now’: and that is supposing that the day-to-day distribution is anything like an optimal allocation. I suspect, and suspect very strongly that it is precisely in the pricing of labor that ‘economic theory’ fails the hardest and the most visibly. And it is precisely for the justification of this particular commodity that the Chicago School of economics is so relentlessly pushed by conservatives/libertarians. I’ve had people of this stripe argue that the reason the productivity gains were distributed the way the were over the last thirty years was precisely because it was the titans of finance and industry who became more productive, not anyone else. Point to specific studies that show for specific groups of occupations that this Just Ain’t So, and they retreat to the position that ‘nobody knows for sure’.

No, the people who are arguing against ‘redistribution’ are precisely the ones who wanted the distribution to fall out the way it did in the first place. There’s really no point in treating them as if they were arguing in anything other than bad faith.

80

anon/portly 10.25.08 at 6:57 pm

“anon/portly, you sound so selfish. At the point where I need to justify to you why doing something morally right is good for you, you have already lost your way.

….It doesn’t matter if the redistributive part benefits you or not – that’s the difference between doing something morally right and doing something convenient.”

I couldn’t disagree more. As a matter of public policy, I don’t think it’s wise to rely on charitable motives when there are stronger ones. (Obviously this view doesn’t originate with me, nor am I a particularly able exponent of it).

I think the more you make it all about charity and feeling good about how wonderful we are and so on, the sooner the voting public will become fatigued and want to move on. A voter making say $75,000 per year can listen to a rich Democrat (pick any senator) telling them that a part of their taxes must go to charity and start to wonder why the rich Democrats don’t give more. How do we collective decide which redistributions are a moral imperitive and which are not? I think that an over-reliance on the “this is morally right” argument ultimately favors the Republican party.

This isn’t to say people shouldn’t have preferences for a more equal income distribution – see Thurow’s “The Income Distribution as a Pure Public Good.” Or that we won’t be a better society the more the moral dimension you allude to is important to people. But people should also worry about the incentive effects that inevitably accompany government giving, not to mention the question of whether and when it is just to use the power of government coercion as a vehicle for the expression of private moral concerns in the first place.

Meanwhile specific redistributive policies make all kinds of sense, charitable motives or moral concerns aside. You think giving $1 to A is good. Jonah Goldberg thinks taking $1 from B is bad. I think giving $1 to A is not always good, when everything is considered. Others will say taking $1 from B is not always bad. Maybe these are good things to consider, but my “selfish” concerns – reasons why redistribution can give us a better-functioning economy (from which I alone will benefit, apparently) – should be taken into account also.

81

anon/portly 10.25.08 at 7:04 pm

73: “Societies that focus more on redistribution than creation are epic failures (because they tend to suck at creation of new wealth), and the persistent failure of those on the left to recognize this is what worries the rest of us.”

I think you can turn this around. A society that focuses more on anti-redistribution – insisting on the primacy of letting people keep what they have – may also fail because of the many ways that can impede the creation of wealth.

82

LFC 10.25.08 at 7:14 pm

A lot of conservatives seem not to grasp that, at a certain point, inequality becomes a brake on wealth creation; so that in order to increase the pie’s size, you may also have to re-cut the slices.
Brief elaboration.

83

LFC 10.25.08 at 7:17 pm

I see anon/portly has already made this point.

84

ScentOfViolets 10.25.08 at 7:20 pm

Meanwhile specific redistributive policies make all kinds of sense, charitable motives or moral concerns aside. You think giving $1 to A is good. Jonah Goldberg thinks taking $1 from B is bad. I think giving $1 to A is not always good, when everything is considered. Others will say taking $1 from B is not always bad. Maybe these are good things to consider, but my “selfish” concerns – reasons why redistribution can give us a better-functioning economy (from which I alone will benefit, apparently) – should be taken into account also.

The sense that concerns me the most is the sense that people who most need these policies are the ones who were the least fairly being recompensed for their labors. At this point, it looks pretty obvious that the 27-year-old slacker working the fry machine part-time at Burger King was creating more value than the likes of Martin Fuld or Richard Sullivan. ‘Re’-distribution that corrects an earlier imbalance is only right and proper – from an economic sense. Or is this where the ‘economic’ argument gets abandoned by conservatives for a one hinging on morality?

85

MarkUp 10.25.08 at 7:27 pm

Is shooting a wolf from an airplane a type of “wealth” like travel, or is the gun with laser sighting considered a gadget? Is forcing Southern Co. to put state of the art burners & scrubbers on their power plants to reduce pollution problems for a future generation a dreaded regulation or a form of redistribution? Is the lack of doing so and it’s long term effects a form of wealth destruction? Did, does, tobacco create wealth or destroy it and which has it done more of?

86

sg 10.25.08 at 9:29 pm

Anon/portly, reducing inequality is the very opposite of a “charitable motive”. Charity would leave the children of the poor to grow up poor and live their adult lives with restricted choices and rights, but make sure they can get their food from the soup kitchen; redistributive policies ensure that those children have the same opportunities as the children of the rich. The ideal of redistribution is moral, and all policy is driven fundamentally by morality. Goldberg’s objection to redistribution isn’t about its reputed inefficiency, or a moral objection to the “theft” that it represents. He objects to a world where people like him have no more chance to become editors of a right wing journal than the kids of the poor.

Paul Keating, ex labour PM of Australia, has a great speech about this. The difference between him and the conservatives, and the reason they hated him so much, is that he grew up believing that a poor boy from the suburbs had the right to be PM; they thought his whole class should be cleaning their boots and thanking them for tips. In a capitalist society redistribution doesn’t necessarily abolish the classes of manager and cleaner, but it enables people of one class to become any part of the other class they want to be, if they have the talent. Any moral objection to this principle is crass, which is why the libertarians cover their obvious class biasses with silly disguises like “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

87

afu 10.26.08 at 7:33 am

I wish conservatives would stop trying to paint Obama as some kind of secret communist. I’m going to be so disappointed when it turns out he is just a run of the mill centrist democrat.

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virgil xenophon 10.26.08 at 7:47 am

Sg/

So, JFK was a Libertarian?

89

sg 10.26.08 at 11:05 am

I’m sure the smokescreen isn’t unique to that particular mob of fools. But in general US Democrats look far far too right wing for my tastes, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that most of them wouldn’t get very far in the European, Australian or British political systems.

90

Slocum 10.26.08 at 12:32 pm

engels: Slocum, okay so American workers have more information, travel opportunities AND plastic shit than ever before.

Another deeply disturbing characteristic of the left — an inability to regard the obvious progress of modern societies without sneering. “More plastic shit” is really the feature that is most prominent to them (well perhaps also super-sized fast food meals).

ScentOfViolets: No, the people who are arguing against ‘redistribution’ are precisely the ones who wanted the distribution to fall out the way it did in the first place.

That is another fallacy of the left–an unshakable belief that opposition to their redistributionist views can only derive from a devil-take-the-hindmost selfishness. The argument that economic growth — not redistribution — is the only thing that ever truly alleviates poverty on a massive scale (see China, actually see almost all of East Asia) is something that leftists cannot seem to grasp no matter how blatantly obvious the evidence. To them the belief that growth is far more important that redistribution is not only wrong, but they don’t even allow that it can be sincerely held — rather they believe it is only sophistry intended to try to hide naked greed.

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engels 10.26.08 at 2:25 pm

Slocum, if it’s not too much trouble, could you try to address the question I asked, rather than hyperventilating over the phrase “plastic shit”?

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ScentOfViolets 10.26.08 at 2:28 pm

Er, Slocum, you need to read what is actually there, instead of what you wish to be there. I clearly said that productivity gains have not been distributed the way they should have been. You know, that whole ‘growth’ thing?

But I’m interested as to what your take will be: why have those productivity gains gone almost entirely to the top 10%? (actually the figure is even more skewed than this, but let’s let it lie.) Are you making the claim that they, and only they, have become more productive over the last few decades? If so, what is your evidence? Because only those people have seen their remuneration increase?

93

engels 10.26.08 at 2:50 pm

Slocum, let me break it down for you. You seem to think that the idea that there is exploitation in modern-day America (“Rich people benefit from poor people being paid less than them (that’s how they make their money,” as SG put it) is “absolutely false”. The reason you give is that

The average working class person in the west is absolutely much richer, in most ways that really matter, than the nobility were 200 years ago. I don’t mean gadgets, I mean lifespan, health, and comfort but also life is much richer in information, entertainment, travel, etc.

But I have no idea why you think that supports your opinion, let alone proves it to be “absolutely” true. Would you care to clue me in?

94

engels 10.26.08 at 4:07 pm

(Also, the idea that

gadgets, … lifespan, health, and comfort … information, entertainment, travel

really comprise most of what “really matter[s]” for living a happy and successful human life really is completely ridiculous, but never mind. Of your whole list, only lifespan and health are really important imo and as I said measured by those yardsticks the achievements of American-style capitalism, and even capitalism more generally, are highly dubious at best.)

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virgil xenophon 10.26.08 at 6:28 pm

@94

Only someone with the moniker of “engels” could make a comment like that–but then having such a total inability to face reality– “the achievements of American-style capitalism, and even capitalism more generally, are highly dubious at best”–is obviously the reason you chose your nom de plume in the first place. Whatever titles/credentials you may shoulder kind sir, the certification of delusional is surely amongst them.

96

engels 10.26.08 at 6:50 pm

And your momma, Virgil.

97

anon/portly 10.26.08 at 7:02 pm

86: “…redistributive policies ensure that those children have the same opportunities as the children of the rich. … In a capitalist society redistribution doesn’t necessarily abolish the classes of manager and cleaner, but it enables people of one class to become any part of the other class they want to be, if they have the talent. Any moral objection to this principle is crass, which is why the libertarians cover their obvious class biasses with silly disguises like ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’.”

But redistribution isn’t entirely about increasing the equality of opportunity, is it? What about for the elderly? And to whatever extent you can equalize opportunity, you’ll still have unequal results. Should we forego the benefits (including the moral benefits) of reducing inequality just because someone at the bottom blew their chance to get to the top? Or because they didn’t have any talent? There’s an overlap between “wealth” and “opportunity” but it’s nothing like a one-to-one relationship.

I think everyone accepts the moral rightness of equality of opportunity and fairness, but there are quibbles over means. Personally I think “a rising tide lifts all boats” is spot on – nothing benefits someone from a lower class background like a strong job market. It’s right there with access to education. I favor Obama over McCain principally because I think that Obama’s policies in these areas are far sounder.

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engels 10.26.08 at 7:05 pm

Why am I bothering with this?

I said:

Of your whole list, only lifespan and health are really important imo and as I said measured by those yardsticks the achievements of American-style capitalism, and even capitalism more generally, are highly dubious at best.

Virgil quotes me as saying:

the achievements of American-style capitalism, and even capitalism more generally, are highly dubious at best

Evidently basic literacy is also not among American capitalism’s achievements.

99

virgil xenophon 10.26.08 at 8:52 pm

Well, engels, if you had stuck to “American style capitalism” you would have at least had a superficial prima facie statistical argument–if one considered the relevant statistics in isolation, that is–but since, feeling your oats, you expanded your statement to include ALL capitalist systems (at least that is what this illiterate takes “more generally” to mean) I feel compelled to ask: As compared to what? Do you have some “other” vastly more successful “non-capitalist” systems (like Soviet Russia or the PRC) in mind? Last I heard the life expectancy and reproductive rates of those living in the remains of the old Soviet Union are dropping like a stone. Or is “more generally” somehow <all?

100

virgil xenophon 10.26.08 at 8:53 pm

…less than all.

101

sg 10.26.08 at 9:22 pm

anon/portly, a strong job market has nothing to do with the rising tide that lifts all boats. The jobs have to be well paid for people from a lower class background to benefit from them, where the jobs aren’t well paid it’s a moral decision what to do about that. The libertarian and anti-redistribution solution to this situation is to leave the people who get these jobs out to dry, excluded from society and from any chance at opportunity. Along with their children. The better solution is to recognise the fundamental injustice of poverty, and do the best you can to redistribute the wealth so that people’s poorly paid jobs don’t prevent them enjoying a meaningful role in society.

And redistribution doesn’t just mean addressing lack of opportunity. It also means ensuring people have a chance to live meaningful lives, even if they don’t have much money. This is hard for libertarians and our free-market-overlords to understand, because they think if you can afford food and rent you’re fine and everything else is your own stupid fault – even if their system depends on you being so poor you can’t afford anything else. Which it does.

When he was 23 my brother lived in the UK and couldn’t find a decent job anywhere in the South. He looked further afield and was offered a job for 1 pound an hour in the North – less than the dole, and less than any human being would have been expected (or able) to live on at the time. Is that what you call a strong job market, the rising tide that floated my brother’s boat?

102

virgil xenophon 10.26.08 at 9:22 pm

BTW, engels, it seems to me the very medium we are communicating through/on is a product of capitalism–as opposed to less dynamic statist systems like the one inspired by your namesake in which even phone-books were at one time regarded as State secrets. I’m sure if given the chance to jump in Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine you would willingly return to that “progressive” nirvana of Stalin’s State socialism, n’cest pas? Or would you opt for Mao’s PRC? Of course, I could be wrong, but if so, exactly what, prey tell, are those systems free of capitalist taint that you would, if you could get away with it, commit mass murder to live in?

103

engels 10.26.08 at 9:28 pm

So the dramatic deterioration in health outcomes following the re-introduction of capitalism into the USSR demonstrates the incontrovertible superiority of capitalism on these measures? O–kay….

104

virgil xenophon 10.26.08 at 9:35 pm

sg/

Lincoln said, I believe, that “The purpose of Government is to do for individuals what they cannot do by themselves or cannot do so well as with the help of others.” Of course for his pains Lincoln has been called America’s first Fascist by Gore Vidal–that great
“man of the left.”

105

virgil xenophon 10.26.08 at 9:45 pm

engels/

NOoooo—-those trends long pre-dated the fall of the wall and are simply (in the opinion of many who follow such things) the carry through of long established sociocultural momentum. (Although to be quite truthful I am not personally up to speed on the very latest morbidity and mortality rates–nor rates of alcoholism and drug addiction)

But what of my questions, engels?

106

engels 10.26.08 at 10:03 pm

Right, “Virgil”, because anyone who disagrees with you about the merits of capitalism, even on the specific measure of health outcomes, must be secretly wanting to ‘commit mass murder’. I would say that that was outrageous, but nothing I hear from you American right-wing arseholes surprises me anymore. Go fuck yourself, really.

107

LFC 10.26.08 at 10:11 pm

@104: There’s no point dragging Gore Vidal into this. Leave him out of it.

108

virgil xenophon 10.27.08 at 2:07 am

engels/

Lefties have no sense of humor–I only meant it in the same way people describe parents as “willing to commit mass murder” in order to get their children into the “proper” pre-school, let alone Harvard, so lighten up–And yes, I am indeed a minion of evil, but I assure you my duties are largely ceremonial…….

109

virgil xenophon 10.27.08 at 2:32 am

Engels/

“Right-wing arsehole” is not exactly the way to describe me (but close) rather, both by nature and by dint of living in New Orleans, I am instead a rather confirmed “hedonistic arsehole.” And loving it….at least as long as my liver holds out…..all sorts of community “standards” to uphold and all that–can’t let the side down you know……

110

someguy 10.27.08 at 3:58 pm

jholbo,

In part I agree with you. This is a pretty popular view

http://www.thenextright.com/jon-henke/republicans-are-losing-the-taxation-narrative

and would be a major departure from how things are and how they have been.

But

“And at this point it is going to emerge that 1) Obama’s egalitarianism is not some monolithic “Harrison Bergeron” value, rolling over all other values and crushing them in its relentless path;”

is setting the bar pretty low. You can wave you hands all you want but Obama is appealing to pure egalitarianism and almost certainly cares much more about pure egalitarianism than the average voter. For the average voter pure egalitarianism is a creepy and alien concept.

Concern about that sort of distribution is a defining difference between Obama and the average US voter.

I think Obama is definitely more concerned about regular old egalitarianism and less about pure egalitarianism.

So, I don’t think the average voter, upon realizing Obama in a small but real way supports a creepy view point, should jump up off their couches scream and vote McCain.

But the idea that liberalism doesn’t have any strands of pure egalitarianism running through it and so all objections to Obama are baseless strikes me as pretty silly.

“If taxing ‘for fairness’ is socialist, then America has been a socialist country for a very long long time.”

We don’t tax for fairness and taxing for fairness is not the American way. Because we need to tax we try and tax fairly.

111

Mike S 10.28.08 at 8:09 pm

>Again, I’ll start by noting an incidental incoherence. If individualism is the way to go, where is the self-evident rightness in the biblical injunction to be our brother’s keeper? “

This sounds like it was written by an individual who doesn’t do much charitable giving. I wonder what your take is on mandatory volunteerism in high schools?

112

ginsocal 10.28.08 at 11:44 pm

I’m still not seeing anything remotely resembling an argument that justifies legalized theft, which is what the government would be (and, in fact, is) involved in. What you earn is YOURS, to keep or spend as you see fit. Giving it to some slacker who does nothing is immoral in the extreme. Barry is advocating socialism/marxism, and has done so his entire adult life.

BTW, there is NO biblical injunction to “be our brothers keeper.” You people should try a little research before spewing your idiocy.

113

J Thomas 10.29.08 at 1:04 pm

I’m still not seeing anything remotely resembling an argument that justifies legalized theft, which is what the government would be (and, in fact, is) involved in. What you earn is YOURS, to keep or spend as you see fit.

ginsocal, you could argue that all taxes are legalized theft. But it would be stupid.

In fact, you are arguing that.

I think this stuff would be a lot easier to understand if we did away with the income tax entirely. Replace it with an employment tax, paid by employers. (And a proprietor’s tax, paid by the self-employed.)

So, if a company hires you, they pay your salary which is YOURS, to pay sales taxes and property taxes etc with, and also to buy whatever you want. No income tax. The company also must pay the government roughly 40% as much as they pay you, for the privilege of hiring you. They pay into your social security etc. And it could be a graduated tax, so if they pay you a million dollars a year they pay the government ten million. Why not?

But the taxes your employer pays are between your employer and the government. Your money is YOURS as long as you got it being a wage-slave.

This would be an improvement in several ways. People who only have employment income would not have to file income taxes at all. Good!

And a whole lot of people would get over this stupid idea that the government is taking their money when it collects income taxes on their wages. We pretend the employer gave you the money and the government took it away. But usually you never ever saw that money, you knew the government was going to have it before you got the job, and with every paycheck your boss mailed it to the government before he gave you your share.

It’s only a sort of polite fiction that you pay income taxes. It was never your money and the government never took it from you. Your boss paid that money to the government and it was never ever really yours.

We would all be much better off if we understood that employees do not in fact pay taxes, that everything the government gives to employees is really a sort of welfare. When you drive on an Interstate it isn’t funded with your tax dollars. You never paid those tax dollars. The government is letting you use that road for free, for nothing.

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NauticalBear 10.29.08 at 3:25 pm

I’m a little hesitant to put a comment in here because, not being an economist of any kind, a lot of this discussion has eluded me (like the jitterbug).

But what’s bothered me most is that while some very smart people here are talking about ways of ordering society’s wealth, no one seems to be addressing what I consider the most important part of any taxation policy: the right to own private property. I earned my money the hard way.

If the state is going to confiscate part of my hard-earned money at the point of a gun, then I have to be convinced that its worthwhile or the inevitable end product is revolution.

The problem I have with Obama’s “redistribute wealth” crap is not the technicalities of the percentage of income to be confiscated from citizens; it is with the underlying assumption that the state is morally correct to take any amount of money it pleases from its citizens. The whole phrase harkens back to the socialist mantra of “from everyone according to thier abilities….” etc. What’s more, everyone knows this. So whether Obama considers himself a socialist or not, we’re talking about a socialist mindset and I think its dishonest to not admit that. I know that if Obama can set the stage for confiscatory taxation then eventually the threshold for having property seized will trickle down from the uber-rich to me.

Letting the state just take money with no restrictions leads inevitably to viewing all monies as rightfully the property of the state. Obama & his fellow travelers are trying to set the stage for confiscatory tax policies because the power to tax is the power to destroy, i.e. the power to control. I’m sure they seek control for the purest of motives, but I am cynical & suspicious about those motives.

For these reasons, I’m a conservative who believes that taxation should be kept to the minimum necessary to run the government, and no more. We are talking about abridging property rights, after all, and that is always a slippery slope. Couching the taxation power-grab in terms of “fairness” or “economic justice” is dishonest; if a charity is worthwhile a decent respect for the free will of citizens means that those who support a charity may do so. I disagree vehemently with many of the charities that my money will go toward if leftists control the government (as do they if I got to control the gov’t).

The only fair way to resolve the strong feelings of both sets of citizens is to restrict gov’t spending to truly public purposes. I like to summarize those purposes with the shorthand “fire departments & sewer systems”. I think it hurts me to take my money to give to people who work less hard than I, and I know it does them no good whatsoever to make them dependent upon the gov’t & me for thier living. If a man has any inherent worth at all it is too much to allow him to become someone’s lapdog. And I fail to see the value in a country of sheep living off of the dole. Didn’t work for the USSR, didn’t work for PRC, doesn’t work for Cuba, etc.

And I think it is devestating to the social contract to have politicians refuse to elaborate on exactly what expenditures they intend to support. Anytime the children on the left can stop attributing my principles to selfishness then I think we can find compromise; but the flawed strategy of lying about what the confiscated money will be spent upon, how much is to be confiscated & from whom, & impugning the motives of us “wingnuts” can only lead to fatally flawed policies that are devastating to this country.

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Lex 10.29.08 at 3:52 pm

The thing is, your “private property” only EXISTS as such because the state, through the institution of the law, defines it into existence. Otherwise the only way you could “own” something securely would be literally to guard it night and day against all comers. [And let’s not get started on the fiat-money you call your wages.]

Absolute private property, like “human rights”, is a fiction – literally, we made it up because we liked the sound of it, and we choose to live by those rules: but we do CHOOSE [or, actually, abide by previous generations’ choices, under the false impression that they weren’t choices at all].

Any citizen of the USA who doesn’t agree that the definition of private property they choose to live under is arbitrary and culturally-bounded – and thus subject, whether you like it or not, to future majoritarian revisions – should immediately return their house to the nearest surviving Native American representative. Because if you don’t accept that premise, that means the original inhabitants were robbed of their absolute rights, which never went away, and are still valid.

So, which is it, abandon your illusions, or your home?

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Watson Aname 10.29.08 at 4:14 pm

Come now Lex, didn’t you get the memo? It’s supposed to be: no more redistribution starting … now!

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J Thomas 10.29.08 at 4:19 pm

….it is with the underlying assumption that the state is morally correct to take any amount of money it pleases from its citizens. The whole phrase harkens back to the socialist mantra of “from everyone according to thier abilities….” etc.

You got that completely wrong.

It harkens back to the American mantra of “No taxation without representation.”

If you don’t want taxes, then vote for candidates who promise you no taxes. It’s as simple as that.

“Read my lips: No new taxes.”

Your elected representatives decide how much tax you get. If you don’t like it, vote them out and put in new ones.

If the state is going to confiscate part of my hard-earned money at the point of a gun, then I have to be convinced that its worthwhile or the inevitable end product is revolution.

Woo. Them’s fighting words. You’re talking about overthowing the Constitutional representative government of the United States of America with force and violence, because you can’t get enough citizens to vote the way you want them to. Think about it. You’re talking about being one of the really bad guys.

But you don’t have to do that. You sound like you’re a libertarian, apart from this bit about violent overthrow of the USA and getting rid of the Constitution. You should support the Libertarian Party. If the GOP collapses adequately then the Libertarian Party can pick up the pieces. When the GOP becomes a third party it will disappear — it has nothing to keep it going if it can’t supply patronage.

When the Libertarian Party is one of the two main parties, then the task will be to persuade a majority of americans to vote libertarian.

In the short run, you should campaign on the tax issue. But your approach is lacking. You need something more like a flowchart.

Do you make more than $250,000 a year?

If so, you should vote against Obama because he will raise your taxes, perhaps by several hundred dollars a year. Vote against Obama and maybe you’ll get even better tax breaks than you get now.

If you don’t make more than $250,000 a year, vote against Obama. He will lower your taxes and get the money from people who do make that much. Don’t you want to pay higher taxes so that richer people can pay less? Someday you might get rich and then it will be important to have low taxes. You’d rather pay more now so you can pay less then, wouldn’t you? Of course you would. Vote for higher taxes for you and lower taxes for people who make more than $250,000.

This approach will be much more effective at influencing votes. Try it out and you’ll see.

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NauticalBear 10.29.08 at 6:45 pm

Lex,

You wrote The thing is, your “private property” only EXISTS as such because the state, through the institution of the law, defines it into existence. Otherwise the only way you could “own” something securely would be literally to guard it night and day against all comers.

You appear to fundamentally misunderstand the concept of human rights. Our Constitution is predicated upon the idea that rights are conferred by God upon us; that government exists solely to safeguard those rights. If gov’t fails to do so then it is delinquent in its duties, but it cannot take or grant rights because they accrue to us through the act of being human.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

If you believe that they don’t exist or are subject to the whim of government then you literally don’t believe in the concept of rights & thus we really can have no discussion other than an assurance at the most basic level of “I’ll thump you if you mess with me.” That is a pragmatic argument that I’m willing to have if that’s the only way you understand such things; but gov’t is at its core the banding together of civilized people to ensure that we need not each be constantly vigilant. Our contract & criminal law all recognize the existance of private property rights. Going back to my mnemonic “fire departments & sewers”, police & courts exist to help preserve those rights for us in the aggregate so that we need not all be our own security guards. But, we are not dependent upon them as our sole remedy,

Absolute private property, like “human rights”, is a fiction …

You can choose to believe that but I assure you that you’re out of the mainstream on this one.

Any citizen of the USA who doesn’t agree that the definition of private property they choose to live under is arbitrary and culturally-bounded – and thus subject, whether you like it or not, to future majoritarian revisions – should immediately return their house to the nearest surviving Native American representative. Because if you don’t accept that premise, that means the original inhabitants were robbed of their absolute rights, which never went away, and are still valid.

The aborigines who invaded first did indeed have rights; but they lacked a government that could enforce those rights against a superior culture. They lost.

I concede that the US may be invaded in the future by other humans or another species that can eliminate or subjugate us; but the existance of a possible act of force majeur does not mean I have to surrender my rights here & now.

J Thomas

You wrote:
It harkens back to the American mantra of “No taxation without representation.”

Since no one has alluded to this but you I just can’t agree with you. The issue has never been about “are citizens not represented in congress”; the issue has been “shall we elect Obama to tax the hell out of us”? This whole issue and the language in this post regarding spreading the wealth is only germane because of the clearly socialist origins of the “spreading the wealth” bilge that Obama is trying to spread.

You’re having a conversation that has nothing to do with anything I’ve written or read.

You wrote:
If the state is going to confiscate part of my hard-earned money at the point of a gun, then I have to be convinced that its worthwhile or the inevitable end product is revolution.

Woo. Them’s fighting words. You’re talking about overthowing the Constitutional representative government of the United States of America with force and violence, because you can’t get enough citizens to vote the way you want them to. Think about it. You’re talking about being one of the really bad guys.

Of course we’re talking about fighting words. Don’t you pay attention? In my post I was using the “I” in the rhetorical sense; if the citizenry decide that they are not being taxed justly then there will most certainly be a revolution. From the D of I that I quoted earlier:

…That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness

I haven’t advocated or threatened violent overthrow; I’ve commented on the universal human condition. It happened here in 1771 – 1776; replayed in 1861-1865. Happened in Russia in 1917; in Spain; etc. I can go on, but I think I’ve made my point: if government arrogates to itself powers that disturb the citizenry sufficiently then revolution is inevitable.

What is so remarkable about the US is that our Constitution provides for a peaceful change of power every 4 years, making *violent* revolution usually unncessary, but that doesn’t mean that we’re uniquely immunie among all human societies.

And what I’d prefer is that we not elect Obama or anyone like him who will push our country in the direction where gov’t becomes far more powerful than the citizens think it should be.

Am I a liberarian? Nope – I’m an adult. But just because the libertarians are yutz’s doesn’t mean they’re completely without merit.

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J Thomas 10.29.08 at 11:53 pm

“You’re talking about overthowing the Constitutional representative government of the United States of America with force and violence, because you can’t get enough citizens to vote the way you want them to.”

Don’t you pay attention? In my post I was using the “I” in the rhetorical sense; if the citizenry decide that they are not being taxed justly then there will most certainly be a revolution.

That’s treason. If you don’t like what your elected representatives do, elect new ones. If you don’t have the votes then don’t try to take over with guns against the majority.

Just don’t go there. That path doesn’t lead anywhere either one of us wants.

Am I a liberarian? Nope – I’m an adult. But just because the libertarians are yutz’s doesn’t mean they’re completely without merit.

Too many adults went with the GOP because it was electable, and because it provided patronage. Get a real Libertarian party and you’ll have something. Libertarians don’t have to be yutzes. Dump the GOP and get a real party going.

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