Romney and Obama: A Coupla Redistributin' Fools


I'd have a little more confidence in Timothy Noah's woolgatherer about President Obama's 1998 comments on redistribution if it were not so riddled with obvious errors that are even easier to check now than they were in the early days of the World Wide Web (the graphical and multimedia portion of the internet). 

Setting the stage for his discussion of then-State Sen. Obama's recently rediscovered comments at Loyola University, Noah describes Joe "Anonymous" Klein's novel Primary Colors (published in 1996), James Cameron's film Titanic (released in 1997) and the death of Princess Diana (in 1997) as 1998 events. And the word definitely is definitely not spelled "definitily." 

Noah makes the point that redistribution, like death, taxes, the poor and The New Republic, will always be with us: 

Every president is redistributionist in the sense that redistribution is what government does. It takes tax dollars and reallocates them elsewhere based on what it deems the public good. Part of the public good, the federal government decided long ago, is to help those least able to help themselves, if only (to quote Obama's words in 1998) "to make sure that everybody's got a shot" at economic success. Every president going back at least to Franklin Roosevelt has supported some version of this scheme, some more vocally than others.

There is one way Obama has succeeded as a redistributionist: His health care reform law, assuming it remains in place, will effect a great deal of income redistribution by extending health insurance to many people who couldn't previously afford it, especially through its expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people. This is not a feature of the law that Obama has made much effort to emphasize, for fear of getting pounced on by Romney (who accomplished a smaller-scale redistribution in Massachusetts with his own health care law). 

This is pretty thin soup. It's true that the process of taxing people and then spending that money means it will get redistributed, more often than not to contractors who have been smart about playing the public choice game.

There's a good discussion to be had about the different ways the two candidates intend to make sure other people get your money, since neither has a very serious plan to let you keep more of your money than you do right now. 

But you don't need to go back to 1998 to find this argument. The two candidates have been working pretty hard over the last week to draw distinctions on this point. Mitt Romney has taken the 47-percent wave as a signal to hit the president harder for his Robin Hood antics. Obama, on the stump and on David Letterman, has ramped up his own econo-populism, held back only by the knowledge that openly vowing to take more money from productive people is hugely unpopular. 

The reality is that both candidates are plutocratic favorites, Romney at $50,000-a-plate fund raisers in sex-party mansions, Obama at Sun King-worthy soirées that literally feature towers of golden champagne bottles. (I suspect that at some point you can be so rich that socialism and capitalism look pretty much alike, and I hope someday to find out.) But there is a difference in their rhetoric, and even TNR-style sophistry can't entirely make it disappear. 

I also like how Noah dates redistribution back "at least to Franklin Roosevelt." This country had about a century and a half of history prior to FDR's ascension, most of it featuring no income tax, large parts of it featuring no central bank, and more than 100 years of it featuring the longest, strongest period of growth in U.S. history, which coincided with gradual long-term strengthening of the dollar. I'd suggest Noah look into it, but I'm afraid he might come back with a piece about how Warren G. Harding landed at Plymouth Rock in 1492, the same year Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows became the highest-grossing film in Bollywood history. 

Here's Obama's 1998 peroration:

Update: Reason Director of Communications Chris Mitchell points out this NBC story noting that the clip above leaves off another sentence in which the president-to-be talks about competition and the marketplace. Given the hubbub over some person's editing of the Romney 47-percent comments, it's fair to include Obama's complete statement. Edited material in boldface: 

I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot.  How do we pool resources at the same time as we decentralize delivery systems in ways that both foster competition, can work in the marketplace, and can foster innovation at the local level and can be tailored to particular communities.