The Joy of Redistribution

The debate over reallocating our collective resources is at the heart of the Obama-Romney race

Having insulted and written off 47 percent of the population as deadbeats, running out of time and desperate to find some angle — some wedge issue that might improve the dismal news coming from all the polls — Mitt Romney has denounced President Obama for favoring “redistribution.” We all know that’s a Republican code word for “class warfare,” a bridge to “socialism” and a doff of the ideological hat to “losing the America we love.”

Romney knows that he faces an uphill fight. He is way down among young people, women, blacks and Hispanics and is burdened further by having to defend Paul Ryan’s budget, even as he attempts to distance himself from it. Nor has he gained any traction with his outrageous charge that Obama should be blamed for the death of our Libyan ambassador. Frankly, it makes no more sense to blame Obama for the terrorist attack on the consulate than to have blamed Ronald Reagan for the 1983 terrorist attack on the barracks that killed 241 Marines.

And now we learn of widespread Republican voter suppression efforts. The RNC has fired Strategic Alliance, the party’s long-time campaign consulting firm that is in the middle of the foul play.

So now comes Mitt’s issue du jour: “Redistribution.” Won’t fly. To quote the conservative columnist, George Will: “Is Romney kidding?” Indeed.

Consider just a few of the ways that the United States, just since the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913, has promoted “redistribution.” What else is progressive taxation but redistribution? Some pay higher rates, some pay less.

Public education is “redistributive” — childless folks pay taxes so that kids of others can go to school. And then there are all those subsidies. The Columbia Basin, for example, is one giant political bag of redistribution in the form of subsidies: farm subsidies, barge industry subsidies, energy subsidies, water subsidies.

How about business “tax breaks” — they’re all redistributive. Medicaid is both a subsidy and redistributive. The deduction of interest on home loans is redistributive.

Oh, and about those home interest deductions? How about class warfare in reverse? Consider that we make no distinction between starter homes and what Dolores Hayden in her book, A Field Guide to Sprawl, terms “Starter Castles.” She points out that not only do owners of these “starter castles,” engaged in what Thorstein Veblen famously termed “conspicuous consumption,” get to deduct massive interest payments, they also get to deduct local property taxes.

But it isn’t just the wealthy who benefit from redistribution. Given that Medicare isn’t paying its freight at this time, the elderly can consider themselves beneficiaries of redistributive policies.

Perhaps the most lopsided redistribution of all: I give you the affluent states vs. the poor states, which I’ve written about before. When California gets back about 78 cents on every tax dollar it sends to Washington, D.C., and Mississippi gets back well over $2 for every tax dollar it pays (and we see this pattern throughout the country) — if that isn’t redistribution, what is?

The truth of the matter is that redistribution is as American as apple pie.

In his acceptance speech, President Obama spoke indirectly to the “redistribution” question by reframing it: “But we also believe in something called citizenship — a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”

Citizenship went out of style back in 1981 when Reagan told the American public that government was the problem. With the attack on government came a broader attack on the idea of “the public,” from which we derive the terms of citizenship. Private was in, public was out. Citizenship, after all, implies life in the polis — in the public realm, the community.

And community is what we might call the “sense of place” from which we experience social ties that bind and define the public realm. Community is not an enemy of individuality.

We must distinguish between individuality and individualism. Individuality refers to a state of being, about self-expression of mind and spirit. Individualism refers to ideology, the turning of egoism into a virtue. Individualism should be expelled.

James Q. Wilson in his book, The Human Condition, writes: “In its worst forms, radical individualism is mere self-indulgence; in its best forms (which I take to be expressions of individuality) it is a life governed by conscience and cosmopolitan awareness.” About community, Wilson writes: “In its worst forms, extreme communalism (think Puritan New England, or McCarthyism) is parochial prejudice; in its best it is a life governed by honor and intimate commitments.”

Through individuality within the context of community, we discover those mutual obligations and responsibilities, a sense of “the public” and the terms of citizenship. Redistribution is necessary, a means to these ends.

And that is what President Obama was getting at. 

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