You Dirty Commie!

Computer problems have limited my internet activity to my phone for the last few days, and because of that, I've not gotten to discuss a number of things that have caught my eye. I'm back on a computer now though. I want to discuss a particularly egregious piece by Matt Ridley on the supposed benefits of carbon dioxide, but before I can do that, I have to discuss something that came up while I was offline.

Now, I normally don't talk about politics. Today I'm going to. There was a primary for the Democratic party to see who will run for president to try to succeed Barack Obama, and it had this remarkable statement from one contender:

COOPER: Senator Sanders, greatest national security threat?

SANDERS: The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we're going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable. That is a major crisis.

That is Bernie Sanders, saying global warming is the greatest national security threat for the United States. That alone would be stupid enough, but Sanders has the audacity to claim global warming could cause "the planet that we're going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren" to "not be habitable." I don't have words for how idiotic a statement that is.

And I wanted to talk about that, because I find it hilarious Sanders says things like that and then turns around and says:

And let me also tell you that nothing is gonna happen unless we are prepared to deal with campaign finance reform, because the fossil fuel industry is funding the Republican Party, which denies the reality of climate change...

There's a word which starts with the letter 'd' that comes to mind for people who believe global warming will render the planet uninhabitable - delusional. Unfortunately, that's not what I have to discuss today. Today I have to discuss communism, because people discussing politics are stupid. Or delusional. Or something.

I don't know just what it is about politics, but every time I get dragged into a debate over any political subject, I just wind up concluding both sides are horrible. That's what happened here. I heard about Sanders's remarks during the debate and thought about writing something. Then I saw this article on Twitter, which begins:

At the first Democratic Presidential debate last week, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) pitched his “democratic socialism” to the American public.

Focusing on what he views as an immoral and outrageous income gap, Sanders passionately made the case for a society in which no man earns less than another simply because of the amount of work each puts into their living.

I hadn't watched the debate, but I was extremely skeptical when I read this. The idea any presidential candidate would suggest all people should make the same amount of money seemed absurd. Few enough people even believe that. The odds one of them would have made it to a national primary should be nil. My skepticism only grew as the article went on to say:

Anderson Cooper’s question about how “any kind of socialist” could win a general election in the United States was met with justifications for why a Robin Hood-type system is just the jolt this country needs to regain its moral footing. There is, however, a gaping hole in Sanders’s argument – one that definitively defines those in need as inferior and forces them into a lower psychological class than those who are better off.

About this point is where a normal argument would involve actually describing what Sanders said, likely with a quote or three. Instead, we get wonderfully vague remarks about how Sanders "definitely defines" one class of people as inferior and "a lower psychological class." There's no argument here. There's no citation or quotation. All there is is the claim Sanders "definitely defines" things one way.

And the article doesn't go on to justify this. Instead, it talks about the differences in taxes paid by the wealthy than the poor then says:

While the substantial gap in wealth between income brackets is certainly not preferable, one must also consider the amount paid in taxes by the top income earners before making claims accusing the rich of hoarding wealth and making no return. Sanders’s claim of immorality in income differences falls on its face when compared to the actual amounts paid back in taxes by the richest income earners; those who earn the most are already paying more than their fair share of taxes. Contrary to what the Senator is saying, it would be immoral to impose an even larger tax on the top income earners solely because they take in substantial incomes.

Again, we have nothing but rhetoric. The article makes plenty of assertions, but it does nothing to support any of them. It portrays Sanders as having accused the wealthy of "making no return" as though they don't pay a greater share of taxes than the poor. Did he? The article doesn't give any evidence to show he did.

It claims income inequality cannot be immoral because the wealthy pay a greater share in taxes than the less wealthy. Why? It doesn't say. This is just an assertion. There is no explanation or argument as to what makes this moral or immoral.

It claims it would be immoral to raise taxes on the wealthy solely because of their income inequality. Again, why? What determines whether that would be moral or immoral? What is the standard being used? The article never says. The lack of explanation for anything being said in the article just becomes more obvious as the piece goes on, with the next sentence saying:

It is safe to assume that if you either work your way or are born into a wealthy family, you should be able to keep as much of that wealth as possible.

Safe to assume? How does one make moral pronouncements on the logical basis it is "safe to assume" they are true? How does one decide:

It was earned, whether by you or the generation before to provide for you; this inequality, while unfortunate, is not immoral.

Morality is a complex matter. Often, there are no objective answers. There are no facts or absolute truths. Different people have different beliefs. Simply stating what our beliefs are cannot lead to a discussion. A discussion happens when we explain the reasons for our beliefs and examine how they are similar and dissimilar to the reasons for other people's beliefs.

And that goes back to why I say politics is stupid. This article isn't about making an argument; it's just getting rhetoric out there. It isn't about rebutting anything Bernie Sanders said; it's stating talking points. It isn't about having a discussion; it's about preaching to the choir. We can tell this because nobody who was actually trying to have a discussion would say:

Looking back to the lower income brackets, one can easily see that the plan Sanders is advocating would only leave them further in debt and with greater struggles. By invoking Robin Hood and taking from the rich to give to the poor, you remove the desire of the latter to better himself and his family. You can’t blame him, really – if money is being handed to you simply because you have less than others and you are given no incentive to work toward that extra income, most people would take the gift of freebies and run with it. And even if, on the other hand, this inequality is dealt with by raising the minimum wage, it still leaves that lower-income citizen in an unfavorable position; do we want to encourage people to keep flipping burgers for their careers?

Sanders never said hand money to the poor. He said things like:

Are we better off today than we were then? Absolutely. But the truth is that for the 40 years, the great middle class of this country has been disappearing. And in my view what we need to do is create millions of jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure; raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour; pay equity for women workers; and our disastrous trade policies, which have cost us millions of jobs; and make every public college and university in this country tuition free.

And:

SANDERS: Yeah, Dana, here's the point: Every other major country on Earth, every one, including some small countries, say that when a mother has a baby, she should stay home with that baby. We are the only major country. That is an international embarrassment that we do not provide family -- paid family and medical leave.

Paid maternity leave, free college tuition, nationalized medical care and a raised minimum wage do no involve simply handing people money. So when the article says:

And even if, on the other hand, this inequality is dealt with by raising the minimum wage, it still leaves that lower-income citizen in an unfavorable position; do we want to encourage people to keep flipping burgers for their careers? If we raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, most people will be flipping burgers for centuries.

Even if? The "even if" scenario it describes is the real scenario, the only scenario Sanders actually discussed. The article completely and utterly misrepresents his stated plan then turns around and in a backhanded way discusses what the plan might entail. No rational minded person looking for an actual discussion would do that.

But even when the article does discuss what Sanders said, it still can't get things right. A $15 minimum wage might be a bad idea. There might be good reasons to argue against it. The idea it would keep most people working minimum wage jobs for centuries is not one, not even if we make allowances for rhetorical exaggerations.

(I need to take a moment here. I'll talk about my general views later in the post, but I just want to point out the idea of instituting a national minimum wage of $15 is insane. The differences in cost of living across this nation are far too large for such a plan to make any sense.)

Now, I don't know what the author of this article was thinking. The gross misrepresentations in this article indicate a serious problem, but I have no idea what that problem is. It could be the author intentionally misrepresented Bernie Sanders for the rhetorical effect of being able to write a piece that's no better than shouting, "You dirty commie!"

Or maybe the author is sincere and delusional. Or maybe the author is an idiot, incapable of understanding simple sentences. I don't know. What I do know is she sounds like a raving lunatic when she says:

Perhaps the most glaring immorality seen in this proposal is the degradation of human life that occurs. While this is often a sentiment used to describe issues like abortion and slavery, I believe it is relevant here as well. By attempting to distribute wealth evenly among all income brackets with no regard for the work put in at each respective level, you degrade the poor to less than the rich and insinuate that the former is incapable of surviving without the latter. What a sentiment to embody in what is supposed to be the land of equal opportunity!

Sanders never said a word to suggest he wants "to distribute wealth evenly among all income brackets," much less that he wants to do so "with no regard for the work put in at each respective level." What he said is the massive amount of income inequality that currently exists is immoral and inexcusable. There is plenty of room between those two extremes.

In fact, most rational people would agree neither extreme is good. Unchecked capitalism has long been known to be a bad idea due to the abuses it leads to by the wealthy and powerful. Income inequality is similar to this. Most people will agree if income inequality grows to significant enough levels, the situation will become untenable.

On the other hand, full fledged communism is bad for reasons other than just the corruption and tyranny that has tended to come with it. Its problems are basically the ones this article talks about. Most people will agree forcing everybody to have equal income/wealth is unfair and will leads to an untenable situation.

Neither extreme is good. This is something pretty much everyone can agree on. The disagreements are about where in the spectrum between the two extremes we should be. Sanders thinks the United States has gone too far toward one extreme and wants the nation to take steps to move more toward the other. Whether you agree or disagree with him, he is certainly not saying what this article claims. Moving a bit in on direction is not the same as jumping all the way to one extreme

But that's what this article presents it as so it can say things like:

Sorry, Senator Sanders. Your plan is immorality at the root and the inequality you loathe, while certainly undesirable, is not the great moral injustice that you claim.

This is why I normally don't talk about politics. This article is not some exception to the norm. This is a common thing in politics. People on both sides of disagreements come up with ridiculous exaggerations and misrepresentations of the people they disagree with so they can portray any views they dislike as insane. It's great for boosting their self-confidence. It's horrible for anything else.

I think Sanders is wrong about raising the minimum wage to $15. I think the idea of pay equality for women is a good idea, though the problem has been exaggerated (maternity leave should be added though). I think Sanders is spot on about the United States needing to reassess its trade relations. I think he sounds insane when it comes to global warming. Most importantly though, I think Sanders is right that income inequality is a serious problem, but I don't think it's a moral one.

That's a sample of my views. I don't think a person has to be insane to disagree with them. I'd be happy to discuss the reasons for any of them. I just don't think there's any point as long as political discussions are dominated by people who aren't even trying to understand one another. When people are so polarized you can't have any sort of actual discussion, I'd rather just ignore it all.


Incidentally, while I think income inequality is a serious problem, I don't think that necessarily means we need to change our approach to taxation. I think there are definitely changes to the tax code that should be made (because there's a lot of stupid stuff in there), but one approach to addressing income inequality is to try to address the cause of it.

And in that regard, I think some things that could be done are to improve the education system, to try to reduce the number of broken families (e.g. free birth control should be available to everybody) and to restructure affirmative action to be based on economic rather than ethnic situation. I doubt I'll find that discussion anywhere though, so I'll just leave you with this clip I love:

9 comments

  1. Brandon

    A few months ago this report, or one like it, was much discussed in the business papers and discussed by economists over here.

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/economic-inequality-it-s-far-worse-than-you-think/

    Basically it claims that the US Is the most unEqual of all western nations and that there is a corresponding lack of social mobility and huge inequality in the ownership of wealth.

    This dramatic difference between rich and poor was one of my abiding memories of my few visits to to the States and made me uncomfortable. Interestingly my son, who took an internship In the States just a couple of years ago also commented on this.

    Bernie sanders came over to me as a very old fashioned socialist circa 1970 very much in the mode of the new leader of the british labour party, Jeremy Corbyn. I find Hillary Clinton to have very little appeal and was trying to be a socialist lite in the debate, no doubt in order to tryto steal some of sanders support.

    What with this very un inspiring democrat line up and the equally baffling lack of talent amongst the republican side it is difficult to see which way America will move as Regards its politics. It seems stuck somewhere that no one finds that desirable.

    Whether the way forward lies in your last paragraph or in tax changes I don't know America well enough to say. That there is a problem which no one seems to be addressing seems apparent if the figures quoted in the link are correct.

    Tonyb

  2. Tonyb:

    Basically it claims that the US Is the most unEqual of all western nations and that there is a corresponding lack of social mobility and huge inequality in the ownership of wealth.

    Sadly, this is a subject filled with cherry-picking and selective citations. For instance, you should note the article you linked to discusses wealth inequality not income inequality. It makes a big deal of how the United States has a high Gini score (higher numbers being bad) at ~85, comparing that to "Chile 81.4, India 81.3, Indonesia 82.8, and South Africa 83.6." But look at Sweden. Sweden's income inequality is very low, but its wealth inequality is so high it scores an 80.9 on the same scale.

    If you looked at income inequality instead of wealth inequality, Sweden would come in at the much lower number of ~31 while the United States would come in at ~45. Clearly, income and wealth inequality is not the same thing. So how do you decide which to talk about? There's no fixed rule. There are reasons you'd pick one over the other, but most people couldn't even tell you the difference.

    (Incidentally, the UK's wealth inequality score is much lower than either of those two at ~68 but its income inequality score is slightly higher than Sweden's score at 32.)

    This dramatic difference between rich and poor was one of my abiding memories of my few visits to to the States and made me uncomfortable. Interestingly my son, who took an internship In the States just a couple of years ago also commented on this.

    This brings up another major problem with the discussion - demographics. The United States attracts rich people. If I'm not mistaken, it has more millionaires than any other country. This skews any sort of test results people might discuss. You could have two countries which are identical save one has 100 extra millionaires. That one will come out as being more unequal. A country of ten million people can have its results skewed by as few as a couple hundred people. And don't get me started on how different debt levels in countries can throw off the results.

    It's just very difficult to make meaningful comparisons between the US and other countries due to differences in the countries. One of the biggest problems I haven't mentioned yet is figuring out how to account for differences in taxation/government benefits. There's no "right" answer. There are a lot of subjective decisions that go into these comparisons, and that gives a lot of room for people to influence the results.

    The US certainly has a greater level of super rich people than most countries. That's not inherently a problem though. It's okay for some counties to just attract rich people. In the same way, numbers like those cited in the article you linked to don't indicate a problem. There's simply too many variables they can't account for. Those sort of analyses are over-simplified and not remotely rigorous.

    Numbers like those should be a flag that alert people there is something worth looking more closely at. They should never be used as an end-all answer. Because if they are, people will never figure out what problems actually exist. They'll just find ways to game those tests and not address the real problems. And believe me, there are plenty of real problems that should be addressed.

  3. My last comment was getting long, so I decided to break off the rest of this into another comment. It works out since it's on another subject.

    Bernie sanders came over to me as a very old fashioned socialist circa 1970 very much in the mode of the new leader of the british labour party, Jeremy Corbyn. I find Hillary Clinton to have very little appeal and was trying to be a socialist lite in the debate, no doubt in order to tryto steal some of sanders support.

    It's interesting you say this because you highlight a truth a lot of people seem to have missed. Bernie Sanders doesn't expect to win. I'm sure he'd like to, but if he or his advisers understand politics, they probably know it's not likely. And they're okay with that. It's a time-honored tactic for a weaker candidate to join a race to try to force other candidates to shift their positions.

    As you noted, Hilary Clinton is trying to be socialist-lite. She's doing that because she has to win over some of Sanders's supporters. That's not because she needs to win their votes in the primary. It's because she needs to ensure she'll have their votes if she goes on to the presidential race.

    If Sanders hadn't run, she'd have their votes by default because they wouldn't want to vote Republican. By running, however, Sanders creates situations where Clinton can alienate those voters. To avoid doing that, she has to shift her platform. That means Sanders will get to influence the Democratic position in the general election to favor some of his views even though he won't be running in that election.

    What with this very un inspiring democrat line up and the equally baffling lack of talent amongst the republican side it is difficult to see which way America will move as Regards its politics. It seems stuck somewhere that no one finds that desirable.

    There were a couple Republican candidates who might have been able to do something to stand out, but Trump stole the limelight so much he's sabotaged their chances. At this point I don't think there's a Republican candidate who could be a strong contender. That makes it hard to guess what might happen. If Clinton wasn't a horrible person, I'd say the Republicans would have no chance in this election.

    Whether the way forward lies in your last paragraph or in tax changes I don’t know America well enough to say. That there is a problem which no one seems to be addressing seems apparent if the figures quoted in the link are correct.

    Taxation as a goal is almost always a bad idea. Saying "tax the rich" is just being lazy. There's no plan there. It's just hoping throwing money at problems will solve them. That won't work. Anyone who wants to be taken serious when they say "tax the rich" needs to have detailed plans on what they want to do with the money and how much it will cost. And that never happens.

    But then, most people who talk about this subject really don't understand the issues very well. For instance, you know all those times you hear about how the "top 10% owns" however much? Fun fact, they're not actually talking about 10% of the population. They can be talking about as much as 56% of the population. I wrote a post about this a while back because it's an interesting problem:

    56% of Americans are in the Top 10%

  4. There is a bigger problem with the top 1% or 10% formulation. This is based on incomes, which change from year to year. If a family sells a business, then that year they will be in the top 1%, but the previous and later years they might have been making very little.
    So on paper it will look like the Top 1% are earning 99.999% or whatever, but in reality over many aggregate years the figures are different.

  5. MikeN, that was largely the point of the post I wrote. People move in and out of the various income brackets over the years. The example I gave is it's been estimated 56% of population have been in the top 10% at one time or another, hence the title of the post. It gets even more bizarre if you try applying the same formulation to other things.

    For instance, try looking at how many games the top 20% of football teams win in a year. It's going to be a high number because the top 20% of teams each year wins a lot of games. They're not the same teams each year though. You're not going to hear people say, "The top 20% of teams win 80% of the games, so football is unequal." That's because they understand different teams are in the top each year. They don't make that same connection when it comes to income.

    To be fair, income doesn't fluctuate as much as win records in football, but the point remains the same. If people are looking at this from a genuine perspective of trying to solve a problem, they shouldn't rely on rhetoric which deceives people. My conclusion from that is people who rely on the "Top X% makes Y%" rhetoric are either disingenuous or incompetent.

  6. Brandon

    I understand your argument that the top 10 percent will fluctuate in wealth and income over their lifetimes.

    However it is the very top fraction of a percent that seem inordinately wealthy

    Some figures from the guardian suggest inequality has worsened in the last few years with the top 0 .1 percent owning as much as the bottom 90 percent.

    http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/nov/13/us-wealth-inequality-top-01-worth-as-much-as-the-bottom-90

    This seems a bit of a sleight of hand but if remotely true would illustrate that sanders and Clinton have quite a large constituency who might feel hard done by and might feel the State should prop them up a bit more

    Tonyb

  7. Tonyb, that article is mostly about wealth inequality, not income inequality. It's a very different thing. As the article notes, the primary reason for the growth in wealth inequality is the growth in debt. In many ways, that growth in debt parallels the United States's massive growth in debt. That creates a situation where Democrats will have a difficult time calling for increased spending to address inequality. Increasing spending to decrease income inequality while wealth inequality is caused by large amounts of debt is a difficult position to sell. Republicans could argue for fiscal responsibility on the grounds it would lead to a decrease in wealth inequality.

    The truth is more complex, of course. Some things increase both income and wealth inequality, while others increase one but reduce the other. Some things could increase the government's debt while decreasing the nation's debt as a whole. So forth and so on. There's no single, simple answer. Politicians like to act as though there is because people want to hear that message, but the reason the United States is having so much trouble is there are complex problems it has needed to address for some time now. The insistence on over-simplifying everything into bite-sized, polarized talking points, like I highlighted in this post, prevents the country from doing that. And while people like to blame politicians for everything, the reality is it's what people want. News organizations and pundits do this because its what sells. Politicians do it because its what gets votes.

    One significant source of the rise in debt from college tuition. Making it cost less to attend colleges and making it easier for people to repay student loans would reduce the country's debt load and allow more people to attend colleges in the future. That would address wealth inequality by reducing debt while addressing income inequality by increasing wages. That makes it an ideal area to spend money on. It would require finding money, meaning you'd have to raise taxes, increase the government's debt or cut some other program. Republicans will oppose that. They'll oppose it even though it is the sort of responsible government program they ought to support simply because it won't fit into the over-simplified "We need lower taxes" rhetoric. There are similar policies Democrats will oppose for just as bad of reasons.

    Sadly, I don't see much hope of things changing in the near future. People are just too polarized right now. There are a number of things that could find bipartisan support because they should be done, but it's just not happening. I don't see any of the current candidates changing that.

  8. Personally I see debt, personal and governmental, as being one of the biggest problems facing the west but one that keeps getting kicked further down the road.

    The electorate don't want to be told that whilst they may be enjoying 2015 type prosperity, in reality their standard of living should be that from 1995 if they don't want everything to go pear shaped in the years to come

    Tonyb

  9. I agree with your point Tonyb, but actually, I think the relative standard of living in the United States is about the same now as it was in 1995. Things are better, but that's mostly just due to changes in things like technology and crime rates. If you exclude things like that, I'd argue 1995 was actually better than 2015. In the last two decades we've had so many significant economic problems. In the span of ten years, we had the dot com bubble burst, the September 11th attacks (and two wars stemming from it) and the housing bubble burst. The last of those led to several more economic crises and eventually a genuine recession. Things are getting better now, but I don't think we've gotten back to where things were in 1995, even if you ignore the rising levels in debt. And personally, I think the rising levels in debt may turn into yet another economic crises if nothing is done about them. If so, it could be 20-30 years the United States is stuck in this economic quagmire.

    I don't know how similar things are on your side of the ocean though. I always feel bad about not keeping up with what's going on in other countries, but I have the same problem with that as I do with learning other languages. I feel like I should learn other languages, but there's so many. How do I decide which languages to learn? How do I decide which countries to follow? There just isn't enough time in the day.

    (I say as I am about to start up a video game.)

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