My title is really tongue-in-cheek hoping to get your attention. Anyway I am inspired by an ongoing on line discussion about sharing wealth, regulating business and the like. Let me first present the original column drawing comments.

My subject today touches upon an idea central to most current political arguments — the alleged redistribution of wealth. This is a theme that stalks extending the Bush tax cuts and the deal worked out for the so-called death tax.



Cover image of “A People’s History of Poverty in America” by Stephen Pimpare (The New Press).

A letter to the editor today frames the argument quite well. It is titled “Sick Liberals.” It is not my intention to pick on this letter writer; I merely cite him as expressing the views of many conservatives. Here are some points the writer made:

“Redistribution of wealth helps neither the rich nor the poor, because the poor have no incentive to improve their position, and the wealthy grow tired of having the fruits of their labor stolen from them.”

“As long as liberals wish to confiscate the earnings of other Americans, thereby eliminating the need for hard work, there will always be turmoil and hatred. …”

I have a few questions:

• Is it wealth distribution when the federal government pays for those who serve in the military?
• Is it wealth distribution when the federal government pays for food inspectors?
• Is it wealth distribution when the federal government pays for FBI agents and others who guard against terrorists?
• Is it wealth distribution when the federal government pays for those who work for NASA?
• Is it wealth distribution when the federal government pays for road and bridge projects? And so on and such like?

My point, of course, is that for all the talk about wealth distribution, most of what the federal does is good for everybody. Moreover, the days of wide-scale welfare freeloading is largely a relic of the past, thanks to welfare reform passed during the Clinton presidency. The way conservatives talk, it is always 1970,  or whatever the golden age of wealth distribution was. Maybe those who are well off should invest in a current calendar.

Further, if work is an all-important value, as the writer seems to suggest, why is it only the poor who suffer injury to their souls by living off money they did not earn? Surely those who inherited big fortunes only by virtue of dumb luck need to have the bracing benefits of earning their own living too? Why, maybe the death tax should be amended accordingly, because we wouldn’t want to see any rich people spoiled. Or do we?

Is Social Security wealth distribution too? You bet, same with the drug benefit engineered by George W. Bush. And how about the farm subsidies that swell the coffers of Big Ag?

Any conservatives want to eliminate any of those — or would they rather just scapegoat do-nothing poor people?

Gosh, I think I know the answer.

          That is Reg Henry speaking. He is Australian by birth, American by choice and is a columnist in the Post-Gazette and serves on its editorial board. As you may have guessed he is an unabashed liberal though he most often softens his approach with liberal doses of humor. His column appears Wednesdays and he also writes a blog for the paper with more frequent entries. I will provide some comments from other readers and add my own

              This is the letter that induced him to write his column. All passages from others besides myself will be italicized while my own will be in regular type.

It seems people wonder why Congress doesn’t work right any longer. Gridlock, anger, partisanship, even hatred. I offer a thought in hopes of helping to solve the problem.

Benjamin Franklin said, “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”

That concept is no longer accepted, and therein lies 90 percent of our present problems. Liberals suffer from the idea that we are all supposed to be equal in both our happiness and our suffering, which equates to socialism. Liberals cannot accept the idea that wealth is a goal, not a right. Redistribution of wealth helps neither the rich nor the poor, because the poor have no incentive to improve their position, and the wealthy grow tired of having the fruits of their labor stolen from them.

As long as liberals wish to confiscate the earnings of other Americans, thereby eliminating the need for hard work, there will always be turmoil and hatred. Liberalism is a mental disorder, and the sick liberals refuse to admit they are sick.

                 There are both liberal and conservative voices here. So far as blog comments are concerned, the discussions for Reg’s columns are remarkably civilized considering the topics he touches on and the disparity of views presented. Some of the posters are less refined on other blogs in the paper.
written by Centinel, December 15, 2010 – 08:33 PM
That was a really poorly written letter. I would hope that the PG receives letters from conservatives that make better arguments and paint conservatives in a much less asinine light.

Having had a couple letters published and others not, I’ve actually figured to myself before that the key to getting published in the PG as a conservative voice, one must throw in a “nutty” line or two as a bit of bait. You’ve actually made direct reference to one, Reg, so I know that things conservative letters that get the attention are the ones that get under the skin.

That being said, paying someone to do their job isn’t “wealth redistribution” in the pejorative sense we use it in political jargon. Yes, wealth is being redistributed from employer to employee, but that’s what we call a “paycheck” in layman’s terms. I volunteered for the job, but I still need to eat & pay the bills.

When someone says “wealth redistribution” in a pejorative sense, I think of the word “arbitrary” silently in front of it. And when I think “arbitrary”, I think “subject to individual will or judgment without restriction; contingent solely upon one’s discretion.”

         Centinel is an unreconstructed conservative who actually makes sense occasionally.
written by Mugsy, December 15, 2010 – 09:44 PM
… wealth accumulation is only progressive in that there is a fee (intrest) imposed for one person or group to use another person or group’s property (money).The infrastructure does not benefit the wealthy soley, and perhaps not disproportionately. The investment is not only progressive for the investor but also for the economy, with every dollar invested generating several more dollars along the way, with the very real result of employment for others.I have heard well framed arguments here that the infrastructure benefits the wealthy more and so a progressive tax structure merely reflects that, but have you considered the alternative? Capital, like industry, can be moved elsewhere so what if investment ceased here? We would be back to the days of 18 percent prime rates and stagnet economic production, or worse.

You can make a plausable argument about the infrastructure benefits being reflected in the progressive tax structure, and reasonable people can debate the proportion of that benefit, but to argue that the rich have more left over to give than their less fortunate neighbors (as Tourist did) is specious at best. There is no obligation to pay more because you have more to pay in any other aspect of life, a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk cost the same for me as they do for Bill Gates.If you go to see a concert you don’t take your W2 forms with you so they no how much your ticket should be. Some things may be subsidized to allow the poorer to have what they need, but that is a third party involvement.How much a person may have left over is beside the point.

           As to Mugsy, judge for yourself.
written by regis, December 16, 2010 – 07:32 AM
I haven’t been on a computer since yesterday, and appreciate your answer. I think it applies to a lot of people who consider themselves Republicans. It also applies to a lot of people who consider themselves Democrats. Most of the time, both parties agree that we should have a democratic system in which the will of the majority (within limits) prevails. The country has become chaotic as the two sides seek to demonize each other. From my point of view, the right has been more guilty of this than the left, but that could be my sensitivities.

From where I sit, I believe part of government’s role is to safeguard the rightful interests of those hardworking Americans we both speak of, through workplace safety, setting fair standards for wages and condition, and protecting our food supply, etc. Industry has a large propaganda machine in place, and any time they government tries to step in to keep them honest, they scream “Socialism! Redistribution!–we’ve all heard the litany. And now, thanks to a misguided Supreme Court, they have increasing power to control the government itself. And they are systematically weakening the US through outsourcing, and it is the government’s proper role to keep the country strong.

Anyway, there are plenty of areas of common ground, as long as we stop calling each other names. And there are plenty of people on all sides who are reasonable. We all have to keep from being drowned out in the shouting.

I just skimmed the previous posts, but I have an aside to Mugsy: Yeah, lower wages will draw industry back. Is that what we want? They’s have to be ridiculously low to draw factories back from China–too low to live on in this country.

As I keep saying, the survival of the US as a power trumps the desires of free-market capitalism, which, if left completely unrestrained, will destroy it. (And itself in the bargain)

               Regis is a liberal but not fanatical and we have disagreed on occasion.

written by CraigWallace, December 16, 2010 – 08:14 AM

Regis, I do think it is your “sensitivities”. The right has been called enemies by the president. Nazi’s, hostage takers, Taliban, etc. I’m not saying that there aren’t ridiculous claims like this from the right; just that I disagree that “the right has been more guilty of this than the left”.
On setting fair standards for wages, which I assume you are talking about mininmum wage, I’m torn on that. If someone is willing to work for five bucks an hour, that is their choice. At the same time, I do get it, that noone wants to see people working for cents per hour. Personally, I like having a minimum wage, but would prefer it to be solely up to states to set it. The conservative belief that a minimum wage kills jobs is a myth, in my opinion.
As for the “misguided” Supreme Court, I have to wonder if you would still find it misguided were it a liberal majority. Unfortunately, I think the days of 9-0, 8-1 decisions are a thing of the past for the most part. I think it has become a VERY strictly party-line institution. The health care mandate is a perfect example. We all know it will end up in the Supreme Court, and we all know it will be struck down with the current line-up. We also all know if a conservative retired today, then it would be upheld when Obama appointed one of his judges as a replacement
              CraigWallace’s position is pretty obvious.
              I came a little late to the party and this is the my shot across the bow.
There has been a massive amount of wealth redistribution in the United States. The problem is that it is being redistributed to the already wealthy. Visit where Timothy Noah had a ten part series in September on this phenomenon providing all the appropriate statistics as well as analysis of the causes behind it. It is fascinating reading.

Other sources have made note of this fact. What is amazing is the gap between the haves and the have nots in this country is the greatest it has ever been since such things have been tracked. In the meantime real income for wage earners has dropped in the past ten years.

            What amazes me is that most of the folks worrying about wealth redistribution, other than the rich talking heads on TV and the radio and most politicians, are the ones who are losing ground through no fault of their own.

           The Bush tax cuts, while they applied to all income brackets, provided a mere pittance of extra disposable income to most Americans. Much welcome but still a pittance.

                And while those on welfare or unemployment are criticized for their laziness or lack of motivation, multi- million dollar companies seek any financial advantage they can from governments when relocating, establishing new factories, buiding stadiums or for a myriad of other subsidy worthy projects (according to them). By the way if someone on unemployment isn’t crazy about taking a job paying less than their UC, they obviously were earning much more than that before they lost their job.

               One more thing. Often on these pages I see praise for the industrialists who started with nothing and became fabulously wealthy, even giving away their fortunes a la Carnegie. Well he and many of his contemporaries buit those fortunes on the backs of underpaid and exploited workers doing the hard and often dangerous jobs. I wouldn’t give them too much credit as the epitome of the Horatio Alger success story.
                  One regular is this woman who almost always offers a compelling perspective.
written by Yinzerati, December 16, 2010 – 11:14 AM  

This is my two cents’ worth; I ask you to consider the difference between German capitalism and American capitalism, as demonstrated in this interview:

A few months ago a German manufacturer was being interviewed on one of our cable business programs. He was obviously very wealthy so the interviewer kept on about all the taxes he was paying in Germany. The guy just didn’t seem interested in talking about it, but the interviewer would not let it go. Finally the German said. “I just don’t care about the taxes I pay”. The interviewer was speechless for a few seconds and then blurted out, “But why don’t you care”? The German thought for a couple of seconds and replied. “Because I don’t want to be a rich man living in a poor country”.

As you may know, Germans enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world and have excellent public services and low levels of income inequality. They combine a capitalist economy and work ethic with socialist tax structure, as does the United States, but Germany does a better job of caring for its citizens while profiting from commerce.

I find it sad and pathetic that the United States is practically on its economic knees with top heavy massive wealth and concomitant power concentrated in a tiny sliver at the top. Americans are being so screwed by their government and the corporations that run it.

How is it so many other countries manage to provide such great benefits for their citizens without going broke? Is the United States uniquely inefficient at government?

Look at what the Germans get for their tax dollars:

“Germans, with their powerful unions, rarely go on strikes because they have a real voice in their employment. They have an economic model with more bottom-up worker control than that of any other country in the world. Social democracy may let us live nicer lives; it also may be the only way to be globally competitive. The German model, contrary to popular neoliberal wisdom, may thrive well into the twenty-first century without compromising its citizens’ ease of living — and be the best example for the United States to follow.”

“OK, some facts about Germany, the largest economy by far in the European Union and the fourth largest in the world, measured by gross domestic product per person (GDP), with a thriving export-oriented manufacturing sector — like the kind we used to have when we manufactured goods that were desired around the world.”

Germany, with 83 million people and few natural resources, is the world’s second largest exporter, with $1.170 trillion exported in 2009. You know who is the largest exporter and it ain’t us. (Hint: It begins with C and ends in A. and has more than 1.3 billion residents-15 times the population of Germany.) Germany’s service sector contributes about 70 percent of the total GDP of Germany, with industry another 29.1 percent and agriculture less than 1 percent. Most of the country’s exports are in engineering, automobiles, machinery, metals and chemicals. Germany is the world’s leading producer of wind turbines and solar power technology.”

“The average number of paid vacation days in the U.S. is 13, compared with Germany’s 35. New mothers in the U.S. get three months of unpaid job-protected leave and only if they work for a company of 50 or more employees, while Germany mandates four months’ paid leave and will pay parents 67% of their salary to stay home for up to 14 months to care for a newborn. U.S. life expectancy is 50th in the world, compared to Germany’s 32nd.”…eview.html

             That drew these responses.

written by ciejai, December 16, 2010 – 12:21 PM
Yinzerati, the disparity between German CEO and worker pay is also a big difference. German CEO’s make about 12 times worker pay. In Japan the ratio is 11 to 1, France 15 to 1, and Britain 22 to 1. As of 2004 in the United States, the ratio of CEO to worker pay is 475 to 1.

So I think it’s safe to say, and I frequently have the same take-away from these discussions, that Americans want to be rich men in a poor country.

Any complaint about the road we’ve been headed down for decades is labeled class warfare and those with the audacity to question the result of concentrating economic/political power at the very top are labeled whiners who are all about feelings rather than logic.

The rest of the discussion seems to say that as a country we’ve been coloring outside the lines for 150 years.


written by rockhardabs, December 16, 2010 – 12:52 PM
We received our Christmas package yesterday from our friends in Germany. They have their own business, making some kind of pad for the shoulder for violin players.

Mick tells us the exact opposite. He said that taxes are an enormous burden on his business. He HAS to provide healthcare for his workers, at a very high cost, he says.

I can only tell you what I’ve been told face to face, on Skype


written by regis, December 16, 2010 – 01:10 PM

Abs–it seems like no one is ever happy with the society they’re in. You sort of have to be in the middle of something to really ferret out the flaws.

That said, your friends in the Vaterland don’t need to fear being without health care, and can claim generous benefits from the government if things go south. In other words, they are to some extent free from the fears that we suffer from here in the States. And fear is the greatest generator of hatred there is.

There is a balance to be struck. Germany is by and large a prosperous nation by virtue of keeping its manufacturing base. And it has reached a concensus about reasonable limitations on wealth accumulation if it harms the society as a whole. We here are in danger of removing the last few restraints on that impulse, and we are already paying the price.

Just my kneejerk take, I know, but hopefully worth considering

              The long since discredited trickle down theory held that putting more money in the hands of the rich would inure to the benefit of everyone below them, eventually.

              Actually the trickle up theory is what works better. Putting more money in the hands of those with less means they will be freely spending it on essentials and be better able to afford luxuries. Thus the wealthy who own businesses and can afford large scale investments will see their companies thrive, their stock portfolios increase in value and healthy dividends lining their pockets.

              We have seen huge portions of our necessary financial markets morph into elaborate gambling schemes with the purveyors profiting no matter whether the investments win or lose. And all this while creating nothing.

                Even the robber barons with their methods were creating things, developing products, building infrastructure. Ford is an example of a man who had an idea, may have been better off than many, but put out a product the masses could buy, paid a relatively high wage to his workers so they could buy the very things they made, and was amply rewarded with one of the great American fortunes.

               We have such a need for infrastructure in this country, rebuilding roads and bridges and restoring rail as a viable means of travel for the masses. If the money invested in such exotic creations as derivatives were instead channeled into infrastructure just think what a benefit that would be to our nation and what new wealth could be created that is more sustainable and spread among many rather than the gluttinous few.

                 I don’t want a socialist state any more than the next guy does, or even Glenn Beck. But since the industrial revolution the government is always discovering where the masses are being deceived or taken advantage of by at least some of the wealthy. So laws are promulgated and regulations devised to implement the laws.

              Well then you get an element of the regulatees who complains about his honest efforts being stifled when it is a small percentage of the folks in his line of work doing evil. Sometimes they make enough noise that the rules are relaxed or eliminated. Then after a time, the need for such rules is greater than ever.

          Or, as society and science advance, new manifestations of of the old evils arise in a different guise and it takes awhile before a need is seen, if any, to draw a line somewhere. All our technological innovations serve as a prime example. TV and radio begat the FCC. The greater availability of credit led to The Truth In Lending Act. Now there is great concern as to whether and how much to regulate the internet.

               There are constant shifts in the balance of power between what is permissible with no regulation and what requires a close watch.

                 I have presented my views on this topic previously:

                 I readily acknowledge that the specter of approaching socialism touches the hot buttons of many Americans. The fact is, many elements of government that border on socialism have crept into reality over the years. Some have arrived with a bang, but most with a mere whimper. A good many of these elements may not be thought of as socialistic in nature simply because they have had broad unquestioned support.

                 Social Security and its progeny are the most evident. While there is a loud call for ending it all together, that cry is being delivered by a virtual single soul with a bullhorn rather than by a full-throated, unamplified demand by the vast majority of Americans.

                    But look now at what are derisively termed the “food police” who advocate limiting access to non-nutritious food especially for children. They are viewed as wanting a nanny state. Yet I would argue that we crossed that threshold years ago when many heretofore legal and popular drugs were criminalized.

          I believe mind-altering substances should be regulated and taxed but not outright prohibited. The cost of criminalization is in the billions with no appreciable success in eliminating use of those taboo drugs. Yet the public appears generally to accept this socialistic, overly-protective function of government.

               There are other examples of this dichotomy between what is preached and what is practiced in the world of the anti-socialist. For as the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Or as expressed in ancient Mesopotamia, one man’s Mede is another man’s Persian. (God I’ve been wanting to use that line for such a long time)

                 My conclusion most assuredly cannot be the simplistic, Tarzan like “Socialism Bad”, and advise that it be avoided at all costs. Our society, our world is too large and complex and the temptation to unfairly take advantage of others if given free rein too great to completely eschew any policy touching on socialism. Rather we try to avail ourselves of the knowledge of what has occurred when certain interests are unfettered and adopt policies to curb the ills without unduly encumbering honest efforts at success. It is a juggling act and I’m afraid we often drop two out of the three balls we have in play.


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