Posts tagged with: redistribution of wealth

o-man-taller-facebookFor most of my life I was, at 5-foot-10, of exactly average height. But in the span of one day in 1989 I became freakishly tall.

While I hadn’t grown an inch upward, I had moved 6,000 miles eastward to Okinawa, Japan. Since the average height of native Okinawans was only 5-foot-2, I towered over most every native islander by 8 inches. It was the equivalent of being 6-foot-6 in the United States.

Unfortunately, when I would leave the towns of Okinawa and step back onto the military base I instantly shrunk back to average height. My height advantage only lasted as long as I got to choose my point of reference.

Where did the truth lie? Was I truly tall or only of average height? The answer was completely dependent on my point of reference. Height, after all, is just a statistical artifact.

While this example may seem silly and rather obvious, it highlights how we our choice of what is a relevant standard of comparison can shape our thinking on important matters of economic policy. Take, for instance, the issue of poverty and income inequality. As Robert Higgs explains,
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union-jack-flag-great-britain-x-nature-with-uk-for-2685143At the height of power, circa 1922, the British Empire was the largest empire in history, covering one-fifth of the world’s population and almost a quarter of the earth’s total land area. Yet almost one hundred years later, Great Britain is not so great, having lost much of its previous economic and political dominance. In fact, if Great Britain were to join the United States, it’d be poorer than any of the other 50 states — including our poorest state, Mississippi.

Fraser Nelson discovered that fact by using a “fairly straightforward calculation” (see the end of this article for an explanation, and what Nelson missed). The result, as Nelson explains, is that all but one income group in America is better off than the same group in Britain:
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Christian churches in the West have been focused on redistribution of income rather than the creation of wealth, says Brian Griffiths in this week’s Acton Commentary.

Through much of the post-war period in the West, the formation of economic policy was dominated by Keynesian activism on the part of governments seeking an increasing role in providing public services, reducing material poverty, and reshaping income redistribution.

In the United States, President John F. Kennedy launched the New Frontier program and his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, soon after embarked on what came to be called the Great Society. In both cases, emphasis was placed on increasing the role of the state in order to solve problems of poverty and destitution. In intellectual terms, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith made the case for trade unions and government becoming “countervailing powers” in capitalist economies in order to check the power of large corporations. In Britain, Harold Wilson nationalized various industries, developed a national plan, a comprehensive prices and incomes policy, and extended the scope of the welfare state. Across the Channel and Rhine, the Social Democrat Willy Brandt was a major influence in extending the role of government in social policy throughout West Germany.

The full text of the essay can be found here. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, April 24, 2014
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cittfcSpeaking of Thomas Piketty, here’s a very helpful and revealing interview with Matthew Yglesias, “Thomas Piketty doesn’t hate capitalism: He just wants to fix it.” (HT: PEG)

A few highlights with some comment:

On the need for a historical perspective in economics:

Thomas Piketty: … It’s not only economists’ fault. Historians and sociologists are too often are leaving the study of economic issues to economists. Sometimes nobody does it.
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income-inequalityIn his recent State of the Union address, President Obama has signaled that income inequality will be his domestic focus during the remainder of his term in office. The fact that the president considers income inequality, rather than employment or economic growth, to be the most important economic issue is peculiar, though not really surprising. For the past few years the political and cultural elites have become obsessed with the issue.

But what should Christians think, and how should we approach the issue? Should we also be concerned? And if so, what should we do about it?

Here are ten points about income inequality that every Christian should understand:
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Blog author: bwalker
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
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Pete Seeger performing the Woodie Guthrie song “This Land is Your Land” at President Obama’s “We Are One” Inaugural Concert, January 19, 2009.

Environmentalist, agent provocateur, leftist activist, recovering Communist and ardent redistributionist – all apply to the folksinger who died Monday in New York at the age of 94. Pete Seeger, for better or worse, answered to all of the above adjectives but it’s his legacy as a songwriter and performer for which this writer prefers to remember him.

Certainly there’s much with which to disagree with Seeger from an ideological standpoint over the decades of a nearly 70-year career, but taken as a whole his body of work stands out for its calls for equality and societal change for the better. Take for example Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a wonderful song that “sampled” a bit of Ecclesiastes to become a gentle yet powerful anthem akin to Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” With “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the songwriter assisted in the bridge between folk and rock when the song was appropriated by the Byrds’ signature jangle-and-harmony pop. (more…)

the_abyss_of_inequality_3075151Earlier this week I claimed you rarely hear progressives argue that income inequality is a problem since for them it just is an injustice. But there’s another reason you rarely hear them make arguments about why income inequality is morally wrong: their actual arguments are terrible.

CNN columnist John D. Sutter recently asked four people — Nigel Warburton, a freelance philosopher and writer; Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute; Thomas Pogge, director of the Global Justice Program at Yale; and Kentaro Toyama, researcher at the University of California at Berkeley — to answer the question, “Is income inequality ‘morally wrong’?”

Sutter only summarizes their arguments, but it’s doubtful they would become more coherent or persuasive if they were in book-length form. So let’s examine each of the summaries:

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Margaret Thatcher once told an interviewer, “Of course, I am obstinate in defending our liberties and our law. That is why I carry a big handbag.” During her time as Prime Minister, Thatcher’s handbag became an iconic symbol of her ability to handle opponents. The term “handbagging” even entered the Oxford English Dictionary (the verb “to handbag” is defined as: (of a woman politician), treat (a person, idea etc) ruthlessly or insensitively) to describe her rhetorical style.

Thatcher’s handbagging usually occurred during Question Time, the hour every day when members of the parliament ask questions of government ministers—including the prime minister—which they are obliged to answer. A prime example is in her last appearance as Prime Minister in the House of Commons, on November 22, 1990. Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes taunts her on the subject of income inequality.
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“You can be for markets without being against redistribution,” says Erik Angner, a philosophy professor at George Mason University. Angner argues that the Nobel-winning economist Friedrich Hayek offers an alternative to contemporary liberals and leftists on the one hand and conservatives and libertarians on the other. As Amanda Winkler notes,

In a controversial Politco op-ed published in 2012, Angner wrote that while Britain’s National Health System and the price-rigging elements of Obamacare violate Hayekian principles, creating an individual mandate and giving poor Americans some amount of money to spend on health care as they see fit does not. To Angner, vouchers for health care would function similarly to vouchers for education, helping to create stronger market forces and spurring the sort of competition that would lead to a more efficient and robust system.

Economist Tyler Cowan is skeptical that Hayek’s approach would work since, he says, “it is hard to have major government involvement in health care without price controls, or should I write ‘price controls,’ in some manner or another.”

Perhaps more interesting than whether a Hayekian could support Obamacare is the question of whether a Christian who favors free markets should be in favor of income redistribution. Personally, for numerous reasons I’m in favor of encouraging individual redistribution and leery of state-mandated redistribution. One reason, as Arthur Brooks explains, is that “[It] just culturally makes it harder for people who believe in income redistribution to give intuitively, to take personal ownership of a problem.” Believing that aiding the poor is the role of the government provides a disincentive for personal engagement with those in need.

What would most Christians consider a strong, compelling argument (assuming any exist) for free markets and government-mandated redistribution?

On National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg offers an analysis of last night’s debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. Gregg begins with the assertion by Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post that the candidates are ignoring poor and working-class Americans. Gregg responds:

… what’s generally missing from the discussion of poverty in the context of this presidential election — though Romney did obliquely reference it in the second debate — is acknowledgment that: (1) the economic causes of impoverishment are more subtle and less amenable to wealth redistribution than the Left is willing to concede; and (2), with a few exceptions, liberals are generally reluctant to acknowledge some of poverty’s non-economic causes, not least because it throws into relief some of the more destructive effects of their cultural agenda.

If poverty was simply a question of wealth redistribution, the sheer amount of dollars spent since the not-so-Great Society programs of the 1960s should have resolved the problem. In 2011, Peter Ferrara calculated that “total welfare spending [in 2008] . . . amounted to $16,800 per person in poverty, 4 times as much as the Census Bureau estimated was necessary to bring all of the poor up to the poverty level, eliminating all poverty in America. That would be $50,400 per poor family of three.”

The effects in terms of reducing poverty have, however, been underwhelming. As Ferrara observes: “Poverty fell sharply after the Depression, before the War on Poverty, declining from 32% in 1950 to 22.4% in 1959 to 12.1% in 1969, soon after the War on Poverty programs became effective. Progress against poverty as measured by the poverty rate then abruptly stopped.” In short, America’s welfare state, which now easily accounts for the biggest outlays in the federal government’s annual budget, has proved inadequate at realizing one of its central goals.

Read “Who’s Really Forgotten the Poor” by Samuel Gregg on NRO.