Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Obama and Redistribution of Wealth

The McCain campaign and many prominent conservatives are working overtime on painting Barack Obama as a socialist. They cite Obama’s now-infamous comments to the even more infamous Joe the Plumber about “spreading the wealth” and now they’re crowing over an interview Obama did in 2001, first reported breathlessly on Drudge, where he talked about “redistributive change.” As David Bernstein, a libertarian-leaning law professor, stated at the Volokh Conspiracy, this is akin to claiming that Obama is a bipedal mammal:

All that said, there is no doubt from the interview that he supports “redistributive change,” a phrase he uses at approximately the 41.20 mark in a context that makes it clear that he is endorsing the redistribution of wealth by the government through the political process.

What I don’t understand is why this is surprising, or interesting enough to be headlining Drudge [UPDATE: Beyond the fact that Drudge's headline suggests, wrongly, that Obama states that the Supreme Court should have ordered the redistribution of income; as Orin says, his views on the subject, beyond that it was an error to promote this agenda in historical context, are unclear.]. At least since the passage of the first peacetime federal income tax law about 120 years ago, redistribution of wealth has been a (maybe the) primary item on the left populist/progressive/liberal agenda, and has been implicitly accepted to some extent by all but the most libertarian Republicans as well. Barack Obama is undoubtedly liberal, and his background is in political community organizing in poor communities. Is it supposed to be a great revelation that Obama would like to see wealth more “fairly” distributed than it is currently?

The key here is noting that virtually everyone in modern political life, Democrats and Republicans alike, supports redistribution of income. And that includes John McCain. Watch this video of McCain not only defending the progressive income tax, but specifically defending that notion against the claim that it amounts to socialism:

Sarah Palin, the one repeatedly calling Obama a socialist, believes in redistribution of income herself. As governor of Alaska, she not only increased taxes on oil revenue but those taxes are used directly to send a check to every Alaska family every year, telling the New Yorker that she demanded that the oil companies “share the wealth.” This is the very definition of redistribution of income. Someone explain to me why Obama is a socialist but Palin is not.

Aside from Ron Paul, there isn’t a single prominent politician from either party who opposes the redistribution of income. It was President Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress that passed the Medicare prescription drug plan, which redistributes hundreds of billions of dollars in tax money to senior citizens, in 2003. And you can’t find a politician in either major party, other than Paul perhaps, who thinks we should get rid of Medicaid.

And let’s also bear in mind that most redistribution of income in this country goes from middle class taxpayers to the bank accounts of big corporations. The Federal budget is rife with corporate welfare, with hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies, tax breaks and other giveaways to wealthy corporations. We’re actually still subsidizing the oil companies in a myriad of ways even while they report the highest profits in the history of the world.

Ethanol subsidies are nothing but pure corporate welfare. The $300 billion farm bill passed earlier this year is almost entirely made up of corporate welfare. Huge agribusiness corporations spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to politicians of both parties and in return they get tens of billions of dollars transferred from taxpayers to their bank accounts. Socialism indeed.

Whether you agree with it or not, no one can deny that this country long ago reached a consensus on having (more or less) free markets and private ownership of the means of production while also having the government provide a floor beneath the less fortunate. In fact, virtually the entire world has reached that consensus. All modern, civilized nations now feature some mixture of private ownership with government social programs.

We have social welfare programs in this country and they are supported by both parties. Conservatives and liberals may argue over how high that floor should be, or who should be eligible for support, but virtually no politician from either party actually wants to do away with all welfare programs. The pot is not merely calling the kettle black here, the pot is also feigning shock and outrage at the discovery.