Reds

One of the certainties of being a tax policy scholar who is not opposed to all taxes is that I am called names on a regular basis. The most common epithets are the standby favorites of the Cold War era: commie, pinko, commie-pinko, socialist, red, Marxist, Marxist/socialist . . . you get the idea. It pretty much does not matter what one says — again, unless one says that all taxes are theft — but the most surefire way to become subject to this kind of name-calling is to advocate any kind of income redistribution. Thus, while giving a talk last year, someone asked me if my argument might suggest that we should increase the estate tax. When I said yes, another academic (!) in the room said, “Oh, I see, so you believe in ‘from those who have the ability to those who have the need,’ right?”

I bring this up now because of the recent


increase in the frequency of the attacks on Sen. Barack Obama as a “socialist” because of his tax positions. As should be well known by now, Obama has proposed a tax plan that would cut taxes for couples with income under $250,000 per year (and singles under $200,000) and raise taxes on those with higher incomes, especially those with the highest 0.1% of taxable incomes. Sen. John McCain’s tax plan would lower taxes for everyone, but the cuts for lower-income people are small while the cuts for the highest income people would be enormous. (For a nice chart, see here. See also the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center’s analysis here, which criticizes both Obama’s and McCain’s plans not on distributional grounds but because of concerns about future deficits, finding that Obama’s plan increases the total debt by less than McCain’s over ten years.) The choice on distributional grounds couldn’t be more stark.

Is Obama’s plan socialism? Of course not. There is no nationalizing of key industries or any of the other hallmarks that distinguish socialist economies from mixed capitalist economies. His plan is, however, an attempt to redistribute the tax burden. If someone wants to claim that the tax burden is already skewed too much toward the rich, they’re free to do so. I have argued otherwise elsewhere. The charge of socialism, however, just doesn’t fit. Sharing a common goal (reducing income disparities) doesn’t make a non-socialist a socialist any more than wanting peace on earth makes a Christian a Buddhist.

This will not stop the name-calling, of course. Those who have a comic-book version of capitalism in their minds, in which there is either no government or only a government “so small that it can be drowned in a bathtub” (in one anti-taxer’s famous phrase), will always feel free to describe any deviation from their pure system as a movement in the direction of a state takeover of the economy. The charge of socialism thus really means “having at least one thing in common with a socialist system that I disapprove of.”

In any case, this has been a rather bad week for pure free marketeers. Even Europeans (those socialists!) have reportedly been “stunned” by the Bush administration’s participation in bailouts in the financial sector. Calling Obama a commie because he wants to increase tax progressivity looks pretty weak next to Republican-led government takeovers of financial companies that are not being allowed to fail. One scholar asked in apparent horror, “Do we live in a market economy or not?” in response to one of the recent federal rescue efforts.

I have argued recently that these efforts are necessary, because the alternative is worse. The bailouts, however, are necessary not to undermine capitalism but to save it. Full-scale crises are the playground of extremists, and no time in American history saw a larger or more energized domestic movement of genuine Communists than the Great Depression. The Republican neo-socialists of 2008, therefore, are welcome on my red bandwagon. I like mixed capitalism, and I want to see it continue in an improved form. As far as I can tell, so does Sen. Obama. Pure free markets are not even possible in practice (as I’ll argue in a future post), but if any deviation from the results of absolutely unregulated market outcomes is socialism, we are all socialists now. In fact, we have been for quite a long time.

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10 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Neil,

    Aren’t we just dealing with matters of degree? No one is advocating total state control or the complete absence of government involvement: We’re all just trying to find the optimal degree of state involvement, and we disagree (sometimes sharply) as to where the line should be drawn. Maybe we should agree that you shouldn’t be called a “commie” any more than you should dismiss others as having a “comic-book version of capitalism in their minds.”

    Your colleague,

    Orin

  2. For a nice chart see where?

  3. John, for a nice chart, see here. And, to anticipate your next question, see the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center’s analysis here.

  4. A law prof at GW who is OK with taxes and defends Sen. Obama…somehow a truth-to-power moment just doesn’t come to mind with that scenario.

    Any name calling you experience no doubt is welcomed by you as a positive reinforcement for your views..much as many of us on the other side can read the DailyKos for our own intellectual superiority fix. Look, being named “Worst Person in the World” by Keith Olberman would bring me incredible street cred and be a sure-fire resume builder…but I wouldn’t make the mistake of then projecting him as a spokesman for the Left.

  5. Neil H. Buchanan says:

    Orin,

    Thanks for your comment. I would love it if we could all agree that it’s just a matter of degree and that we’re only disagreeing about where to draw the line. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with us about that.

    There are no even marginally serious lefties (and none with any influence over public office holders) who argue for total state control of everything. We say that sometimes taxes should go up, and sometimes down. Sometimes the government should do things directly, sometimes indirectly, and sometimes not at all. We like markets but believe that they often fail or need better rules of operation.

    By contrast, the avowedly anti-tax right IS absolutist about taxes and government (taxes always down, government always bad), and they hold serious sway in the Republican party — both as members of Congress and as power brokers. Grover Norquist has weekly meetings with party powers. This is a guy who has likened the estate tax to the Holocaust. (I’m not kidding.) Anyone who argues in favor of any tax increase runs a serious risk of reprisal from his group in terms of fundraising, etc. No such thing is true at the opposite end of the spectrum. The U.S. simply doesn’t have a left wing. When someone like me is as lefty as it gets, we have a seriously truncated ideological spectrum.

    Moreover, it’s just not true that I am wrong to dismiss some people as having a comic book version of capitalism in their minds. It’s not in the same category as calling me or Obama a commie. I didn’t say that everyone who disagrees with me has such a mindset. I only said that those who do have such a mindset take liberties (pun intended) to describe people with moderate views as commies, socialists, etc. And such people assuredly do exist. I’ve talked to them and received their emails. They hold a world view in which government is bad in every way, and all our problems would be solved if we would only allow the free, unfettered market to work its magic.

    I’m glad that the world of conservatives includes people like Orin Kerr, with whom it is possible to have a productive conversation (even though we don’t often change each other’s minds). My post was about how ridiculous it is to see people call Obama a socialist because he wants to allow some of the Bush tax cuts to expire.

    Best,

    Neil

  6. Neil H. Buchanan says:

    Maryland Conservatarian:

    You wrote: “Any name calling you experience no doubt is welcomed by you as a positive reinforcement for your views.” I admire the certitude with which you misread my mind.

    Neil H. Buchanan

  7. Orin Kerr says:

    Neil,

    Thanks for the response.

    I guess I’m skeptical that there are people who are really absolutists, though. Some of it is just posturing, I think. Someone who consistently feels that the government should be somewhat smaller or somewhat bigger may always end up supporting a proposal on the table to push the size of government in the direction they want: They may feel that the overall goal of less or more government is better served by a consistent view, even one urgently expressed.

    In the case of Grover Norquist, for example, I don’t think he’s in favor of zero taxes for everything, which presumably would lead to no government at all. Presumably he favors *some* kind of taxes. It may just be that his preferences are far enough from the center of American politics that he seems to always support a tax cut no matter the circumstances. In other words, based on the choice set that is likely to seem feasible in a democratic system, he will always seem to be on one side even though he is not absolutist.

    Anyway, that’s my sense of things. Maybe I’m just over-inclined to think that we’re all in this together, trying to figure complex problems out as best we can with our very small human brains. But then it’s nice to think of the world that way!

  8. Neil H. Buchanan says:

    Orin,

    I hope you’re right that the extremists are only posturing. I can only go by what I see and hear, and I don’t see any signs of latent moderation. Of course, your theory would indicate that we would not see or hear any such signs.

    Be that as it may, even within the range of public posturing, no one on the left with any public profile postures for more government and more taxes all the time. Yet when Obama proposes to allow taxes on higher incomes to return to 1990’s levels, Rudy Giuliani (hardly a fringe player among Republicans) describes this as an “almost socialist notion.” See video at 2:35 here: http://www.rawstory.com/news/2008/Giuliani_Obama_economic_policy_socialist_notion_0914.html. Giuliani also described the Obama health care proposal (among other proposals from Democrats) as “frankly a socialist way of doing something.” See: http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/07/31/giuliani.democrats/index.html.

    Even if the extreme posturing on the right is only in the service of a preferred direction for policy rather than an extreme end point, it’s still ridiculous to paint those who resist that direction in the way that people like Norquist and Giuliani do. I’m delighted to think that they don’t really mean it; but their saying it still poisons the debate in a way that simply has no parallel in the U.S. political conversation.

    In any case, you and I can continue to argue about who should pay taxes and how much. That’s what’s great about dealing with (most) academics. Even when we ultimately disagree on policy, at least we don’t usually hurl epithets at each other.

    Your comrade,

    Neil

  9. Brett Bellmore says:

    I agree that he’s a bit short of a socialist, OTOH, it’s a little bit deceptive to refer to an income transfer that results in people being net beneficiaries as a “tax cut”. You’re cutting taxes in the positive to zero regime. When you take it below zero, it’s government handouts.

  10. Frank says:

    On my reading, Orin appears to want to include Grover Norquist in the humble and sensible middle ground of individuals who know “we’re all in this together, trying to figure complex problems out as best we can with our very small human brains.”

    The logical implication of this is that those who would exclude Norquist from such a category are arrogant, insisting that their own worldview is right and failing to take the opportunity to learn from others. But Jonathan Chait’s book “The Big Con” provides many reasons to think that the attitude Kerr implicitly derides as arrogance is in fact common sense. Here are some quotes from Chait (which are amply backed in his book):

    “The first half [of the book] explains how the Republican Party[‘s tradition of] social and fiscal responsibility . . . was transformed into . . . class warfare. It is an astonishing tale, and it begins in the mid-1970s with the rise of a sect of pseudo-economists known as the supply-siders. This small cult of fanatical tax-cutters managed, despite having been proven decisively wrong time after time, to get an iron grip on the ideological machinery of the conservative movement.”

    “The supply-siders were not maverick conservative economists, as you might assume; they were amateurs and cranks, convinced that their outsider status enabled them to reach conclusions that had escaped the scrutiny of professional economists. The most prominent among them spent their lives advocating a number of patently ludicrous ideas. While their other preposterous ideas went nowhere, the equally preposterous notion of supply-side economics took the political system by storm. Why? Because it attracted a powerful constituency: the rich.”

    Note that Chait is not a reflexive leftist–he’s severely criticized books like David Cay Johnston’s Free Lunch (a book I greatly admire) and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (here: http://www.tnr.com/story_print.html?id=69067f1c-d089-474b-a8a0-945d1deb420b )

    Kerr would apparently encourage a continual effort to include Norquistians in dialogue.

    Buchanan is asking the press and informed persons generally to stop taking seriously a movement that refuses to recognize the crying need to address our crumbling infrastructure, our failing health care system, appropriate salaries for teachers, and the costly consequences of foreign policy overreach.