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Spreading the wealth around?

October 27, 2008

So Joe the Plumber thinks Obama may be a socialist, and that he wants to spread the wealth around. And this all seems to come from Obama’s proposed tax policies — higher taxes for individuals and businesses with income more than $250,000 and lower taxes for everyone else. So why does that count as “spreading the wealth around”, and why exactly should the 95% think it’s a bad idea?

To the first point, this sounds like a different kind of redistribution than Joe is calling it — not a redistribution of income or wealth, but a redistribution of tax burdens towards the wealthiest citizens. And what is the moral justification for such a shift? Surely it’s based on the principle of placing the tax burdens our society creates disproportionally on those individuals with the greatest ability to pay and who derive the greatest benefits from our society. And there’s a moral justification for this principle: higher income individuals are gaining more from the extended system of social cooperation our economy consists of, and it’s only fair that they should pay more of the total costs created by that social cooperation. Someone has to pay these costs — so the fundamental issue is simply how they should be divided. And the principle of “higher rates for higher gains” has a lot going for it.

But is it socialism? Certainly not, except in the over-the-top sense in which downstate Illinois Republicans denounced FDR for being a socialist in the 1930s. There’s no collective ownership (except of banks, thanks to a $700 billion bailout). There’s not even much of a social safety net — especially when it comes to healthcare or extended unemployment benefits. And workers and other citizens have only the most limited role imaginable in making decisions about the management of the private companies they work for. So it’s not socialism in any meaningful sense.

But the bigger question is this: why would any middle- or low-income American object to the principle that the most affluent should assume slightly more of the burden? Is it that they imagine (fictionally) that this is where they will wind up eventually, and they won’t want the bigger tax burden when they get there? Do they give credence to the trickle-down theory that got this whole slide towards greater income inequality going in the first place in 1980? Plainly most people are deeply offended by the excesses of executive compensation that are now so visible; is that an impulse towards socialism? Or is it simply that they’re alienated by the label that is being thrown at this fairly ordinary tax proposal — which certainly gives a lot of credence to the irrational power of negative image marketing?

But there is another possibility that maybe the current spin meisters haven’t thought through well enough: that the obfuscations aren’t going to work any longer; that the majority of Americans will recognize that they have a basic interest in a society that assures a decent social minimum; that paying taxes is an important act of citizenship — and therefore “patriotic”; and that the costs of sustaining social cooperation ought to be tilted moderately in favor of the non-wealthy in our society. Maybe they will begin to demand more of their government, in the form of a meaningful social safety net and assured healthcare. And maybe the old saws about having to fear “socialism” are nothing but a tired marketing campaign that just won’t work anymore.

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