Obamanomics: Or, Reflections on the Redistribution of the Wealth of Others

The spin by the major media is that the medium was the message, but the substance of the remarks delivered on April 20 by President Barack Obama to a crowd of Facebook employees deserves attention.

Indeed, for a speech panned as featuring softball, scripted questions, the Commander in Chief said a few things worth a raise of the eyebrows. Courtesy of Wired’s Ryan Sengal:

“If you are an entrepreneur with a startup in a garage, good luck getting health insurance,” Obama said. “Nothing is easier than solving a problem on the backs of people who are poor, who don’t have lobbyists and don’t have power.” … “We lose $4 billion a year on subsidies to oil companies. Now think about this: The top 5 oil companies have made between $75 billion and $125 billion each year over the last few years. No one is doing better than Exxon — well, maybe Facebook is. Why can’t we remove the tax cuts and spend the money on alternative energy to save the planet,” Obama said, to big applause.

First, some translation is in order. “Remove the tax cuts” is code for “raise taxes,” which is the centerpiece of Obama’s domestic economic agenda. To “save the planet” means to impose federal regulations that make it more difficult to be one of those start-up entrepreneurs in a garage. And the $4 billion in subsidies to oil companies pales next to the $8.8 billion in public-sector union dues that largely subsidizes the Democratic Party — perhaps eliminating these dues could help pay for health insurance for sick garage-bound entrepreneurs?

It seems that the more Obama speaks, the more he suggests that it’s necessary and proper for government to redistribute the income of those accursed “millionaires and billionaires” and put it to some public purpose. Recall his famous comment that “at some point, you’ve made enough money.”

Think about that for a moment, and ask the question: What moral right permits the government to expropriate the income of successful Americans in order to fund the pet projects of liberal activists?

Consider a hypothetical small town in Middle America — a small city, with bonds of community. If a family becomes financially strapped, perhaps because of the loss of a job, does a neighbor have a moral duty to render financial assistance? A good Christian soul should affirm with a resounding aye. The roots of that duty lie in a person’s link to other people, and taking care of one’s brothers and sisters is a virtue that requires both good intent and good action. If taking care of one’s neighbors becomes disassociated from private virtue — chiefly through taxation, and the replacement of local charity with public welfare — then the bonds of community fray. The donor obtains no moral benefit, and the recipient has no corresponding duty to the community or to remove himself with all due speed from the public dole. Public morality requires individual actors, not the mass transfer of assets with decisions made in a distant capital. The alternative is to turn needy people into anonymous casefiles and taxpayers into cash spigot turned on and off at governmental whim. You simply cannot enforce community values through the channels of large government. Real community happens among real people in small groups across the fruited plain.

President Obama is skilled at using red herrings and straw men to suggest that opposition to his redistribution scheme comes from the greed of wealthy special interests. Yet the real question is why Obama’s plans to confiscate income from the successful ought to be considered as morally proper on its face. Why should the wealthy pay a greater percentage of their income in taxation than the poor? Why must millionaires and billionares be excoriated for their success? What is the moral claim to the income of others? I have yet to hear a dedicated, coherent moral argument for why it’s appropriate for 1 percent of taxpayers to surrender almost 35 percent of tax revenues and the top 50 percent of taxpayers to cough up more than 96.5 percent of tax revenues. Why is this preferable to everyone paying the same relative tax rate?

You don’t hear Obama talking about the why of it, only about the how. He assumes the virtue of his position, but there’s no ethical paradigm on the books that’s comfortable with his redistributionist agenda (except, of course, egoism). A consequentialist would have to look at 60 years’ accumulated evidence that high taxation and government-sponsored welfare programs has led to the breakdown of poor families and the loss of jobs at the margin related to the tax squeeze. A deontologist would have to evaluate the relative duties of a taxpayer under the Constitution. A divine-command or natural-law theorist would have to study Scripture for its injunctions about chairty. The list goes on, but the result is the same: Redistributionist policies have no serious moral foundation.

Except, of course, in the “moral drama” of the political stage. Obama is promising bread and circuses for free for everyone but the small percentage of taxpayers who must foot the bill. Such a strategy gets votes, and power, but without the benefit of virtue.

Spending others’ money is easy. Finding a moral justification for it, not so much.

News Roundup

Several interesting news items —

  • Apparently, the human brain is hardwired to multitask two items, but only two items, simultaneously.  Anything more, and we lose the ability to track the risk/reward matrix for all tasks concurrently — or we reduce choices until a binary pair remains.  Perhaps one day, the business world will internalize the wisdom of this and will create systems that reduce multitasking stress among employees.
  • David Sirota, in a media-criticism piece in Salon published April 16, suggests that the state of journalism as a profession is on the downswing. He suggests that journalists who are struggling for access, either to their sources for lucrative book rights, or to subjects for potential subsequent employment, are causing significant damage to the industry: “Are many of today’s opportunity maximizers destroying journalism? Clearly, yes — and unless the media sachems institute some basic ethics rules, the parasites within their ranks could end up making sure there’s no journalism industry left to save.”
  • On the “power of the purse” front:  President Obama has ordered HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebilius to direct hospitals that receive reimbursement from Medicaid and Medicare to implement policies that allow same-sex partners to visit patients or to make decisions on their behalf. This seems like a gross overreach of federal authority, and one that Congress should consider revisiting. Legislating via executive directive may be convenient but it hardly comports with the principle of representative democracy.
  • Former Michigan governor John Engler, who was term-limited out of office in 2003 after three four-year terms, has purchased property in Michigan; after leaving office, he moved to Virginia to take over the National Manufacturers Association. Although confidants doubt he will seek further elective office, the 61-year-old could be an interesting candidate to take on Debbie Stabenow in 2012.
  • A Kalamazoo-based wrecker service, T&J Towing, is suing a Western Michigan University student for starting a “Kalamazoo Residents Against T&J Towing” group on Facebook. The company is suing for $750,000 and requesting a cease-and-desist order, and the suit apparently includes Facebook. Reaction in the community was swift; there are more than 8,000 members of the Facebook group.  T&J is accused of towing cars inappropriately. Commentators in the social-media space are sharing T&J horror stories. As a former WMU student, this humble blogger is acquainted with T&J and has little grounds to doubt the horror stories.
  • For the first time in 101 years, General Motors has dropped out of the top 10 of the Fortune 500 list. A tragedy, entirely avoidable. A few weeks ago, I was part of an interview process for a project manager who hailed from GM; he recounts how frequent and even normal it was for manager to scream at subordinates, throw things in the office and make vulgar threats. A change of culture at that venerable automaker is an absolute prerequisite to future success.
  • Kent County, citing financial constraints, is refusing to enforce a new state-wide ban on smoking; the county’s health department will not enforce the ban at any establishment that does not serve food or drinks, including Laundromats and hair salons. The state will have to manage enforcement in those facilities. Of course, perhaps instead of limited enforcement, it makes sense to move to no enforcement.
  • Paul Keep, the editor of The Grand Rapids Press, has seen fit to write a column praising his newspaper for making a difference. Claiming that the printed newspaper and MLive.com (a state-wide aggregation of local newspapers) reach 81 percent of adults in any given week, Keep believes his paper is performing a valuable public service.  And perhaps it is.  Yet I cannot help but notice that as senior, seasoned writers are disappearing from the staff roster, the quality of writing has declined substantially.  Circulating more of a second-tier product may not be the best thing to crow about; it works for Wal-Mart but is less effective, perhaps, for a newspaper.
  • Speaking of local media, behold the power of self-selection. A new opinion column at The Rapidian (by its publisher, no less) amounts to a plea for engagement. Suggested story topics: Road delays, opinions on healthcare, eating organically, top parks for kite-flying.  Yes, really.  As a “new reporter” who receives weekly story  ideas, I can say that the arts and “sustainability” are frequent subjects.  All of which prompts the question: Is The Rapidian attempting to be a hyperlocal source of community news, or a hyperlocal source of progressive-left news?  The first page includes stories on organic farming and a positive review of the anti-corporate manifesto Food Inc.  I don’t see much by way of hard news or center-right commentary. This prompts the question of whether the experiment in local journalism will merely become an echo chamber.
  • I feel her pain, but this is ridiculous: Juanita Westaby, a self-appointed flagellant of the Catholic Church, “apologizes” for the Church’s sins even as she confesses that she is considering abandoning the Church. Her column contains the admonition, “Remember the mission.” If only she would, and if only the The Grand Rapids Press had the good grace to avoid elevating holier-than-thou laity to speak on behalf of the Church Universal.
  • An upbeat note … a prominent Pakistani cleric has declared a jihad on terrorism.  Yes.  It seems that some Islamic religious authorities are beginning to struggle against radical Islamism. This is a good thing, and we can all pray to the God of Abraham that their work meets with success.

All for now.

Stupid Voters?

Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate that “the childishness, ignorance, and growing incoherence of the public at large” is the chief reason that “our political paralysis seems to have gotten so much worse over the past year.”

Weisberg makes a point that has been echoed, more subtly, by President Obama, who has hinted that the reason voters have rejected his health initiative is because they were too dumb to figure out how they’ll benefit from it in the long run. So, in his State of the Union speech, he graciously agreed to accept his “share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people” despite that, according to columnist Charles Krauthammer, Obama has given 29 speeches in the last year on the subject of health reform.

Indeed, there is evidence that some Democratic pollsters and activists are encouraging the White House to push ahead on the health bill despite its toxicity at the polls, on the theory that once it’s signed into law people will start to like it.

Who knows?  Perhaps the Kool-Aid drinkers are correct. After all, as Weisberg notes, Medicare was unpopular when it passed but now seniors cling to it like lawyers to an ambulance.

My current vade mecum text is On Democracyby political scientist Robert Dahl. Dahl argues that one of the five main criteria of a democracy is that the electorate be sufficiently informed, with access to solid data with which to make reasonable decisions about matters of public significance.

It is intriguing that the media — Did I fail to mention that Weisberg is the editor-in-chief of Slate? — has picked up the people-as-rubes trope and now suggest, ala New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, that the Democrats should simply force a health bill irrespective of the wishes of a public that is, in their consensus view, too uninformed and excitable to appreciate the benefits of Obama-style reform.

Blaming the voter for being too stupid to know what’s good for him is a timeworn elitist attack on democracy, but surely we have outgrown it by now. After all, the media and the Democrats have prided themselves as being something of a voice for the common man. So if the public speaks and it’s not in the voice of the elite consensus position, then golly — the people are insufficiently informed. And if more and more and more information doesn’t change their perspective — recall Obama’s 29 speeches? — then it’s simple fear or intransigence that is leading the people astray.

No, there can be no chance that the people know better than the political elite. Can there?

That’s the curious thing about Dahl’s perspective. If we concede that the value of a democracy is that citizens debate and discuss weighty public matters before registering their collective will, it should be a no-brainer that when 61 percent of the public wants Congress to drop health reform, the political classes will act accordingly.

Instead, the political classes suggest the people have debated the subject and came to the wrong conclusion, and because the conclusion was wrong, the Democrats should do what they think is best.

The question is simple: Given massive, sustained public displeasure with the specific proposals generated in the Democratic Congress, and factoring the widespread debate across the nation about health reform, should political leaders pull back and re-tool the plan, or abandon it altogether? Or should they press ahead, on the theory that they know better than the folks who elected them?

Yet Weisberg’s column is about more than just health care. Across the board, he argues, the people seem to want conflicting things. In principle they want health reform and banking reform and housing reform, yet they oppose the plans put forward by lawmakers or the Administration.

Weisberg’s eminently predictable conclusion is that the people are dumb: They don’t know what they want, so they want conflicting things simultaneously. He seems incapable of accepting another logical possibility — that the people may want a governmental fix on big-picture subjects, but reject the specific proposals advanced by a left-leaning Democratic Congress and a left-leaning Democratic President.

Is it possible that a center-right electorate wants specific policy proposals that reflect a center-right mentality, instead of solutions arising from left-wing ideology?

Perhaps the public wants health-insurance reform, but not a government takeover of one-sixth of the economy. Perhaps the public wants banking reform, but not massive TARP bailouts. Perhaps Americans want the Detroit automakers to be successful, but not be subsumed into the Executive Office of the President.

Public discourse is not advanced when thought leaders like Weisberg and Krugman and Obama act as if disagreements with their specific policy positions are tantamount to ignorance.

Perhaps the issue isn’t that the voters are stupid. Perhaps, instead, the voters simply prefer different and less ideological solutions to America’s pressing problems than those favored by Weisberg and his ideological compatriots.