My buddy Steve Teles—in my estimation, one of the country’s most creative thinkers—just sent me his latest on “The Scourge of Upward Redistribution.” Here’s the lead paragraph: America today faces two great challenges. First, the explosion in inequality threatens the public's belief in the justice of our economic system. Second, the slowdown in the formation of new businesses, a key metric of economic dynamism, endangers economic growth and employment. The solutions to these problems are usually in tension with one another — greater inequality is often the price of economic growth — and our politics has been divided according to this tension, with one side playing…
Last Fall, the excellent Jim Fleming (Boston University Law School) organized a fun conference on “America’s Political Dysfunction: Constitutional Connections, Causes, and Cures.”
Part of the conference was a panel inviting Sotirios A. Barber (Notre Dame) and yours truly to critique each other’s books on federalism—respectively, The Fallacies of States’ Rights (Harvard UP, 2013) and The Upside-Down Constitution (Harvard UP, 2012). Both of us took the assignment quite seriously.
Let’s just say there’s not a lot of common ground; it’s a rather pointed exchange. To my mind, though, the colloquy illustrates the high utility (as well as the entertainment value) of the bilateral critique format, which I think Jim Fleming invented. Kudos.
What struck me on flipping through the essays for purposes of this post is just how much of a game changer the ACA has been, or become.
Redistribution that is not actually felt by the losers at the time of its enactment is one of the most insidious features of the political order. Such legislation gives the illusion of a free lunch and disarms potential opponents who fail to recognize the costs that are coming. At least taxing Peter to pay Paul causes Paul immediate harm and prompts others to fear they may someday take Paul’s place. In contrast, silent redistributive legislation and regulation wreak havoc on democracy by undermining deliberation.
In this respect Bill Clinton was a much more dangerous politician than Barack Obama. To be sure, the current President never acknowledged that redistribution was one of the main purposes of Obamacare. Nor was he forthright about the policy’s redistributive effects. Misleading prospective losers, he promised, “If you like your plan, you can keep it.” But Obamacare’s costs have become clear relatively quickly, and the President’s party will pay a political price for them. Furthermore, Obamacare institutes new taxes to pay for some of its costs, even if these taxes were not transparent increases in the IRS tax rate schedules.
By contrast, one of Bill Clinton’s biggest redistributive scheme was almost completely hidden from the public eye.
A report of the British charity Oxfam recently drew attention to the fact that Britain’s five richest families had more assets than the lowest 20 per cent of the population put together. It called upon the government to consider instituting a wealth tax to reduce the gap, by how much it did not say. Would the poorest fifth be much the better off, or at least happier, if 20, say, or 50, rather than five families now had more wealth than they?
In his new book, Why Coolidge Matters: Leadership Lessons from America’s Most Underrated President, Charles C. Johnson claims that ‘Silent Cal’ wasn’t so much silent as he was silenced. But today, thirty years since Tom Silver’s underrated book about America’s underrated thirtieth president, Coolidge and the Historians, that is changing. In addition to Johnson’s book, we also have Amity Shlaes’s new biography, Coolidge, a prequel of sorts to her bestseller, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. Undoubtedly, there is growing interest in Coolidge that, although somewhat delayed, is especially timely for the present. Here are six lessons for President Obama from the not-so-silent Cal Coolidge.
We live in an irreligious age but that does not mean that we hold nothing sacred. We have many sacred cows, whole herds of them in fact; and one of them is equality of opportunity. To question the sanctity of this notion – as I have found if not exactly to my cost, at least at the cost of some disapproval of me – is a social faux pas worse than eating peas with your knife.
Recently I spoke to some pupils at a school in Geneva. They were highly privileged children who, as a result of their privileges, were almost certain to remain privileged for the rest of their lives. I mean this as no criticism of them or to arouse any hostility towards them; for among their privileges, or perhaps I should say advantages, was an early appreciation of the necessity to work hard. And in the modern world even the privileged have to work hard in order to maintain their privileges.
Be this all as it may, the question of equality of opportunity came up. Needless to say, all the privileged children were in favor of it; they had absorbed the indisputability of its desirability with their mother’s milk, as it were.
The closing of the XXX Olympic Games, in both French and English, reminds me of Charles Dickens who in the nineteenth century wrote famously about the Tale of Two Cities—Paris and London–separated by a channel of water. Paris was experiencing in 1789 the fervor of what Karl Marx was to later call “revolution in permanence,” and London was, following Edmund Burke, muddling through with reforms here and there. But the 2012 Olympics confirm that London, and not Paris, is the city of Europe. There are no longer two competing European tales.
But it would be wrong to conclude that the more sober tale of London has triumphed over the more intoxicating tale of Paris. It would be more accurate to say that the victory of London is the result of the ascendency of Parisian intoxication over the sobriety of the Londoner. What we witnessed at the closing of these games was not the display of good old-fashioned pomp and circumstance, or simply good old-fashioned British fun in the performance of Eric Idle’s famous Look on the Bright Side of Life skit. This was revolution in permanence. Or more delicately stated, Paris and London are now two cities with One Tale: democratic perfectionism.
My French brother-in-law recently asked me over the telephone whether I was proud of the relatively good performance of British athletes in the Olympic Games, to which I replied that I was not; rather, I was completely indifferent to it. After all, the performance of North Korean athletes was likewise relatively good, for reasons having perhaps more to do with stick than carrot, and no sensible person would conclude anything favorable about North Korea on the grounds of the prowess of its athletes.
Personally I rank such prowess rather low on the scale of human accomplishment, and my own view is that the country that always comes out best from the Olympics, the only one, as far as I know, whose government takes a principled stand against official encouragement of such prowess, is India. Of course, being a free country, it does not actually prevent anyone from devoting his life to throwing the javelin or putting the shot further than anyone else in the world, but on the other hand does nothing actively to encourage him. Bravo India, with so large a proportion of the world’s population, and so small a proportion of the Olympic medals! It is the hope of the world.