Posts tagged with: politics

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Thursday, October 7, 2010

In the “Wealth Inequality Mirage” on RealClearMarkets, Diana Furchtgott-Roth looks at the campaign waged by “levelers” who exaggerate and distort statistics about income inequality to advance their political ends. The gap, she says, is the “main battle” in the Nov. 2 election. “Republicans want to keep current tax rates to encourage businesses to expand and hire workers,” she writes. “Democrats want to raise taxes for the top two brackets, and point to rising income inequality as justification.”

This is a constant refrain from the religious left, which views the income or wealth gap as evidence of injustice and grounds for reforming political and economic structures. In the video posted here, you’ll see Margaret Thatcher, in her last speech in the House of Commons on November 22, 1990, brilliantly defending her policies against the same charge.

Furchtgott-Roth zeroes in on a recent interview with Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

[Reich said:] “Unless we understand the relationship between the extraordinary concentration of income and wealth we have in this country and the failure of the economy to rebound, we are going to be destined for many, many years of high unemployment, anemic job recoveries and then periods of booms and busts that may even dwarf what we just had.”

Mr. Reich is wrong. He and other levelers exaggerate economic inequality, eagerly, because they rely on pretax income, which omits the 97% of federal income taxes paid by the top half of income earners and the many “transfer payments,” such as food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid and Medicare. This exaggerated portrait of inequality undergirds the present effort by the Democrats to raise income tax rates for people with taxable incomes of $209,000 a year on joint returns and $171,000 a year on single returns.

A more meaningful measure of inequality comes from an examination of spending. On Wednesday the Labor Department presented 2009 data on consumer spending, based on income quintiles, or fifths. This analysis shows that economic inequality has not increased, contrary to what the levelers contend.

Much of the discussion around this issue from the left uses the data to portray America as a heartless land of haves and have-nots. Here’s a quote from a Sept. 28 AP story on new census data, including income figures:

“Income inequality is rising, and if we took into account tax data, it would be even more,” said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in poverty. “More than other countries, we have a very unequal income distribution where compensation goes to the top in a winner-takes-all economy.”

Here’s an amazing statistic: The average 2009-10 faculty salary at Wisconsin Madison was $111,100. But the median household income for all Americans in 2007 (a roughly parallel comparison) was just over $50,000. Isn’t something out of whack here? Isn’t this evidence of severe economic injustice demanding structural reform? Sounds to me like the Bucky Badger faculty has been helping itself to second and third helpings at the “winner-take-all” buffet.

The faculty at Prof. Reich’s school do even better on average income: $145,800. I suspect some celebrity professors might even be … above average.

This is from “Capitalism: The Continuing Revolution,” an article by Peter Berger in the August/September 1991 issue of First Things. Emphasis mine.

… recent events have added nothing that we did not know before or, more accurately, should have known as social scientists or otherwise as people attentive to empirical evidence. The crucial fact here, of course, is the vast superiority of capitalism in improving the material standards of living of large numbers of people, and ipso facto the capacity of a society to deal with those human problems amenable to public policy, notably those of poverty. But, if this fact had been clear for a long time, recent events have brought it quite dramatically to the forefront of public attention in much of the world, and by no means only in Europe. It is now more clear than ever that the inclusion of a national economy in the international capitalist system (pace all varieties of “dependency theory”) favors rather than hinders development, that capitalism remains the best bet if one wishes to improve the lot of the poor, and that policies fostering economic growth are more likely to equalize income differentials than are policies that deliberately foster redistribution.

[ ... ]

to opt for capitalism is not to opt for inequality at the price of growth; rather, it is to opt for an accelerating transformation of society. This undoubtedly produces tensions and exacts costs, but one must ask whether these are likely to be greater than the tensions and costs engendered by socialist stagnation. Moreover, the clearer view of the European socialist societies that has now become public radically debunks the notion that, whatever else may have ailed these societies, they were more egalitarian than those in the West: they were nothing of the sort. One must also remember that, comparatively speaking, these European societies were the most advanced in the socialist camp. The claims to greater equality are even hollower in the much poorer socialist societies in the Third World (China emphatically included).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 6, 2010

There’s an old saying to the effect: “Show me a man’s checkbook and I’ll show you what’s important to him.”

It may not be quite the same as a checkbook, but NPR’s Planet Money passes along what a receipt from the federal government might look like for an average taxpayer (HT):


As Third Way, who put together the taxpayer receipt, argues:

An electorate unschooled in basic budget facts is a major obstacle to controlling the nation’s deficit, not to mention addressing a host of economic and social problems. We suggest that everyone who files a tax return receive a “taxpayer receipt.” This receipt would tell them to the penny what their taxes paid for based on the amount they paid in federal income taxes and FICA.

From this receipt, what’s important to the federal government, and what does that say about our society?

Today at Mere Comments I highlight what I’m calling the “Neo-Anabaptist temptation.”

Check it out.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Among the warnings sounded as the Democratic health care reform bill was being debated was that the federal insurance mandate included in the bill—even though not national health care per se—would essentially give the federal government control of the insurance industry. The reason: If everyone is forced to buy insurance, then the government must deem what sort of insurance qualifies as adequate to meet the mandate. This piece of Obamacare promises to turn every medical procedure into a major political fight, with special interest lobbying rather than objective medical expertise being more likely to determine what kind of health care gets covered and what kind doesn’t.

The problem goes beyond ugly politics, however, and into the realm of moral repugnance. The contention has already started, as the Catholic bishops have formally protested the pending inclusion of contraception and sterilization among items that must be covered in every American insurance plan.

Whether one agrees with Catholic morality is beside the point. The point is that this is no way to deal with a major economic sector in a free, pluralist society. Some medical doctors think chiropractors are quacks; some chiropractors think medical doctors are quacks. Some people think marijuana is an excellent pain killer; others think it is an immoral drug. The goods and services that the 300 million people in this country consider to be effective—or objectionable—instances of health care vary, sometimes dramatically, according to geography, culture, religion, and ethnicity. Now a single institution, the national government in the form of the Department of Health and Human Services, is charged with arbitrating which goods and services make the cut and which don’t. Those who lack the political clout to get their preferences included will pay coming and going: their insurance premiums will cover things that they don’t want and they’ll have to pay out of pocket for things that they do.

The variety offered by a medical market is a beautiful thing. Monolithic medicine mandated by a law that most Americans opposed is not.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, September 20, 2010

Last week’s Acton Commentary and blog post focused on my claims about “crony unionism” and how the intimate relationship between Big Labor and Big Government corrupt both.

Here’s another instance of the kinds of gross conflicts of interest produced by this relationship:


It’s hard to see this as anything but partisan pandering on the part of the largest public sector union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Meanwhile, the Washington Post asks, “Was politics behind the government’s decision to preserve the UAW’s pensions?” (HT: Instapundit).

Despite rumors to the contrary, the demise of the influence and legacy of Big Labor have been greatly exaggerated.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I take a look at the prospects of “right-to-work” legislation in Michigan, “A Lesson from Michigan: Time to End Crony Unionism.”

One of the things that disturbs me the most about what I call “crony unionism” is the hand-in-glove relationship between the labor unions and big government. We have the same kind of special pleading and rent seeking in this system as we do in crony capitalism, but the labor unions enjoy such special protection that there isn’t even a hint of democratic competition.

The unions get windfalls from government subsidy and turn around and actively campaign for the expansion of government. The partisan character of some of the ad campaigns funded by labor unions are particularly egregious. I’ve recently seen a labor-funded ad running in Michigan that demonizes Republicans and lauds Democrats, and FactCheck.org ran a report earlier this month about attack ads from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

One of the noteworthy thing about unions in America is that the share of union members are increasingly coming from the public sector rather than the private sector. This adds an additional layer of concern to the larger problem of crony unionism. We in effect get government employees using government funds to campaign for the expansion of government.

Labor unions form a vital part of civil society, but when they are turned into arms of the government, their purpose is perverted and corrupted. Professor Charles W. Baird examines the merits of free labor in his Acton monograph, Liberating Labor: Liberating Labor: A Christian Economist’s Case for Voluntary Unionism.

Even the idea of debating whether unions should enjoy monopolistic privileges in a state like Michigan, dominated by organized labor interests for so long, is refreshing. And I think it might just be instructive about the kinds of alternative and innovative proposals that will have traction at the polls this November.

As a follow-up to last week’s popular discussion (thanks to Glenn Reynolds) on prison rape, Justice Fellowship has just released a statement, “Left-Right Coalition Demands Stop to Prison Rape.”

The news alert begins, “A broad coalition from the political left and right has called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to cease any further delay in eliminating prison rape. Calling the high incidence of prison rape ‘a moral outrage,’ Prison Fellowship and supporters from both liberal and conservative organizations unveiled a letter to Mr. Holder demanding an end to sexual abuse in prisons across the country.”

Picking up on a theme from one of our comments, the release contends, “While prison rape is often the subject of jokes on late night television, in reality prison rape is no laughing matter.”

Our commenter is right to point to the cultural complexity of how humor functions in our society. Shannon Love contends, “I don’t think the vast majority of people who joke or threaten about prison rape are seriously indifferent to it when it comes to making real decisions about the penal system. Instead, I think they are simply pointing out one of the ugly realities of any penal system.”

When faced with a stark “yes” or “no” choice on the question of the prevalence of prison rape, I agree that most people are not “seriously indifferent.” But as for ranking it as an issue of actionable importance, I highly doubt that the issue is on the agenda of many Americans, even the most politically active.

The work of Justice Fellowship and their allies is a notable exception in this regard. Most people probably just see the kind of “Scared Straight” parody on Saturday Night Live, chuckle a bit, and move on.

Chinese Communism is no longer about ideology.  Now it is about power.

I reached this conclusion on the basis of six months spent in China and extensive conversations with my Chinese friend and fellow Acton intern Liping, whose analysis has helped me greatly in writing this post.

China began moving away from Communist ideology under Deng Xiaoping, whose economic reforms disassembled communes and created space for private businesses.  He justified these reforms to his Communist colleagues with the saying, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black as long as it catches the mice,” implying that even “capitalist” policies were justified if they succeeded in bringing economic growth.  And they certainly did.  Since that time, China’s economic development has been tremendous, so now Chinese people overwhelmingly approve of the reforms.

Despite the success of the opening of China’s markets, the country has not completely embraced free enterprise.  The PRC’s 60th anniversary celebration last fall featured signs boldly proclaiming, “Socialism is good.”  The government still controls key industries such as oil and runs enterprises in many other industries.

Further, all land in China is owned by the government.  Home buyers are technically only leasing land for 70-year periods, a policy established assuming that by that time, the houses will need to be rebuilt anyway.  The government sometimes sells land inside cities to developers for vastly inflated sums of money, evicting the people who already live there.  The remuneration that these people receive is frequently less than the value of the house, forcing them to find inferior housing elsewhere.  These policies have made housing within cities prohibitively expensive for most Chinese people, forcing them to commute from the suburbs.

Despite these continued regulations, economic freedom in China has made significant advances compared to its previous completely collectivized state.  Enterprise is permitted and even encouraged, as is trade with the outside world.  As people come to recognize the benefits of free markets, more and more are becoming eager to participate, which will make it much more difficult for the government to restrict these freedoms again in the future.

However, this economic freedom does not imply political freedom.  Deng Xiaoping, the same leader who had spearheaded the economic reforms, was responsible for the Tiananmen Square crackdown on protesters for political reform.  That incident twenty years ago is only one of the better-known examples of the political suppression that still occurs today.

The government holds a monopoly on the media, dominates the flow of information, and censors any ideas it finds potentially threatening.  It blocks access to web sites that range from information on tense political issues to social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube.  When I was studying there, during a one-on-one session a teacher asked me what I knew about the Tiananmen Square massacre, admitting that due to censorship I probably knew more about it than she did.  When we had finished the discussion, she erased all relevant vocabulary from the board, saying that she didn’t want anyone to know what we had talked about.  Through the high school level and frequently afterward, students are indoctrinated with Marxist philosophy, and studies of literature are focused exclusively on nationalistic or patriotic themes.  Political dissent is strictly censored, and dissenters are often denied work or restricted from moving or publishing their work.

According to Liping, most new members of the Communist party do not actually believe in Marxism; they just see membership as a way to improve their chances of finding a good job.  Similarly, officials suppress opposing ideas, not because they are persuaded of the truth of Marxism but because they want to prevent dissent and opposition to their own party. Promoting Marxist ideas serves as a way to silence political rivals and to enforce popular support for their own rule.  The first Chinese communists sought power to serve their ideology, but today’s Chinese communists use ideology to preserve their power.

The expansion of economic freedom coupled with the continued political repression may seem like a contradiction, and indeed areas with more trade connections like Shanghai also have more political freedom than government centers like Beijing.  Yet fundamentally, this paradox exists because of the shaky foundation for what freedom they do have.

Deng Xiaoping’s justification for moving away from Communist economic ideology was based solely on pragmatic reasoning.  He figured that since the Communist system was failing miserably, changing economic systems might bring prosperity, a prediction that has been proven true.  Yet abandoning the one-party state did not have any such obvious benefits.  In fact, retaining a monopoly on political power was in the leaders’ personal interest.  They could even argue that it was good for the nation, creating what current president Hu Jintao euphemistically calls a “Harmonious Society” unified by common political beliefs.

In the West, arguments for freedom are closely tied to belief in individual rights which the government cannot legitimately violate.  These beliefs originated in the Christian view that people have special dignity because they are made in the image of God.  This foundation means that even if it would be expedient for the government to restrict freedom, it has no right to do so.  Officials may not always act to preserve the people’s freedom, but in violating freedom, they behave inconsistently with their own ideals.

In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party is consistent in pragmatically following policies that they think will be beneficial, whether they increased freedom or not.  Freedom can bring tremendous practical benefits, which is what one would expect of a concept based on a true vision of human nature.  Yet these practical benefits alone do not constitute freedom’s foundation.  The freedom the government gives pragmatically, it can take away when freedom is no longer practical, or when the benefits it provides are less obvious.

Thus, what China lacks is not merely policies that allow people to act freely but an understanding of the essence and importance of freedom.  Freedom cannot be guaranteed by government pragmatism, but only by a genuine understanding of the rights of the people within the country, coupled with leaders who are willing to restrain their desire for power in order to respect these rights.

A recent New York Times story reports that the new British government plans to “decentralize” the National Health Care system as part of its new austerity measures.

Practical details of the plan are still sketchy. But its aim is clear: to shift control of England’s $160 billion annual health budget from a centralized bureaucracy to doctors at the local level. Under the plan, $100 billion to $125 billion a year would be meted out to general practitioners, who would use the money to buy services from hospitals and other health care providers.

The plan would also shrink the bureaucratic apparatus, in keeping with the government’s goal to effect $30 billion in “efficiency savings” in the health budget by 2014 and to reduce administrative costs by 45 percent. Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost because layers of bureaucracy would be abolished.

[N.B. Note that the plan applies only to England; the other constituent countries of the UK will have to make their own policies]

Though I’m not by any means an expert on British politics, the move strikes me as bold for two reasons: (1) The Conservatives have reversed their original position on not touching the National Health Service, instead opting for a plan that seeks to make unprecedented changes to the system; and (2) according to the NYT”s reporting, the plan is predictably facing intense opposition from government employees that stand to lose their jobs, as $30 billion are saved and 45% of administrative costs are phased out by 2014. In fact, some union members are trying to derail the plan by portraying it as a stepping stone towards privatization.

But what is most pleasant about this whole affair is the precise appeal made to an idea very similar to the Catholic understanding of subsidiarity:

“One of the great attractions of this is that it will be able to focus on what local people need,” said Prof. Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, which represents about 40,000 of the 50,000 general practitioners in the country. “This is about clinicians taking responsibility for making these decisions.”

Dr. Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the general practitioner committee at the British Medical Association, said general practitioners had long felt there were “far too many bureaucratic hurdles to leap” in the system, impeding communication. “In many places, the communication between G.P.’s and consultants in hospitals has become fragmented and distant,” he said.

Here we once again have the understanding that society should deal with problems on the lowest possible level.

But the winning side in this plan is not just that of the proponents of subsidiarity. Economic theory also suggests that policies guided by sentiments similar to subsidiarity tend to increase prosperity: the $30 billion that the government plans to cut from the budget will now exist in the private sector, where it can be put to more productive uses, in accordance with consumer demand. The civil employees released from their positions in the government do not have to mire in unemployment; instead the money from their state salaries will be used by the private sector to create positions which they can fill.

On the other side of the ocean, the United States moves in the other direction: away from subsidiarity, and towards a “one-size-fits-all” solution to fixing our health care system. The office of Congressman Kevin Brady recently released a diagram prepared by the minority of the Joint Economic Committee. It’s a fully detailed diagram of what the new health care system in the United States will look like once all provisions of the legislation are in effect. Take a look:

Chart Outlining ObamaCare

America's New Health Care System

The current health care system already raises enough questions about whether the principle of subsidiarity is respected. But this newest remake makes the question all the more serious.

In fact, over 37 states have begun to take some form of legal action against the health care legislation on the constitutional grounds that regulations such as the individual mandate overstep the federal government’s legal bounds. As I’ve argued before, the federalism of the Constitution is a rather good embodiment of the principle of subsidiarity, since it recognizes that many issues (even urgent and pressing ones like health care) should be dealt with at the state level.

And some partial victories for advocates of subsidiarity are already making the news: Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved of a ballot initiative opposing the individual mandate (by a landslide ratio of 3 to 1), and a federal judge refused to dismiss a suit by Virginia that challenges the constitutionality of the health care law.

In addition to a national campaign to repeal the legislation at a Congressional level, supporters of subsidiarity would do well to also pay attention to the battles at the state level. I suspect this is where we will see the greatest impact.

One of the charges sometimes leveled against classical liberal thought is that it opposes all authority; that it seeks to reduce society to an amalgamation of atomized individuals, eliminating the role of religion, community, and vibrant social institutions.

The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and ActonHistorian Ralph Raico seeks to argue the very opposite in his dissertation, The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. The work has been republished for the first time by the Mises Institute. (A particularly interesting note is that the chair of Raico’s dissertation committee was none other than F.A. Hayek).

Raico argues that these classical liberal thinkers did not, by any stretch, subscribe to the secularist views of some of their liberal contemporaries. Instead, they found compelling religious justifications for liberty. Contrary to the assertions of some critics of classical liberalism, they also did not oppose all authority: They recognized the essential value of family, church, and other vibrant and flourishing social institutions. These possess what I would venture to call a “natural authority,” a kind of authority and social standing that naturally arises from the workings of a free society (as distinct from the coercive authority of a government or state). Human beings congregate in these groups precisely because we are social animals, and because we identify these institutions as  conducive to our flourishing.

As Acton University faculty member Jeffrey Tucker notes:

What resources were available that highlighted this alternative liberal tradition? There weren’t many at the time. It was during this period that Ralph Raico went to work on his dissertation. He hit the target with an extended discussion of three massively important figures in the history of liberalism for whom a religious orientation, and an overarching moral framework, was central for their thought: French Protestant Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), French Catholic Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), and Lord Acton (1834–1902).

All three were distinguished for

  1. consistent antistatism,
  2. appreciation for modernity and commerce,
  3. love of liberty and its identification with human rights,
  4. a conviction in favor of social institutions such as churches and cultural norms, and
  5. a belief that liberty is not a moral end in itself but rather a means toward a higher end.

[....] Raico provides a detailed reading of their work in all these respects and shows that one need not embrace statism, and that one can be a consistent and full-blown liberal in the classical tradition [...] Ours is a varied tradition of secularists, yes, but also of deeply pious thinkers. What drew them all together was a conviction that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order.

As the case for liberty continues to be made, it is important never to neglect this extremely fruitful tradition in classical liberal thought.

Update: I stumbled across a Lord Acton quote that helps illustrate the distinction between the “natural” authority of voluntary institutions in civil society and the authority of the state:

“Authority that does not exist for Liberty is not authority but force.” – Lord Acton