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October 10, 2011 9:19 AM “A Pyromaniac in a Field of Straw Men” George Will on Elizabeth Warren

By Harold Pollack

It’s a bad sign for American punditry that George Will’s latest column slams Elizabeth Warren in such disgraceful fashion. It’s a good sign for American politics, though, that the dean of patrician conservative columnists felt the need to do so. I’m not the first to the party here–Yom Kippur intervened–but I still want to weigh in.

Mr. Will excoriating the below words spoken by Elizabeth Warren at a recent fundraiser:

Here is the offending paragraph, as transcribed by Mr. Will:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. . . . You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Warren’s comments immediately went viral, accumulating 653,575 views on YouTube at last count. They add needed moral and political clarity to the 2012 campaign. Mr. Will takes issue with her because she’s drawn some blood, not least because her words are obviously true. She succinctly defines real differences between liberals and conservatives in pondering one of the most toxic long-term developments in American life: widening inequalities in income, wealth, and all that comes with that over the past generation.

Warren’s words also puncture the pretense of Randian libertarian conservatism—a surprising number of whose privileged adherents promise to “go Galt,” only to continually disappoint me by failing to follow through.

Will’s centerpiece rebuttal arrives via a quotation from William Buckley:

Warren is (as William F. Buckley described Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith) a pyromaniac in a field of straw men: She refutes propositions no one asserts. Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context, so all attainments are conditioned by their context. This does not, however, entail a collectivist political agenda.
The collectivist agenda is antithetical to America’s premise, which is: Government — including such public goods as roads, schools and police — is instituted to facilitate individual striving, a.k.a. the pursuit of happiness. The fact that collective choices facilitate this striving does not compel the conclusion that the collectivity (Warren’s “the rest of us”) is entitled to take as much as it pleases of the results of the striving.

I think these paragraphs are disgraceful—and ironic given’s Will’s immolation of so many straw men of his own. (To see the philosophical arguments more carefully rebutted, see William Galston’s response to Will here.)

It’s silly to say that liberals believe that “the collectivity … is entitled to take as much as it pleases” in taxing the wealthy. In that same YouTube video, Warren criticizes the Bush tax cuts for their imprudence. She’s talking about increasing marginal tax rates on the affluent by a few percentage points. Even that modest measure is opposed by many Blue State Democratic representatives of wealthy districts (cf. Schumer, Senator Charles).

Will inveighs against the views of various dead or unnamed liberal professors, some who apparently spent time at Harvard:

Many members of the liberal intelligentsia, that herd of independent minds, agree that other Americans comprise a malleable, hence vulnerable, herd whose “false consciousness” is imposed by corporate America. Therefore the herd needs kindly, paternal supervision by a cohort of protective herders. This means subordination of the bovine many to a regulatory government staffed by people drawn from the clever minority not manipulated into false consciousness.
Because such tutelary government must presume the public’s incompetence, it owes minimal deference to people’s preferences. These preferences are not really “theirs,” because the preferences derive from false, meaning imposed, consciousness. This convenient theory licenses the enlightened vanguard, the political class, to exercise maximum discretion in wielding the powers of the regulatory state.

Although GRE study words tumble out (my favorite being “tutelary”), these don’t accumulate to specifically engage what Elizabeth Warren actually said.

I don’t have the required signoffs to respond on behalf of the full liberal herd. Those running near me don’t much worry about false consciousness. We worry more about misleading information on your credit card statement and about what’s concealed in fine print in that inpenetrable stack of documents at your mortgage closing. These are vanilla ice cream market failures one doesn’t have to be especially liberal to support.

Warren’s supposed collectivist agenda mostly includes requirements for greater transparency by lenders, measures to more stringently regulate too-big-to-fail banks. She wants Medicare to bargain more aggressively with drug companies. She supports an ideologically moderate health reforms modeled after the one designed by Mitt Romney and supported by her state’s Republican senator. Her comments in that video clip are standard-issue American liberalism, no Marxian ideology or false-consciousness stuff much in evidence.

Mr. Will goes on to say:

Warren’s emphatic assertion of the unremarkable — that the individual depends on cooperative behaviors by others — misses this point: It is conservatism, not liberalism, that takes society seriously. Liberalism preaches confident social engineering by the regulatory state. Conservatism urges government humility in the face of society’s creative complexity.
Society — hundreds of millions of people making billions of decisions daily — is a marvel of spontaneous order among individuals in voluntary cooperation. Government facilitates this cooperation with roads, schools, police, etc. — and by getting out of its way.

Absent some specific issue such as gay marriage, it’s hard to know what that first paragraph actually means. As for the second, Will is obviously right that “the individual depends on cooperative behaviors by others.” Except that it’s more than that. Affluent people benefit from a myriad of public policies, subsidies, legal arrangements, and social practices that are specifically designed to help them.

Consider Steve Jobs. Every liberal I know admires Mr. Jobs. Every one of them is saddened by Jobs’ untimely passing. Jobs earned his money. Government also played a huge role, not by getting out of the way, either. Government financed the rise of the internet, it provided financial aid and government research grants to thousands of computer scientists. It protected Apple (with imperfect success) against intellectual piracy.

Imposing somewhat higher progressive taxes on Mr. Jobs (whose fortune apparently exceeded $8 billion) and on other wealthy people, is not class warfare or some socialist plot to conscript the rich into forced labor. Such policies reflect the recognition that we all live in the same society. Especially in this time of national challenge, the most affluent, who have benefitted the most from what America has to offer, should do more to help out.

Warren’s plainspoken Midwestern populism poses a real problem for conservatives. The Republican playbook suggests caricaturing her as some snobbish and privileged professor who looks down on ordinary Americans. Yet it is Will, the bow-tied patrician moralist, who delivered Harvard lectures on the theme “Statecraft and soulcraft: What governments do.”

He’s also an odd spokesman for a platform of humble government that avoids social engineering. And underneath the glossy vocabulary, he’s not being all that nice, either.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.
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Comments

  • Robert Waldmann on October 11, 2011 6:37 AM:

    "Midwestern populism" uh I think you mean Southwestern populism. Warren is from Oklahoma not quite the reddest of red states but in the top 5.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Warren

    I applaud you for calling Will's disgraceful column "disgraceful." You are right, the case calls for plain English and not GRE study words.

    But I do have some questions. What was the last interesting thing that Will wrote ? What useful contribution has he ever made to the national debate ? Is there any reason to be disappointed in him ?

    I think he has extremely high status because he is a conservative who can write in complete paragraphs and is willing to criticize Republicans. This is a very low standard.

    Could there be a liberal George Will ? There are thousands of liberals who write as pompously and present centuries old arguments. They (we?)are not noticed let alone famous.

  • Irwin on October 11, 2011 7:55 AM:

    Something occurred to me as I read one of the quotes from Will. He's condemning what he describes as the liberals telling the people what's good for them rather than the other way around. But isn't that one of the main things the all the encomia to Steve Jobs mentioned, that he drove people's desires and needs rather than followed them.

    This occurred to me before the later mention of Steve Jobs above.

  • penalcolony on October 11, 2011 9:39 AM:

    Will is a 1962 graduate of Trinity College in Connecticut. Can't help wondering whether he applied to and was rejected by other, more prestigious schools -- including Harvard, perhaps?

  • Matt on October 11, 2011 11:56 AM:

    What was the last interesting thing that Will wrote ? What useful contribution has he ever made to the national debate ? Is there any reason to be disappointed in him ?

    He's pretty sharp when it comes to baseball trivia.

    Of course, he'd have crucified Curt Flood if he'd had the chance, and his boundless baseball nostalgia seems to be for... a certain... um... shall we say... bygone historical era. Not the one he lived through, for the most part.

  • BroD on October 11, 2011 12:07 PM:

    Mr. Will, an occasionally competent sportswriter, damages his reputation when he attempts commentary about serious matters.

  • Liberal on October 11, 2011 6:46 PM:

    I am a liberal and I do not idolize Steve Jobs.

  • exlibra on October 11, 2011 11:31 PM:

    Look up the word "mountebank" in any dictionary, and you'll find a photo of George Will as an illustration.

  • Paul Coppock on October 12, 2011 2:07 PM:

    "It's conservatism that takes society seriously." On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher: "There is no such thing as society."

  • Rich2506 on October 12, 2011 5:12 PM:

    Yeah, I wasn't impressed with Will's argument either. I was especially unimpressed with his whole take on straw men. Does Will even understand what the term means? It's not at all clear that he does.
    In fact, Will brings up a bit of a straw man himself, he claims that government seeks to claim the wealth of rich folks, but completely fails to show "Okay, so how should government get funded?!?!?"

  • Brian T. Raven on October 12, 2011 9:36 PM:

    Well said, and thanks for the continued puncturing of the "go Galt" crowd balloon. A minor nit to pick - was that only one myriad, or a few?

  • Dan B on October 12, 2011 10:33 PM:

    "Its silly to say that liberals believe that the collectivity is entitled to take as much as it pleases in taxing the wealthy."

    Silly? Great, so what *is* the upper limit then? The rich pay much more both as a percentage and in absolute numbers. The only obvious upper limit is... um... actually there is no upper limit. Or in short, it's not a straw man argument if your position really is that.

    "Imposing somewhat higher progressive taxes on Mr. Jobs (whose fortune apparently exceeded $8 billion) and on other wealthy people, is not class warfare or some socialist plot to conscript the rich into forced labor. Such policies reflect the recognition that we all live in the same society. Especially in this time of national challenge, the most affluent, who have benefitted the most from what America has to offer, should do more to help out."

    It's a red herring to talk about 'wealth' and 'fortunes' when we're talking about income taxes. If you want a wealth tax then argue for it.

    What is missing in this article is any effort at economics; This whole thing is a pure "Social Justice" argument. Fundamentally you view it as acceptable and even desirable to take more money from the successful and give it to the unsuccessful even if that's going to result in less taxes, fewer jobs, and be economically bad for the country.

    This btw is why bulk of the federal budget currently consists of income redistribution. And yes, you're engaging in class warfare.

  • Rabbler on October 13, 2011 10:13 AM:

    As if Will is a man of the people. If he was ever accidentally in the same room as a man with grease on his hands, he would soil his slacks.

  • HMDK on October 14, 2011 6:16 AM:

    "It's a red herring to talk about 'wealth' and 'fortunes' when we're talking about income taxes. If you want a wealth tax then argue for it."

    It's called the progressive income tax and has been around for a long time.

    "And yes, you're engaging in class warfare."

    No more so than the super rich who get golden parachutes when they fail. Or bailed out by the taxes paid by the oh, so dreaded "lower classes".
    And the income tax isn't the only tax, although the idiots of the "53%" would like you to believe so.
    It's even "funny", in a horrific way, how many clueless people have glommed on to that, thinking they're there, when in reality they're the 47. But hey, Randroid and righwing propaganda has a great machine behind it. It's called the wealthiest top percentages.

  • Anonymous on October 14, 2011 10:00 AM:

    "It's called the progressive income tax and has been around for a long time."

    'Income' is a very different concept than 'wealth'. A millionaire with an income of $1k pays no income tax.

    Everyone who is wealthy doesn't have a high income (research shows the 'average' millionaire doesn't, see 'The Millionaire Next Door'). And everyone who has a high income isn't wealthy (a significant percentage are experiencing once in a lifetime events, another significant percentage are reporting business income.)


    "No more so than the super rich who get golden parachutes when they fail. Or bailed out by the taxes paid by the oh, so dreaded "lower classes"."

    We didn't bail out the banks for the benefit of the rich. Granted, entire layers of management should have been fired, and fired without their parachutes, as a precondition for being bailed out.

    But if we have to choose between bailing out the banks+bankers and watching the economy lock because the banks go down, then the former is the better choice.


    "And the income tax isn't the only tax..."

    It's corrosive, unethical and economically destructive in a democracy for people to vote themselves benefits that other people will pay for. At a local or state level, if I think something is important then I vote for my own taxes to go up.

    The proper role of government isn't to take money from a minority so they can give it to the majority, even if that would be a vote getter.

  • HMDK on October 17, 2011 7:18 AM:

    "It's corrosive, unethical and economically destructive in a democracy for people to vote themselves benefits that other people will pay for. At a local or state level, if I think something is important then I vote for my own taxes to go up."

    But once it's the national level, suddenly it's wrong?
    And no, it's no more corrosive than the gap between the lower and upper classes ever widening.
    The only way you could actually find it corrosive, is if you honestly think that the status quo is perfect and fair and a really "free" market. Which is so insane a claim I won't put in your mouth. So what is it, then?

    "The proper role of government isn't to take money from a minority so they can give it to the majority, even if that would be a vote getter."

    No, its goal is to do so when it would form a more perfect union and promote the general welfare.

  • Dan B on October 17, 2011 9:51 AM:

    "And no, it's no more corrosive than the gap between the lower and upper classes ever widening."

    As the wealth of a society approaches infinity IMHO inequality does the same, simply because there's no upper limit on how much money a man can have but zero is still zero.

    Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did good things for this country. We as a society are better off for having tolerated their existence. How is putting a cap on success in the name of "inequality" going to be a good thing?

    More generally, The super-rich are amazingly rare. Upper 1% starts at something like a quarter million, and the WSJ reports 76% of the top 1% of income filers were reporting business income. Small business is both "the rich" and the primary job creation engine for the US.

    "No, its goal is to do so when it would form a more perfect union and promote the general welfare."

    This is so vague to the point of being a non-answer. We target a minority we don't like, take their money, and use it for something which doesn't benefit them by giving it to someone else. Substitute "the jews" for the "the rich" and the ethics looks a lot clearer.

    And that's just ethics. The economics of the situation is the rich don't have anywhere near enough money to pay for what you want, and the people you're actually targeting are the primary job creators for the country.

    "But once it's the national level, suddenly it's wrong?"

    Being able to vote yourself money without cost is corrosive at all levels. CEOs getting their buddies to give them massive pay raises in the face of poor performance? Same thing. It's rarer at a state or local level but we see it, mostly in the form of mayors doing the same thing or public service unions.

    "The only way you could actually find it corrosive, is if you honestly think that the status quo is perfect and fair and a really "free" market."

    So there are only two alternatives for society? Really? It's perfectly possible for me to say, yes, the status quo isn't perfect, but eating the rich is still a bad idea.

  • Arakiba on October 17, 2011 3:36 PM:

    George Will doesn't like Elizabeth Warren because she knows what she's doing. She's a threat to him and people like him, who base their policies on dogma instead of reality.

  • Jennie on October 18, 2011 7:10 PM:

    Stop stop stop before my head explodes with this "wealth redistribution" nonsense! "Fundamentally you view it as acceptable and even desirable to take more money from the successful and give it to the unsuccessful" No, sir, I do not, and its time folks called this horse-dropping for what it is. Factoid: No one is "giving" money to "the unsuccessful" - that is just the biggest lie out there and I'm always surprised that even progressive hosts don't challenge it when it is spoken. So I suppose this is meant to imply that ALL income brought to the government goes to pay unemployment, welfare, etc? Lets please bring forth the statistics on the percentage of gov't income that goes to those programs vs. what goes to the military, border patrol, prisons... should I go on? Ms. Warren is saying the money goes into the government services, including national defense, dams, roads, protection from egregious polluters, etc etc etc, you know, all those services AHs like you would be the first ones to start screaming about if they were cut off. If your kid died from E. coli because there were no inspectors and those "free-market" meat manufacturers didn't give two-bits about your safety (profits, baby!), I have a feeling Faux Noise would be all over that with bellowing headlines about incompetent government and Obama's "failure" to protect America. Gawd, ignorant people are annoying, but the ones who adamantly demand to stay so really chap my hide.

  • Dan B on October 18, 2011 8:35 PM:

    "Lets please bring forth the statistics on the percentage of gov't income that goes to those programs vs. what goes to the military, border patrol, prisons... should I go on?"

    Glad to. According to wiki, in 2010 20% of the federal budget is Defense, 6% is interest, 19% is "Discretionary". Discretionary means "not mandatory", or prisons, law enforcement, roads, education, and E. coli inspectors, i.e. what is normally thought of as things the government should be doing.

    20% is Social Security, 23% is Medicare and Medicaid, 12% is "Other mandatory" which basically means "other entitlements".

    So 59% of the non-interest budget is income redistribution (55/94).

    Further, Defense spending is expected to go down, but the entitlements are expected to explode. They're the reason why the government is looking around for ways to increase taxes. The entitlements are crowding out all other spending and that's without Obamacare.

    (Also from wiki)
    The US's GNP is 14 Trillion dollars.
    The Present value of the unfunded obligations of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security is 45.8 Trillion.
    That doesn't include the debt or other obligations, but if we put them in then we're up to $62 Trillion.

    The entitlements and how to pay for them make the entire Iraqi war a rounding error.

  • Jennie on October 19, 2011 12:44 PM:

    Except that "trust funds" like Social security are PAYGO income that are raised and spent differently than "regular" federal funds raised and spent from income tax. Your "wiki" stats are the same as the "government" view, which has been peddling this skewed message for ove 30 years. If you separate the spending on programs that are funded using a separate mechanism (FICA, etc., i.e. trust funds), which is an entirely appropriate thing to do, then military spending percentage exceeds 50%. Two other points: How, exactly, is social security, medicare, and medicaid "income redistribution"? I seriously do not get that argument. Are you going to decline your social security and medicare to make sure you are not part of the evil "redistribution"? As a middle classer, every dollar I make is subject to the taxes that fund those programs. For rich people, only the first hundred thousand or so are subject to those taxes, the rest, no FICA. So the uber-rich are not, in fact, disproportionately funding "entitlements." Which, speaking of, second point, if i am paying for my future security through my taxes that go to social security, how is that an entitlement? Unless I feel "entitled" to get back a benefit that I paid for, which I do.

  • Dan B on October 19, 2011 4:07 PM:

    "Except that "trust funds" like Social security are PAYGO income that are raised and spent differently than "regular" federal funds raised and spent from income tax."

    This is an illusion or myth. The SS trust fund is a promise to fund SS out of income taxes. Further, the SS tax is 6.2% and the program doesn't break even any more. Medicare/Medicaid costs the gov more, and its tax is a less. Where do you think the extra money comes from?

    "If you separate the spending on programs that are funded using a separate mechanism (FICA, etc., i.e. trust funds), which is an entirely appropriate thing to do..."

    Why is it appropriate to separate them? All government moneys are co-mingled. If SS or Medicare or whatever needs to be topped up, that money comes from other taxes or by reducing other spending.

    "How, exactly, is social security, medicare, and medicaid "income redistribution"?"

    You're taking money from one group of people and giving it to another.

    "if i am paying for my future security through my taxes that go to social security, how is that an entitlement?"

    "Paygo", remember? The very definition of "Paygo" means the program can't store or save money. The amount of money you put into the system isn't related to how much you get out. Further, no mater what you feel about it, no matter how much money you've given or what you think you're owed, the government has made promises to too many people.

    There's a reason these programs have been called ponzi schemes, eventually they're going to fall apart. A PV of $62T means we're not going to full fill all those promises. If that $62T in promises were debt, we'd be about four times more in debt than Greece.

  • edo on October 20, 2011 3:43 PM:

    What is wrong with conscripting the rich into forced labor?

  • Matt McIrvin on October 21, 2011 9:28 PM:

    Why is it appropriate to separate them? All government moneys are co-mingled.

    Do you promise to never refer to people who pay FICA as "the 47% who pay no taxes"?

  • T-Rex on October 22, 2011 8:35 AM:

    If Will had written this in plain English, he would have sounded like Ted Nugent. That's why he ran his thesaurus through a Cuisinart and threw it all in.

    Dan B, you want an upper limit on taxation for the upper income levels? Fine with me. Let's have a look at historical precedent. Let's pick an era when a Republican was President, the economy was booming -- when, in fact, the country was more prosperous than it had ever been -- and when our status as the most powerful nation on earth was clear, despite the cold war. That would be the Eisenhower era, and it would make the upper limit on taxes for the rich . . . let's see . . .

    Oh dear. I don't think you're going to like this . . .

  • ifthethunderdontgetya on October 22, 2011 9:04 PM:

    The only historical precedent that plutocratic boot-lickers like Dan B. appreciate is the steady increase in the wealth of the richest 1%, along with the wars, tax cuts, and deregulation/boom/bust/bailouts that our government does to increase same.
    ~

  • Dan B on October 24, 2011 5:02 AM:

    "Oh dear. I don't think you're going to like this . . . "

    You're referring to a period of time when world war had destroyed the rest of the world's infrastructure and trying to use that as proof that soak the rich policies can produce prosperity? Are you going to use that period of time to prove that unionized labor is competitive too?

    And as long as we're learning unpleasant things from history, here's a question: if we change our tax rates back to Ike's, should we expect to collect more taxes from the rich, or less? Thats not a trivial question by the way, and it deserves a discussion which doesnt assume the rich let themselves be harvested like mushrooms. (See also Hauser's law).

    For example, the Bush tax cuts can be called a failure as they resulted in less money for the government however, the WSJ has reported the effects on the Rich were opposite, i.e. post tax cuts, income collected went up, not down. It was the effects on everyone else that didnt pay for themselves.

  • Wil Burns on October 25, 2011 1:36 AM:

    Dan B, Virtually every economics Ph.D. who has worked in a prominent role in the Bush Administration acknowledges that the tax cuts enacted during the past six years have not paid for themselves--and were never intended to. Harvard professor Greg Mankiw, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers from 2003 to 2005, even devotes a section of his best-selling economics textbook to debunking the claim that tax cuts increase revenues.

  • Dan B on October 25, 2011 5:42 AM:

    Wil Burns, True, but nothing you said disagrees with what I said. Yes, the tax cuts didn't pay for themselves. Yes, they weren't supposed to. Yes, the effect on certain income groups was taxes collected went up, not down.

    Which raises the question of whether significantly raising taxes on those same select groups would be a good idea from an economic standpoint, as opposed to from a social justice standpoint.

    Which in turn brings us back to the only arguments I see in favor of raising taxes being social justice arguments. Bluntly, it's political cover for raising taxes in general.

  • Philat on November 02, 2011 3:58 PM:

    Yes, raising taxes is a terrible thing, particularly to let the tax rates go back to where they were in the 1990s, even if only for those making 250k or more. As I recall, when those tax rates were in effect, the wealthy were really, really suffering, buying clothes at Goodwill and downsizing from 3 million buck homes to ones in the 1 to 2 million range.

    Of course it would be a good idea to let taxes go back to those days of the 1990s to help us fund what government is suppose to do.

  • Cal on December 07, 2011 7:14 PM:

    "Fundamentally you view it as acceptable and even desirable to take more money from the successful and give it to the unsuccessful even if that's going to result in less taxes, fewer jobs, and be economically bad for the country."

    The thing is, Dan B, there's no time in human history where that has actualy been the result of higher income taxes. But of course, as a conservative, facts are I'm sure of little consequence to you.

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