Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Charges of Socialism Are Ridiculous

A few times over the last week or so, I've started (and stopped) writing posts to explain precisely what Sen. Obama's tax policies are, to explain why they are not socialism, to explain what, precisely, socialism really is, and, just for good measure, to explain why the progressive tax system is a good thing. Each time that I've started, I've put the essay aside; not because I didn't believe what I was writing, but because I don't have time to give the material the depth of discussion truly necessary. Plus, as my wife keeps telling me, essays that are too long won't be read anyway.

But as the election draws closer and the charges of socialism keep on coming, I decided to try my hand at a brief analysis of the issue, not via a detailed economic or historical analysis, but rather, by simply looking at what the candidates have done and said. But, before I do that, I want to offer a "quickie" from Sen. Obama's speech earlier today:

What is scary about this, is that the charge that Sen. Obama jokes about isn't too far removed from the charges of socialism that are being leveled against him.

So, let's look at that charge of socialism. The basic premise of the charge really goes back to the conversation with "Joe the Plumber" (by the way, if you listen to the entire exchange between Sen. Obama and "Joe" you will see that it was a much more thorough and engaging discussion of economic and tax policies than the oft-repeated sound bite) in which Sen. Obama speaks of "spreading the wealth". Again, I don't want to get into a detailed analysis of socialism (or capitalism or communism or any other -ism), but the very notion of taxes that do anything other than pad the monarch's pockets is, essentially, spreading the wealth. Thus, when we use tax revenues to build a strong military, we're spreading the wealth to defend all of society. When we use tax revenues to build roads, we're spreading the wealth. When we use tax revenues for public transportation, to send humans into space, to research cures for cancer, to subsidize certain crops, or to help people stricken by disaster, we are spreading the wealth. When we provide Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, GI Benefits, and Pell Grants, we are spreading the wealth.

Thus, the issue isn't really about spreading the wealth at all; no, the issue is about who we tax and at what rate. That is really all that is behind the charge of socialism. Sen. Obama wants to give a tax break to the middle class and raise the tax on the wealthiest Americans to the level that it was before President Bush's tax cuts. Sen. McCain wants to keep President Bush's tax cuts and place and not give a tax break to the middle class (because prosperity will "trickle down" just as it did(n't) for the last eight years...). That is the dispute. So now, let's look at a bit of history (sorry for the small bit of duplication between these videos):

In other words, Sen. McCain favored a tax policy very similar to Sen. Obama's tax policy, at least until he had to change his mind in order to become more appealing to the Republican base. In these videos there is an exchange between Sen. McCain and a young woman at Michigan State University back in 2000. Here's a bit more on that taxes and that exchange in particular (from The New Yorker):
Of course, all taxes are redistributive, in that they redistribute private resources for public purposes. But the federal income tax is (downwardly) redistributive as a matter of principle: however slightly, it softens the inequalities that are inevitable in a market economy, and it reflects the belief that the wealthy have a proportionately greater stake in the material aspects of the social order and, therefore, should give that order proportionately more material support. McCain himself probably shares this belief, and there was a time when he was willing to say so. During the 2000 campaign, on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” a young woman asked him why her father, a doctor, should be “penalized” by being “in a huge tax bracket.” McCain replied that “wealthy people can afford more” and that “the very wealthy, because they can afford tax lawyers and all kinds of loopholes, really don’t pay nearly as much as you think they do.” The exchange continued:

YOUNG WOMAN: Are we getting closer and closer to, like, socialism and stuff?. . .

MCCAIN: Here’s what I really believe: That when you reach a certain level of comfort, there’s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more.
So what Sen. McCain thought was "nothing wrong" and was not socialism in 2000 has now become socialism and an example of why Sen. Obama should not be elected.

I also want to spend a brief moment talking about Gov. Palin. She has been very vocal in her charges against Sen. Obama. But remember what they say about throwing stones when you live in a glass house? That same article in The New Yorker points out:

For her part, Sarah Palin, who has lately taken to calling Obama “Barack the Wealth Spreader,” seems to be something of a suspect character herself. She is, at the very least, a fellow-traveller of what might be called socialism with an Alaskan face. The state that she governs has no income or sales tax. Instead, it imposes huge levies on the oil companies that lease its oil fields. The proceeds finance the government’s activities and enable it to issue a four-figure annual check to every man, woman, and child in the state. One of the reasons Palin has been a popular governor is that she added an extra twelve hundred dollars to this year’s check, bringing the per-person total to $3,269. A few weeks before she was nominated for Vice-President, she told a visiting journalist—Philip Gourevitch, of this magazine—that “we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” Perhaps there is some meaningful distinction between spreading the wealth and sharing it (“collectively,” no less), but finding it would require the analytic skills of Karl the Marxist.
In reality, Sen. Obama is no more "socialist" than Sen. McCain or Gov. Palin. Rather, the Republicans have hit upon a buzz word that they have been exploiting to try to make their case. Rather than try to win on the basis of a careful and detailed discussion of economics and policy, they have resorted to the political equivalent of name-calling. If we can make the electorate fear Sen. Obama, the reasoning must go, then we have a chance to win. Never mind the policies (damn the torpedoes?), let's just call him a name that will scare voters!

That sort of politics is at the core of what is wrong with our political system these days. Our politicians don't give the American public credit for being able to (or wanting to) understand nuance and details about complicated issues. And perhaps many people can't understand some of those issues. But I'd like to see our politicians try to explain their policies rather than trying to scare people.

Finally, in the last few days, much has been made of Sen. Obama's comments in a 2001 radio interview in which he ... gasp ... used the word "redistribute":

One of the I think the tragedies of the Civil Rights movement was because the Civil Rights movement became so court focused I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change and in some ways we still suffer from that.
(If you want to read the entire quote, it can be found here.)

Of course, Gov. Palin, that great legal mind, reads this quote exactly backwards:

Sen. Obama said that he regretted that the Supreme Court hadn't been more radical. And he described the Court's refusal to take up the issues of redistribution of wealth as a tragedy. And he said he also regretted that the Supreme Court didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers there in the Constitution.
And from this, she extrapolated:

So you have to ask, is this a suggestion that's he’d want to re-write the founding document of our great nation to accomplish his goals.
Here is what law professor Cass R. Sunstein (formerly of the University of Chicago School of Law and presently at Harvard Law School) had to say about this in The New Republic (I apologize in advance for the length):

In the last few days, the McCain campaign has portrayed Barack Obama as a "socialist," and apparently the campaign and others are combing through Obama's past statements to see if he has ever favored "redistribution."

The latest ridiculousness, featured in a screaming headline on the Drudge Report and described under the title "Shame" on the National Review website, involves some remarks made by Obama on public radio in 2001.

In that interview, Obama was discussing efforts, in the 1960s and 1970s, to redistribute resources through the federal courts. Obama said that the Warren Court was not so terribly radical, because it "never entered into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society." He complained, not that the Court refused to enter into those issues, but that "the civil-rights movement became so court-focussed," [sic]

In answering a caller's question, he said that the court "is just not very good at" redistribution. Obama added, with approval, that the Constitution "is generally a charter of negative liberties."

Obama's principal claim--about the institutional limits of the courts--was made by many conservatives (including Robert Bork) in the 1960s and 1970s: Courts should not attempt to guarantee "positive" rights, or interpret the Constitution to redistribute wealth. Obama is squarely rejecting the claim that was made by many liberal lawyers, professors, and judges at the time--and that is being made by some today.

Apparently, though, some people are thinking that Obama is displaying his commitment to redistribution, at least in principle. We have to make some distinctions here. The word "redistribution" is easily politicized, but, in terms of actual policy, it seems to include the Social Security Act (which redistributes wealth), the Americans with Disabilities Act (which also redistributes), educational reform that would improve schools in poor areas, Head Start programs, statutes allowing parental leave, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the progressive income tax, and much more. Almost all candidates for public office (including Senator McCain) favor significant forms of redistribution. With his court-skeptical statements in 2001, Obama was referring to the sorts of claims being made in courts in the relevant period, for which the word "redistribution" has often been used. (Those claims involved denials of education and medical care, and discrimination in welfare programs.)

It is true that Obama supports the Earned Income Tax Credit (an idea pioneered by Republicans). It is also true that Obama supports the minimum wage. It is true too that Obama is centrally concerned with decent education for all -- and the right to education was at stake in perhaps the most important case that Obama is discussing. It is true, finally, that Obama wants to make health care available for all. But it is truly ridiculous to take Obama's remarks in 2001 as suggesting that the nation should embark on a large-scale redistributive scheme.
OK, OK. I know that I started by saying that I wouldn't go on for too long. Sorry. But these are important issues. And for these still undecided, for those who are listening to Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin and trying to understand the issues, I believe that it is important to really understand those issues and really understand what the candidates are (or not) saying and have (or have not) said. Our system presumes an informed electorate and "informed" does not mean just listening to sound bites from the candidates or Fox news; instead, "informed" means taking the time to learn about and really think about the issues.

Sen. Obama is not a "socialist" -- at least no more so than Sen. McCain.


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