Political Animal


April 16, 2012 3:40 PM A Few More Words on “Redistribution”

By Jesse Singal

I don’t think I was very clear in my earlier post. I’m not implying that President Obama should start going around and saying, “We need to increase taxes on the rich so we can redistribute their money to the less-rich.” Of course not. But there are still ways to get people to buy into the very basic, wouldn’t-be-controversial-if-our-political-discourse-weren’t-crazy idea that one of the points of government is to collect tax money and figure out where to best spend it—that is, to redistribute it. You don’t need to use the word, just to take back the idea.

Here’s what commenter Zandru said about all this:

I can’t conceive of ANY way that “redistributing the wealth” is going to catch on, with anyone. Better phrases:
* each of us paying our fair share
* each of us contributing fairly to this nation and its needs, its growth
* “Americans need to know that their tax system is fair” (the esteemed Ronald Reagan)
* building and re-building America takes everyone pitching in, not just the middle class and poor
When you say “redistribute”, it literally means taking from some to give to others. It translates politically as taking from those who have (the hard workers) to those who have been too lazy to support even themselves. This is just a fact. So, in talking about increasing revenue, it’s critical - absolutely critical - to harp on the shared benefits we all derive from a nation where children are educated, a modern infrastructure makes commerce efficient, products - including banks - must meet minimum standards of safety and disclosure, etc.
This is NOT “redistribution” - it’s rebuilding and maintaining the nation as a whole.

Sure. The term by now is loaded in an unfortunate way. But it’s self-defeating for Obama to frame much-needed increases in the effective tax rates of the richest people in America as being key to “growth,” rather than to frame them in terms of fairness, as Zandru suggests.

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.


  • Steve on April 16, 2012 3:42 PM:

    Why is it self-defeating? There's plenty of evidence that empowering the middle class does, in fact, lead to higher growth. Framing the argument in terms of "fairness" apparently appeals to no one but liberals. So if the growth argument is true, and it's a way to make the tax fairness argument appealing to more than just the liberal base, why not make it?

    Sure, Republicans argue that their policies will lead to higher growth too. We think they're wrong as a matter of economics. Either way, though, you have to engage the argument on the merits. You're not going to get around the Republican argument simply by pretending that growth doesn't matter, and there's no reason to act like growth and fairness are opposing values when they're not.

  • Quaker in a Basement on April 16, 2012 3:54 PM:

    Here are a couple more useful words: radical, extremist.

    The House Republican caucus is filled with extremists who want to restructure the federal government without going to the trouble to debate and pass laws to do so. They're in league with radical libertarians who have publicly admitted to the goal of "shrinking government to the point we can drown it in the bathtub."

    Our Congress has passed laws that require the federal government to perform specific functions. Rather than openly debate these laws to change or repeal them, these extremists seek to deliberately run up the federal deficit by cutting taxes without cutting expenses. They're trying to wreck the federal budget so the government simply can't afford to do the things it is required by law to do.

  • biggerbox on April 16, 2012 3:54 PM:

    The fairness frame is good, as far as it goes, but it needs support from confronting the fact that redistribution is ALREADY IN PROGRESS, just in the wrong direction.

    There are plenty of figures to show that a major effect of the Bush years was to concentrate wealth at the top, and that income for the 'rest of us' has been flat for decades, despite increased productivity.

    Maybe the frame should be that we are trying to STOP the redistribution of wealth, and make sure everyone pays a fair share of what it takes to make the nation great.

  • RP on April 16, 2012 4:00 PM:

    Nonsense. First, you've simply asserted that Obama's growth frame is self-defeating and that a fairness frame would be more effective without offering any evidence. We liberals might like the fairness frame better, but I don't see any evidence that that approach will persuade more voters. Second, Obama *is* taking back the idea of redistribution by reframing it as growth. He's saying the economy will improve and we'll all be better off if we raise taxes on the rich; the government will have more money for stuff like infrastructure that will help everyone. Third, fairness and growth are not mutually exclusive frames (it's a floor wax and a desert topping!).

  • Another Steve on April 16, 2012 4:04 PM:

    Periodically, liberals manage to break free of their perpetual delusion that the general electorate knows jack shit about public policy and having the best policies is the key to victory just long enough to actually win an election. And then they promptly revert to it.

  • Ali on April 16, 2012 4:16 PM:

    I'm confused. Obama has used the fairness framing for many months. What's the critique here? Did I miss something?

  • hells littlest angel on April 16, 2012 4:20 PM:

    You describe the problem perfectly, Jesse, without seeming to understand its significance:


    That is a big fucking if.

    Sadly, the political fight in this country must be not conservative vs progressive, but insanely radical vs not insanely radical. We have a long way to go before we get a decent government again.

  • Daddy Love on April 16, 2012 4:38 PM:

    Everyone knows that redistribution is just taking money from poor, hard-working, salt of the earth, God-fearing white folk and giving to to lazy, worthless, shiftless, eye-rolling, undeserving, too-many-children-and-not-enough-daddies black and brown people.

  • chi res on April 16, 2012 4:42 PM:

    Well, Jesse, that was... awkward.

    Next time, you might want to turn your head and look behind before you start walking backwards.

  • Christiaan on April 16, 2012 4:58 PM:

    It's the current tax code that's already redistributing, to the rich (15% anyone?). It's Mitt's proposals that do even a lot more redistributing, to the rich. So no risk for Obama to use the word, just use it factually.

  • badpoetry on April 16, 2012 5:08 PM:

    The thing is, just about everything the government ever does is "redistribution of wealth".

    If the government starts a program to help little kids with Downs Syndrome, that's a redistribution of wealth from me, the taxpayer, to little kids with Downs Syndrome.

    If the government builds a new highway near me that makes my commute to work better, that's a redistribution of wealth from other taxpayers (that don't live near the highway) to me and my neighbors (as well as the people that actually do the building of the road).

    If the government decides we should know more about the dwarf planet Ceres, and builds a spacecraft to fly to it, that's redistribution of wealth from me (taxpayer) to the scientists at NASA (and the related industries).

    If the government decides to build a fence on the border and hire more border patrol agents, that's a redistribution of wealth from me to the fence contractors and border guards.

    If the government decides to go to war in Iraq, that's a redistribution of wealth from me, a taxpayer, to the executives at Halliburton.

    We just need to make our wealth redistribute in a way that promotes prosperity...

  • Forrest Leeson on April 16, 2012 5:12 PM:

    A better phrase? Here:

    "Restoring the wealth."

  • SecularAnimist on April 16, 2012 5:15 PM:

    Republicans LOVE redistributing wealth.

    That's why they've been pushing policies that redistribute wealth TO the richest one percent FROM everyone else for the last few decades.

    And they've been highly successful at it, as demonstrated by the ever-increasing concentration of wealth and income in the hands of a tiny, ultra-rich, increasingly hereditary minority.

  • anandine on April 16, 2012 5:20 PM:

    There is also the issue that the tax system redistributes money from California and New York to Mississippi and Alabama.

    I'm generally in favor of this type of redistribution, or we would probably not have any high schools in Mississippi. I'm also in favor or redistribution from rich to poor.

  • bdop4 on April 16, 2012 5:44 PM:

    The correct frame is investment.

    The economic recovery will have to be conducted like a joint venture. The top 1%, who have all the money, are going to have to be the money partners.

    The rest of us will keep working our asses off and acquire new skills if necessary to contribute to the new economy. But we can't do it with tuition at the current sky-high rates.

  • Doug on April 16, 2012 5:44 PM:

    "Redistribution" MAY have some bad connotations, and for that reason I'd avoid it. It's not as if the word won't get enough (mis)use by Republicans!
    So far, the major accomplishment of President Obama regarding taxes is that he's tapping a current that has ALWAYS existed - people don't like paying taxes, but they really, really HATE paying taxes in a rigged tax structure. And people nowadays know that the tax structure is rigged to benefit the (extremely) wealthy.
    Republicans can call it class warfare, they should know, but President Obama and the rest of us need to continue pushing the truth: the ultra-rich AREN'T paying their share. And until they do, we cannot claim that there isn't money for Medicaid. Or Food Stamps. Or whatever program that actually works and which the Republicans are trying to gut this week.
    Republicans KNOW that raising taxes on the 1% won't destroy the economy; what they're afraid of is having it SHOWN to the voting public that the economy doesn't self-destruct when taxes are raised. Then try explaining four-plus decades of lying to voters. Can you say "massive electoral defeat"?
    I knew you could...

  • skeptonomist on April 16, 2012 6:10 PM:

    What Obama originally said is correct; the main reasons for increasing taxes on the rich have to do with overall economic growth. Overall economic performance was indisputably better when income-tax rates were highly progressive - claims that such rates would be disastrous are completely false. There is no reason to allow Republicans to get away with these claims.

    Currently there is plenty of money available, but the people who have it are not using it. Corporations are not investing, they are buying their own stock. Redistribution is necessary to put the money in the hands of people who will spend it and create demand. This is not really a matter of fairness, but of utility.

  • skeptonomist on April 16, 2012 6:15 PM:

    By the way, Obama has continued the policies of the Bush administration in essentially redistributing money or allowing it to be redistributed from taxpayers to big banks. Most people are aware of this and it certainly weakens any claims that he makes about fairness.

  • Mark Kawakami on April 16, 2012 6:35 PM:

    I agree, "redistribution" is too loaded a term now to be politically viable. Rather than fighting it, let's use it. "We need a tax system that's fair, that recognizes how economies function. We can't keep allowing middle-class wealth to be redistributed upwards to the top 1%!"

    If you think people hate the idea of downward redistribution, just imagine how apoplectic upward redistribution would make them. It also has the benefit of being true: Tax cuts on the richest Americans are paid for by the rest of us.

  • Steve P on April 16, 2012 8:24 PM:

    "the Eisenhower years"
    Not quite the Golden Age everyone imagines, but it's still there as The Last Time We Were Happy. Just keep pounding away at returning tax rates to the levels of the Eisenhower years and see the Fever Dreamers try to complain about that.

  • Jimo on April 16, 2012 8:46 PM:

    I don't believe you can get much better than to stick with the basic formula of "those who accrue the most benefits from our system should bear the biggest burden of paying for that system."

    If the top 1% capture 50% of wealth produced and protected by this nation then asking them to foot 50% of the bills (plus the share of those in poverty) is just a "flat tax" burden - hardly a progressive system of taxation at all.

    We've had enough in this country of Romney-like moochers: happy enough to collect on the opportunities that the U.S. of A. provides but running for cover when the bill arrives.

  • FlipYrWhig on April 16, 2012 9:11 PM:

    Obama didn't just say "growth" and stop, he said that growth should be "broad-based." Is there a huge difference between saying that the country should have broad-based growth and that the country should be more "fair"? You can emphasize paying a fair share, but the second-order reason why the wealthy should pay a fair share is... not to confiscate their stuff in the name of fairness, but to catalyze general prosperity, or, perhaps, broad-based growth. In other words, why be fair? So everyone can benefit. These are two sides of the same coin, no?

  • Texas Aggie on April 16, 2012 9:30 PM:

    The problem with using "fairness" as a talking point is that to the radical right, "fairness" means letting people keep their money instead of taking it with taxes. They don't see beyond that to the necessity for financing government duties. That's why a flat tax has so much appeal to the rightwing even though it's regressive as blazes.

    But the point has been made elsewhere by Robert Reich that taxes are actually an investment in the country's well-being and future economic success. That should be able to beat "fairness", especially if you connect the idea that these moguls made their billions because of the way the country is and they should pay for what they've been given.


  • Anonymous on April 16, 2012 10:51 PM:

    So as far as I'm concerned, the key to “growth” is pretty much the same thing as rebuilding and maintaining the nation as a whole.

    Semantics. Really, that's all.

  • c00p on April 16, 2012 10:52 PM:

    I agree with biggerbox and Christiaan. We're already redistributing, but in the manner of the feudal middle ages. Corporations cut salaries and benefits for the mass of their employees to put millions into the hands of CEOs, CFOs and COOs, along with wealthy shareholders.

  • jonthebru on April 17, 2012 1:53 AM:

    Paying taxes is patriotic!

  • Cha on April 17, 2012 4:33 AM:

    There will always be those snipping about what President Obama should say or shouldn't say and lying about what he's doing.

    I thank the Universe that we have him as President and not the arm chair whiners.

  • jhm on April 17, 2012 6:29 AM:

    Was interested to read this position of the man who might come in third in France's Presidential first round, Jean-Luc Mélenchon: "rais[e] the minimum wage from €1,200 to €1,700 a month and confiscat[e] all income above €360,000 a year." Now that's redistribution!

  • suitworld on April 17, 2012 9:10 AM:

    For what it is worth: the initial post office (Ben Franklin's)was redistributionist. First class postage, paid by merchants, bankers, and lawyers primarily, subsidized cheap postage for newspapers. The newspapers promoted commercial integration of the back country and literacy amongst the common people. So there you go, right from the beginning.

  • Bill Soistmann on April 17, 2012 10:02 AM:

    Excellent points in this and the other post - AND here in the comments. I'm astounded that some (many?) Republicans don't get that they redistribute wealth too!

  • Marko on April 17, 2012 5:45 PM:

    It's NOT redistribution of wealth. It's getting what you pay for.

    Wealthy people benefit most from a stable government and society: roads, national defense, police, airports, modern commerce, secure banking, wall street, internet, etc. They would not have been able to make that much money without the proper infrastructure in place that allows them to do the things they do.

    Those who use the system most SHOULD pay more. Why should they get a discount just because they're rich?