So there are rich and poor and it’s always been that way and always will, at least in relative terms. Fortunately, the definition of “poor” creeps up with time and, while it is still a condition aggressively to be avoided, at least it now generally includes, in the U.S., access to aspirin, refrigeration, electric light, and, television — treasures largely or entirely undreamt of by any Roman emperor or Russian czar. But hunger? Homelessness? People freezing?
In Twenty-First Century America?
Yesterday, I linked to Bill Maher’s riff on the role of luck in the fortunes of the best off.
Today, this x-rated rap ode to the thrift shop, which reminds us that, yes, a $3,500 bespoke suit is a lovely thing to have but my $156 Zara suit actually fits just as well and my friend Victor has an indispensable blue blazer for which he paid $3 at a thrift shop. In other words, if you’re smart and careful, you don’t have to be rich to live well.
Talk of poverty is a natural cousin of talk about personal responsibility and — oh, hi, Mitt! — talk about the distribution of wealth. How much should the king have? How much, the peasants? The robber baron? The robber baron’s 75-year-old shoeshine boy? And before I say another word, please put me firmly in the camp of my fellow Harvard Business School graduates who believe in the hugely positive wealth-creating power of the free market.
But I think free-market capitalism works best with enlightened regulation and, yes, wealth redistribution.
Reasonable people can argue — and should, and will, endlessly — over just how much and what kind of regulation and redistribution are needed and work best at any given time. Unreasonable people — often angry, loud, polarized, ill- or misinformed and closed-minded, on the right and on the left — will also argue over this. And, as the merits are being weighed, some will have $10 million thumbs to place on the scale. So as rational decision-making processes go, it’s a mess; but we need to do the best we can.
I don’t think anyone along the continuum from communism to pure libertarianism would disagree that a successful society requires some regulation and some redistribution of wealth.
On regulation, even most on the right think there should be some real estate zoning laws, some limits on who can drive and how fast and how drunk, someone inspecting the meat being shipped to market, some controls on what a factory can spew into the water we drink or the air we breathe. And on and on.
And right or left, all agree that stupid regulations are stupid and that excessive regulation is excessive. (See Philip K. Howard’s The Death of Common Sense.) The question is: what’s stupid? What’s excessive? And how do we field a corps of regulators who are at once talented and vigorous, yet sensible and fair?
Just because these questions have no perfect answers doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continually strive to come up with good ones. To lambaste all regulation as excessive is as detrimental to the common good as to say taxes must only be lowered, never raised.
On redistribution, similarly, even most on the right think there should be some form of progressive income tax (even a flat tax is progressive if the first tens of thousands of dollars earned are exempt), and that children should be offered a decent education even if their parents can’t afford to pay for it (which means someone richer has to). And on and on.
And done right, redistribution of wealth makes for a stronger economy, which ultimately helps those with the wealth.
Yet here is Mitt Romney calling out President Obama for daring, in 1998, to say he believed a certain amount of redistribution is a good thing.
As Michael O’Brien of NBC News reports:
Mitt Romney’s campaign this week has pounced on a 14-year-old clip of Obama speaking about “redistribution” in October 1998 at a conference in Chicago, in which the future president seems to extol the virtues of redistributing wealth.
Yet NBC News has obtained the entirety of the relevant remarks, which includes additional comments by Obama that weren’t included in the video circulated by Republicans. That omission features additional words of praise for “competition” and the “marketplace” by the then-state senator.
The truth is, just like President Clinton, President Obama is a champion of free market capitalism. And that just like President Bush, a President Romney would redistribute wealth — to those at the top.
If you like Bill Clinton, but want to save the $20,000 contribution to attend in person, watch the Clinton Global Initiative live — or at least the parts that interest you. It’s three days starting Sunday.