Defining economic justice is hard to do – go over to the Center for Economic and Social Justice and see for yourself. Giving to each what he or she is due depends on what you decide is due to anyone in particular, and just who those people are. That gets tricky. These folks say no one is talking about charity, but rather, what they call the Principle of Participation, the Principle of Distribution, and the Principle of Harmony – roughly that everyone, without exception, should get a chance to play in the game, that what is public stuff shouldn’t be hoarded by those who have gained the power to withhold it, and that no one gets to rig the rules for their own advantage. If you like detail, drop by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and dive right in – but be warned, that opens with the comment that the role of ethics in economic theorizing is still a debated issue.
Yes, fairness and distributive justice is, to many, utterly irrelevant when you’re talking about how the economy should run, or whether it should even be run. There is that notion, the libertarians of today, high on Adam Smith and that Amazing Invisible Hand, saying no one should run the economy – it’ll run itself, without regulation or anything else. They also borrow from Darwin – as with flora and fauna, changes occur over time and the fittest players in the big economic ecosystem survive, and the others die out in a process of natural selection that produces the most efficient and cost-effective critters, which presumably reproduce and produce more of their kind. That’s the idea, and Smith and Darwin are quite dead, unable to object to being used to justify Enron and Bernie Madoff, and hedge funds, and the asset-backed securities market that just collapsed. Darwin might mutter that, damn it, he was writing about sparrows and finches.
Of course most people think the economy should be managed in some way – a few rules regarding fraud and deceit, and a way for everyone to pitch in to pay for necessary things for the common good, like roads and bridges, fire and police services, a national defense, and basic utilities like water and sewage systems. That’s the stuff no one should have to provide on their own, individually – that would make no sense. Everyone agrees all that’s fine, but beyond the banal generalities, no one agrees on much of anything else. Why should I pay for a fancy new bridge in your city with my tax dollars, when my taxes are high and your ferry works well enough, or so it seems from over here? And don’t even think about telling me about new museums and parks. And so it goes. Whether or not any given public expenditure looks foolish or wise depends on where you’re standing – and any example will do, from aid to certain sorts of people, to our pooled-risk Social Security system, to subsidizing research on honeybees, which seem to be dying everywhere (which actually might matter quite a bit). When we decided to have government of the people, by the people and for the people, well, we were just asking for trouble – everyone has an opinion, and everyone has a gripe. And they have the right to say what they think is best. So we guaranteed ourselves chaos and acrimony – and people shouting about economic justice, and the use or misuse of “their” money in the pool of “our” money. It’s amazing we made it this far.
And it all comes down to tax policy somehow. People say they don’t mind chipping in a bit, but ask why the government should confiscate so much of their money – as they earned it, working hard, and it is theirs, and shouldn’t be handed out to lazy bums, or the unlucky, or people with no values at all, people who should straighten up and fly right and earn their own damned money. Others, paying what they can, and must, see the wealthy getting big tax breaks, and holding most of the wealth of the nation, and wonder why they cannot chip in a bit more so things aren’t so bad everywhere for everyone else. They say we’re all in this together, after all, and quote Teddy Roosevelt on the matter:
No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered, not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective, a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.
Conservatives, quite fond of the manly and bellicose Teddy Roosevelt, might say Teddy was just having a bad day when he said that, but this has been going on forever – or since Lincoln’s administration – the Great Tax Wars. Things shift back and forth, recently from Reagan and his notion that government is the problem and any taxes at all, on anyone at all, are a necessary evil and must be cut to almost nothing, so people can do what they want with their own money, to Obama now – the American people electing a fellow who explicitly said our government, all of us working together, can get some things done, and done well, for the benefit of everyone, and those who have most of the wealth really ought to be taxed at the old and higher rates, ironically the same rates as at the end of Reagan administration. The pendulum swung the other way. It happens.
Operationally, see this:
President Obama will propose further tax increases on the affluent to help pay for his promise to make health care more accessible and affordable, calling for stricter limits on the benefits of itemized deductions taken by the wealthiest households, administration officials said Wednesday.
The tax proposal, coming after recent years in which wealth has become more concentrated at the top of the income scale, introduces a politically volatile edge to the Congressional debate over Mr. Obama’s domestic priorities.
Now there’s an understatement. And there’s more:
The president will also propose, in the 10-year budget he is to release Thursday, to use revenues from the centerpiece of his environmental policy – a plan under which companies must buy permits to exceed pollution emission caps – to pay for an extension of a two-year tax credit that benefits low-wage and middle-income people.
The government devises a way to raise a bit more revenue, and the folks on the low end of things get a tax break from the proceeds. The folks of great achievement, who made scads of money, don’t get any of it – which may tick them off. But that’s the way things are going:
The combined effect of the two revenue-raising proposals, on top of Mr. Obama’s existing plan to roll back the Bush-era income tax reductions on households with income exceeding $250,000 a year, would be a pronounced move to redistribute wealth by re-imposing a larger share of the tax burden on corporations and the most affluent taxpayers.
And this item, from the New York Times, goes on to cover new rules for itemized tax deductions – the old system where the benefit for itemizing, say, a thousand dollars in deductions, now gets you the same benefit no matter what tax bracket you’re in, not a bigger reduction in tax liability if you’re in the top bracket. It’s a bit arcane, but the new rule treats the folks in the middle just like the folks at the top – “The White House says it is unfair for high-income people to get a bigger tax break than middle-income people for claiming the same deductions or making the same charitable contributions.”
No doubt someone will say that’s unfair to the achievers in this society, along with the piece in the funding formula with a small cut in the mortgage interest deduction for those in the top tax bracket. That’s not small when you’re carrying a twenty-million dollar mortgage on a thirty-million dollar house, of course.
On the other side of that argument is Susie Madrak with Now It’s Their Turn:
I had the strangest feeling when I read this – I felt sorry for the people who would be paying this tax increase.
And then I said to myself, “You know, I’ll bet these people weren’t exactly worried about the tax increases in my bracket for the past thirty years or so!” Hey, I felt a lot better!
Do you smell class warfare in the air? One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers says this:
I’m one of those “wealthy” people who will be pinched hard by Obama’s tax hike. I came to this country legally 17 years ago with $300.00 in my pocket but with good education. I struggled at the beginning but nevertheless, worked my way up in the high tech world. I too think that the Obama’s tax proposals are extremely unfair as if I don’t pay already enough to Uncle Sam. And this article [Susie Madrak] on a liberal web site just infuriated me beyond belief.
But after listening to and reading about CPAC conference which is held currently in Washington, DC, I realized that I would rather take my chances with Obama than anybody from that group. I can’t imagine that these people were in power for 8 years and yearn for more. This rabid bunch MUST be kept away from any kind of power for all of our sake.
Some things are more important than the Great Tax Wars, and Sullivan says he feels the same way:
I came from a modest background in another country and arrived in the US with barely a cent of my own money. I’ve worked hard and earned the American dream – and now have to work for the government for well over half the year (a government that still persecutes me for being an HIV-survivor). Obama will take more of my money – and much, much more in the future. Liberalism believes in punishing hard-working successful people in this manner – and the more you succeed, the more they will punish you.
But if I had to pick between him and the party of Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber, it’s really no contest.
But another of his readers offers what Sullivan calls the Dissent of the Day:
I thoroughly enjoy many aspects of your blog and find it to be very largely informative. However, I have to take exception with your description of the aims of liberalism – I believe you know perfectly well that liberalism doesn’t believe in punishing success/wealth-creation any more than conservatism believes in perpetuating the wealth of the rich on the backs of the poor/middle-class. These are the types of lump descriptions that just drive me wild; everyone agrees that this country would be better if more of its people were successful.
So, we disagree on the manner of achieving that outcome. Big Deal. Let’s have the argument about the specifics of that, and refrain from silly/rote/easy demonization.
Sullivan gives in:
Yeah, that kind of rhetoric isn’t very helpful. But it does express my irritation with the way some liberals – and only some – assume a kind of nefariousness among those who have actually made a material success of their lives, and see no real loss in expropriating their moolah. I have a visceral reaction to that assumption. Which is why, I guess, I’m still a conservative.
But another of his readers adds this:
I came to this country and worked hard also… and, like you, have been lucky enough to be successful. This country is wonderful that way – if you work hard you have a good chance of being successful. But many people work very, very hard and are not successful – and not because they are stupid, or lazy. The difference between Obama and his predecessors is that he realizes that the people who work hard and don’t make a lot of money, or work hard and don’t have health insurance, or who worked hard all their lives and now – in their golden years – have little to show for it also deserve some minimum level of dignity.
And yes, someone has to pay for it, and I’m happy for it to be me and people like me, because there for but for the grace of God. It’s not punishing the successful, it’s realizing that hard work is only part of the equation and we as a society need to recognize our obligations to those people who have held up their part of the bargain but didn’t end up on the winning side (and children get an automatic pass).
What you have here is, of course, the notion that success is not determined by hard work and a cheerful attitude and playing by the rules – those may be necessary for success, perhaps, depending on whether or not you were born into a wealthy family, but they are not sufficient. Sometimes it’s just luck – timing or geography or diet or whatever – that means your hard work and interesting idea makes you rich beyond the dreams of avarice, or makes you just another guy in the suburbs with car payments on a Chevy you hate.
But while that dialog was playing out at Andrew Sullivan’s site, in Washington there was that Conservative Political Action Conference – CPAC – coming to a climax with the big closing speech from Rush Limbaugh. It was supposed to be twenty minutes, but ran for an hour and a half, covered live, without interruption on CNN and Fox News. This was the other way of looking at things. He called it his “First Address to the Nation” – the definitive response to Obama’s address to Congress. CPAC presented Limbaugh with their “Defender of the Constitution” award, which included a document signed by Benjamin Franklin.
And see this video clip. They compared him to Franklin:
The king of England sat with his advisers, and they read the writings of Ben Franklin. They said, “The colonists will never be successful if they read what he writes.” Just as the king’s successor, who is in the White House, said the other day, that conservatives will never be successful if they listen to Rush Limbaugh. The only way we will be successful is if we listen to Rush Limbaugh!
Yeah, well – whatever. He defended his comments that he hopes President Obama fails – he said they were “common sense.”
There is more video here from David Neiwert, with some of the key points:
President Obama has the ability – he has the ability to inspire excellence in people’s pursuits. He has the ability to do all this. And yet he pursues a path, seeks a path that punishes achievement. That punishes earners. That punishes – and he speaks negatively of the country.
Ronald Reagan used to speak of the shining city on a hill. Barack Obama portrays America as a soup kitchen in some dark night in a corner of America that’s very obscure. He constantly is telling people that bad times are ahead, worse times are ahead. And it’s troubling because this is the United States of America. …
President Obama is so busy trying to create anger, and an atmosphere of crisis. He is so busy fueling the emotions of class envy that he has forgotten: It’s not his money he is spending.
This was what you would expect – Reagan stuff. And he wonders about liberals:
It is not their task – it is not their right to remake this nation to accommodate their psychology. I sometimes wonder if liberalism is not just a psychosis or a psychology, not an ideology. It’s so much about feelings, and the predominant feeling liberalism is about is feeling good about themselves. And they do that by telling themselves they have all this compassion.
Neiwert says this:
The coup de grace comes near the end of the speech, when he compares the nation’s economic crisis to the Super Bowl; of course he wants his team to win! Because to guys like Rush, it’s all just a game anyway.
I do hope a lot of people watched this. Because Limbaugh’s appeal is very, very narrow indeed. Mostly nasty, ill-tempered paranoids.
And what I hear in Limbaugh’s voice is a lot of fear. What they really fear is the possibility that Obama will succeed.
A more level-headed report comes from CNN:
Rush Limbaugh brought a cheering crowd to its feet several times Saturday in Washington as he called on fellow conservatives to take back the country in the keynote speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
“We conservatives have not done a good enough job of just laying out basically who we are because we make the mistake of assuming that people know. What they know is largely incorrect, based on the way we’re portrayed in pop culture, in the drive-by media, by the Democrat party,” the conservative talk show host told a mostly-young crowd of energized supporters.
“We want every American to be the best he or she chooses to be. We recognize that we are all individuals. We love and revere our founding documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. We believe that the preamble of the Constitution contains an inarguable truth, that we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, freedom. And the pursuit of happiness,” he said, pausing several times for enthusiastic applause.
That seems harmless enough, although this assessment of Obama was odd:
“He wants people in fear, angst and crisis, fearing the worst each and every day because that clears the decks for President Obama and his pals to come in with the answers which are abject failures, historically shown and demonstrated. Doesn’t matter. They’ll have control of it when it’s all over. And that’s what they want,” Limbaugh said.
It seems he forgot Bush and the mushroom cloud talk – but fear does work wonders politically, either way. But basically this was a complaint that Obama hates successful people:
“They see these inequalities, these inequities that capitalism produces. How do they try to fix it? Do they try to elevate those at the bottom? No, they try to tear down the people at the top.”
But he was kind:
Limbaugh praised Obama as one of the most gifted politicians he has seen, but said, “It just breaks my heart that he does not use these extraordinary talents and gifts to motivate and inspire the American people to be the best they can be. He’s doing just the opposite.”
And he really does want him to fail:
“This notion that I want the president to fail, folks, this shows you a sign of the problem we’ve got,” he said.
“What is so strange about being honest and saying, I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation? Why would I want that to succeed?” he said, bringing the crowd once again to its feet.
“Did the Democrats want the war in Iraq to fail? Well, they certainly did. And they not only wanted the war in Iraq to fail, they proclaimed it a failure.”
Not everyone was on board with that, as Mitt wasn’t:
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a 2008 presidential hopeful who may run in 2012, today advised conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference to face the new year “with resolve but without resentment.”
“Our country has a new president and he has our prayers and our best wishes,” he said. “We want our country to succeed no matter who’s in power … The interests of the nation come first.”
Romney went on to criticize the “liberal Democrats” in Congress and Obama’s approach to the economy and foreign policy.
Still, his sentiments seemed to put him in a different camp from Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh set off a ruckus last month when he said he wants Obama to fail.
And there was this – Romney Wins CPAC Straw Poll. The results, Romney took 20 percent of the vote, followed by Bobby Jindal with 14 percent, Ron Paul with 13 percent, Sarah Palin with 13 percent, Newt Gingrich with 10 percent and Mike Huckabee with 7 percent. Who know who we’ll get in 2012 – but Rush wants Sarah to run.
And as for bipartisanship:
Bipartisanship occurs only after one other result. And that is victory. In other words, let’s say, as conservatives, liberals demand that we be bipartisan with them in congress. What they mean is, we check our principles at the door, let them run the show and then agree with them. That is bipartisanship to them. To us, bipartisanship is them being forced to agree with us after we have politically cleaned their clocks and beaten them.
That is why he wants Palin to run. And of course Gingrich had told the CPAC folks that the Republicans really must offer new ideas and policies. As Gingrich said – “It’s not our job to be the opposition party. It’s our job to be the ‘better solutions party’.” And last year he had said the era of Reagan is over. Limbaugh lit into any notions like that:
Everybody asks me – and I’m sure it’s been a focal point of your convention – well, what do we do, as conservatives? What do we do? How do we overcome this? … One thing we can all do is stop assuming that the way to beat them is with better policy ideas. …
Our own movement has members trying to throw Reagan out while the Democrats know they can’t accomplish what they want unless they appeal to Reagan voters. We have got to stamp this out within this movement because it will tear us apart. It will guarantee we lose elections.
So no new policy ideas – Reagan was right, and Reagan was fine. But Reagan just lost the White House in a landslide. The Great Tax Wars are over. Even Andrew Sullivan knows that:
I’m actually sympathetic to the broad argument that government is usually not the solution to our problems, and I’m leery of the massive spending this president has proposed in a depression – just as I was leery of the massive spending the last president accomplished in a bubble. But what I heard most of all from Limbaugh was the demonization of libruls, again and again and again.
Limbaugh is attacking the motives and good faith of more than half the country – and of a president just elected in a landslide. Limbaugh takes us right back to the 1980s and 1990s – the old red-blue paradigm that has led to massive GOP losses. But Obama has reframed his opponents as the vested interests resisting reform. Who do you think will win on that battlefield?
And Steve Benen has an interesting comment:
About a half-century ago, actor John Wayne, who was very conservative, was asked for his thoughts after JFK defeated Richard Nixon in 1960. “I didn’t vote for him,” Wayne said, “but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job.”
It’s the kind of sentiment that seemed obvious up until about, say, a month ago.
And the timing is wrong too. See this item by Peter Goodman in the New York Times:
The fortunes of the American economy have grown so alarming and the pace of the decline so swift that economists are now straining to describe where events are headed, dusting off a word that has not been invoked since the 1940s: depression.
That’s the word:
Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com, now places the odds of “a mild depression” at 25 percent, up from 15 percent three months ago. In that view, the unemployment rate would reach 10.5 percent by the end of 2011 – up from 7.6 percent at the end of January – average home prices would fall 20 percent on top of the 27 percent they have plunged already, and losses in the financial system would more than triple, to $3.7 trillion.
Allen Sinai, chief global economist at the research firm Decision Economics, sees a 20 percent chance of “a depressionlike possibility,” up from 15 percent a week ago.
“In the housing market, the financial system and the stock market, we’re already there,” Mr. Sinai said. “It is a depression.”
The rest goes on to say that the administration’s stimulus proposals are probably not enough to keep the worst from happening, just to hold it off a bit – ” the weakening economy was destroying demand for goods and services even faster than the $787 billion stimulus program could replace it.”
See this from one of the regulars at Daily Kos:
… we on the left have been telling you people this for months. It is nice to see you starting to get over your Atlas Shrugged adolescent hangovers. As for the truly right-wing opinion-leaders and politicians, they will cling to those fantasies until the United States is a smoking ruin, and then blame the blast crater on ACORN, or something. They are not reality testing well, and must be ignored.
Funny how in a crisis everyone sane starts doing what they should have been doing all along. It’s a shame it takes a crisis to get them there. In any event, I hope the use of the D-word in the NYT wakes some people up. Indulging in ideological fantasies about the purity of the free market and the evils of helping-people socialism is only going to ruin more lives, now. That’s all it is going to do.
Ah, but what about economic justice?