Archive for October, 2009

On the Redistribution of Wealth

Much heat is generated on the airwaves these days about the appropriateness of the administrations efforts to get the economic crisis under control, efforts that include attempts to influence the salaries and bonus payments to corporate CEOs and high level officers. These efforts are being decried as ‘redistribution’ of wealth, which in turn is described as ‘taking from some (A) to give to others (B), as violation both of the ten commandments (‘thou shalt not steal’) and of the constitutional provisions for the sanctity of property. The ‘redistribution’ label isn’t even disputed by proponents of these efforts, not even by the president who is being quoted as advocating the ‘spreading around’ of wealth.

What is getting lost in this flurry of rhetoric are some basic underlying issues. The attacks — most vocally offered by ‘conservative’ talk radio and TV hosts — on the one hand raise the impression that the A’s whose property is being ‘taken’ not only have ‘earned’ their wealth though their hard work and ingenuity, but that their ranks include (or will soon) middle class folks who really do work hard and stand to lose their livelihood. And on the other hand, that the B’s to whom the wealth are supposedly given are undeserving bums who are too lazy to work for their living and expect ‘the government’ wo provide for them what they need: shelter, food, education, health care, insurance. And of course, the attacks always provide striking and outrageous examples of such people, on both sides, enough to make the viewers’ and listeners’ blood boil with anger at these ‘socialist’ or even communist shenanigans of the government — which in turn is portrayed as promoting these efforts not for the sake of the country’s welfare but for the sinister purpose of increasing its own size and power, ‘enslaving’ not only the current taxpayers but untold future generations with the tax burdens of having to somehow repay the deficits and debts incurred by the administration. Not to mention the incessant chant of how government can’t do anything right and therefore will always create more trouble, so it should stay out of

These assumptions and allegations should be examined with more care, since all of them contain elements of truth and validity, and all of them also therefore lend themselves to exaggeration and distortion.

1. Are the incomes and resulting wealth of top earners (that are to be ‘taken’) ‘earned’ — and earned on what might be recognized as a ‘level playing field’? (In other words, has the wealth been ‘distributed’ fairly in the first place?) If yes, should this be made more clear and acceptable to the public? And if not, how can the lacking degree (if any) of fairness be re-established? For example, would a strategy of prevention of unfair allocation of wealth (in the first place) be preferable to a redistribution after the fact — which will necessarily encounter the justified or unjustified but always more determined resistance on the part of the A’s?

2. Are the prospective recipients of ‘redistributed’ wealth undeserving, lazy, just out to have government provide for them? If yes, should efforts be made to change this mindset, and how? And if it can’t be changed, what would be the precise (compassionate conservative) plan for how these people ought to be dealt with? And if there are at least some among them who are more victims of circumstances than causing their own misery — such as having lost their jobs not because of their own ineptitude but because of corporate policies to mover operations overseas, for example — how should such people be dealt with?

3. Is the motivation of the administration primarily to increase the role of government aand its own power? (‘Primarily’ — meaning over the concern of solving the nation’s problems and thereby gaining the right to another term.) There is good reason to suspect that power is addictive, and may tend to act in self-serving ways motivated by self-preservation rather than the for the purposes the power holders were granted their power. If so: what adjustments and safeguards (that are currently NOT in place to control power) should be introduced to contain such tendencies? This should be asked both of the opposition and of the administration — the latter because it might increase its chances of being entrusted with a second term or winning future elections if people were more reassured that the temptation to power abuse is contained. But if power is addictive, is this only true in government, and not, for example, in the business world and high finance? Would it not be prudent to ask this question as well, and whether the standard argument of ‘competition’, vying for consumer acceptance, are sufficient safeguards against corporate power? What should be the strategy for dealing with this question? The issue becomes fully explosive as soon as one entertains the possibility that the corporate world has already extended its power influence to government: That rather than ‘government taking over private enterprise’, private enterprise has already taken over the control of government?

4. An extension of the last question: The assertion that ‘government is the problem’ — already sounding somewhat curious coming from the same people who otherwise take such great pride in the USA ‘government of, by, for the people’ — is getting even more strange considering that it sounds like an inadvertent admission that this great nation that had put a man on the moon etc. is not able to fashion itself a government that is NOT the problem? Is this an unchangeable law of nature, that we have to accept just like we accept the law of gravity? Or are there reasons, factors involved that might be rearranged so as to make government more of a solution than the problem?
Especially in view of the fact that some government functions are accepted as quite unquestionably appropriate even by those who feel attacked by the adminstration’s redistribution moves and power grabs: the military and law enforcement agencies are — of course — proper government services to protect the lives and property of citizens from evil redistribution attempts by others.

All these question, like many others, would seem to be proper topic for discussion and exploration; the answers are not at all as clear-cut and obvious as they are made out to be by the talking heads from both sides. The fact that the discourse is getting more acrimonious but strangely avoiding such detail is cause for concern indeed.