Legal Predation

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Alabama has not escaped an abuse suffered elsewhere in the country, one reminiscent of lawyers’ trolling for plaintiffs in their nightly TV ads. The Opelika-Auburn News has carried stories about a form letter (copied online by the newspaper) that local businesses have received from a law firm in Montgomery. (I have also had a brief conversation with an attorney for some of the victims.)

The letter threatens a federal lawsuit on behalf of not-yet-specified plaintiffs for not-yet-specified violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act unless the targeted firm agrees to an out-of-court settlement. The letter expressly says that a suitable settlement would cover legal fees. The amount later suggested, typically a few thousand dollars, apparently turns out to be small enough to persuade some victims to settle to avoid risking further and possibly great expense and trouble.

Such predation is one more example of using or threatening government power to redistribute wealth away from its real producers. It is also an example both of quasi-deception and of regarding business firms as fair game that just exists, almost automatically, to be exploited in various ways as might occur to somebody.




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ISIS and the Anarchists

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Some of our best friends at Liberty are libertarian anarchists; others are libertarian supporters of minimal government. I’m in the second camp. (Long-suffering people can refer to my articles in the July 2013 and December 2013 issues of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.) So I wonder what anarchists think about the ISIS affair.

Here is a private religious organization that raised its own military force, and then devoted it to murdering and torturing all who failed to obey its creed. Such things are not unexampled in Islam; recall the great Mahdist revolt in 19th-century Africa. Some religions waited hundreds of years to take over a state; the original Muslim movement erected a state at once, and that is what ISIS has been doing — transforming itself from a private movement into “the caliphate.”

I imagine that in analyzing this metathesis of private organizations, anarchists will do what they usually do: retell the long story of state aggression, comparing its horrors to the benefits of private organizations that remain private. They will emphasize that ISIS intervened in a situation destabilized by the United States and other governments. They will observe that ISIS acquired its weapons from those left in Iraq by the United States government. So any way you look, it will just be state, state, state.

But that’s my own point. Even if a state is destabilized, other states will take its place, and its resources. Some of them (including once-private organizations, such as, for instance, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, and the radical Islamists) may be shaped by the worst private emotions — intolerance, sadism, the desire to kill and torture. To a regrettable degree in human history, the gratification of these emotions has taken precedence over the libertarian desire to mind one’s own business, participate in trade, and learn interesting things from one’s neighbors. How do you protect yourself against such vicious but popular passions, except with your own state? Ask the Kurds.

Nevertheless, I’d like to know what anarchists really think about this ISIS thing.




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Dishonest Impositions on Business

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In “Lying as a Research Tool” (Liberty, April 2013) I cited a study of employers’ possible discrimination by race as suggested by fictitious applicants’ names on fictitious résumés. Because such studies are remote from my own main interests, I was not then fully aware of how numerous and respected they have become.

One new example, not yet published in an academic journal, has received prominent and enthusiastic attention in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend issue of 17–18 May 2014 and in Auburn University’s online media. The researchers responded to job announcements by emailing thousands of phony résumés of recent college graduates. The fictitious applicants differed in college majors, recent employment or unemployment, internships, prestigiousness of home address, and typically white or typically African-American name. One conclusion was that experience as an intern before graduation improved one’s chances of being invited to a job interview.

The Southern Economic Journal of July 2014 publishes a similarly conducted study of landlords’ possible discrimination according to whether a prospective tenant’s name and writing style suggested (to use the authors’ categories) a white person, a well-assimilated Hispanic, or a recent immigrant from Latin America.

The authors of such studies cite dozens of similar ones, commenting on the particular questions investigated and on the effectiveness of the particular deceptions employed — but little if at all on their dishonesty. I discussed one of the studies mentioned above by email and then in person with one of its coauthors. What happens when an employer offers a job interview? Answer: the fictitious applicant replies that he or she has meanwhile accepted some other job. Apparently unabashed by the lying that pervades the study, the coauthor excused it with the remark that the end justifies the means, using those very words.

Sissela Bok’s Lying (1978) included a chapter on “Deceptive Social Science Research.” Bok expressed dismay at her examples (though not, of course, at the not-yet-familiar deceptions described here). One reason such deceptions are objectionable is that they create noise in the job and rental markets, possibly disadvantaging genuine applicants. They suggest unconcern about the additional burdens, slight in the individual case but significant in the aggregate, imposed on business, especially small business. The authors presumptuously call such studies, done by correspondence or occasionally with hired actors, “audits” (an “audit” being an official or formal investigation of someone’s accounts or activities to uncover possible error or worse).

Apparently unabashed by the lying that pervades the study, the coauthor excused it with the remark that the end justifies the means.

But why do they consider business firms fair game for such targeting, almost as if they just existed automatically? Actually, no one is obliged to be in business at all and hire employees or offer rental housing, let alone to endure just anyone’s intrusive impositions.

One ground for hope is that such experiments will destroy their own effectiveness if they become familiar enough to arouse the suspicion and noncooperation of the unwitting guinea pigs. By then, sadly, the general presumption of honesty and trustworthiness essential to a free society and market economy will have become further eroded. Many TV ads and the assertions and promises of politicians are already doing damage enough.

At least in their own profession, academic researchers should uphold standards of honesty.




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What Obamacare Did for Me

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In January I was kicked off my health insurance and forced to buy an Obamacare plan through my state’s health insurance exchange. Let me tell you about it.

My monthly premium is now $315. I am poor and struggle to pay this bill. In fact, the $1,500 I have paid so far this year would torture the poor working class people Obama promised to help. My premium on my old health insurance was roughly the same. I thought the whole idea of Obamacare was that if everyone bought health insurance then premiums would go down. Why, then, is an Obamacare plan still so expensive?

Here it is worth noting that what I pay is $315 a month, but my premium is officially $385 per month, lessened by a $70 per month “tax credit” that the government pays because I bought an Obamacare plan. I would not complain if Obama gave me poor coverage but at least paid my premiums for me (although when I say this I choose not to engage my readers in the lengthy debate about whether fully socialized medicine would be even more horrible than Obamacare). But $70 is little enough, compared to what I pay each month. So I am still getting price-gouged and I don’t get free health coverage, either — when free healthcare is what the liberals and socialists thought Obamacare would lead to.

If I catch a cold, my health insurance is useful. If I get seriously sick, I am totally screwed.

Obamacare is actually the worst of both worlds, because meanwhile, I’m not getting the quality of service that would have come from a true free-market product. For my $315 monthly premium, I get a plan that has a deductible of $3,000 for in-network hospitals and $6,000 for out-of-network doctors and out-of-network hospitals. (The deductible for in-network doctors is also $3,000, but it’s waived for in-network doctor’s office visits, which require only a $30 copay. But see below.)

Which poor people have $3,000 or $6,000 to spare? I certainly don't. If I catch a cold, my health insurance is useful. If I get seriously sick, I am totally screwed.

In the interests of fair and balanced journalism, I will tell you that I had a respiratory infection in March for which I saw a doctor and took an antibiotic, and I guess my doctor's bills and medicine costs would have been much higher if not for Obamacare. This does not alter the fact that I now live in chronic fear of getting very sick. Nor does it alter the fact that if I had saved up my $1,500 of premium payments instead of paying it I might have been able to bear the cost myself.

My plan is with Anthem Blue Cross, the biggest Obamacare provider nationwide. When I call them I am kept on hold for over an hour. This has happened a dozen times.

When I bought this plan the policy disclosures said the deductible was waived for visits to certain types of specialists, so in those cases I would be liable only for a $30 copay. I saw such a specialist in February and promptly sent in a claim. I heard nothing for a month, called to follow up, and was told they had lost it. I resubmitted the claim. They lost it again. I followed up yet again, and was told that because my specialist is out-of-network, the deductible was not waived. This is not what the plan had said. But it turned out not to matter, because they rejected the claim anyway, because of my doctor's bad handwriting on an Anthem form.

Anthem has told me that I may resubmit my claim for the February office visit, but the hassle of dealing with them has scared me away. And I hesitate to bother, anyway, because if the claim is allowed the only result may be $150 going toward a $6,000 deductible. At some point I may try to submit the claim a fourth time, but I don’t expect anything good to come of it.

This is a true story.

I tell this to my liberal mother and she says all insurers are greedy.

The plan was designed by Obama. But for political partisans, blame is always better to give than receive.




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Sugar Daddies, Sky Fairies, and Flying Spaghetti Monsters

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America’s self-appointed sophisticates like to ridicule religious believers as devotees of the “Sky Fairy,” or of an entity of cartoon-superheroic magnificence they call “the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Those too enlightened for such foolishness assure us that they are the grownups in the country, and therefore above silly superstitions. Yet curiously, many of them retain absolute, childlike faith in big government as the solver of every problem and the savior from all evil.

Statists on both sides of the spectrum tend to a blind trust of information they get from their official propagandists. To borrow a wonderful phrase from our editor, Stephen Cox, they gobble it up like fish food. Many of the same people look down their noses at those silly Christians, whose core beliefs come from the Bible. But Fox, MSNBC, and NPR have only been around for a few decades. The Bible has endured for thousands of years.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing.

This is not to say that, in my opinion, people don’t get some odd ideas from Holy Writ. We see these notions floating around in the cultural atmosphere, like leftover bubbles from The Lawrence Welk Show. I get as much pleasure in pointing, laughing, and popping bubbles as anybody else. But to suggest that the basic ideas are less credible than this week’s talking points by the rah-rah media strikes me as nothing short of absurd.

The big story last month was the donnybrook between Hobby Lobby and the Obamacare cops. The Green family, who own majority interest in the Hobby Lobby corporation, caused widespread sophisticate outrage. In their fidelity to the dictates of their “Imaginary Friend,” the Greens sought an exemption from providing certain forms of birth control in employees’ health plans. Our president meanwhile seeks to bestow healthcare on the huddled masses, but certain people’s benighted religious views keep getting in the way!

The concept of a Supreme Being who created the cosmos and has abided since the beginning of time strikes the enlightened ones as laughable. But the competence of an elected official not born until 1961, and only elected in 2008, cannot — dare not — be questioned. The Obama Administration and its minions Know Best. How can we be sure of this? Because they care about the right things.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing. But surely I am deluded. The Sky Fairy has blinded me with sparkle-dust.

My general impression of those who seek political power, particularly high office, is that they aren’t very nice people. They appear, to me, to be concerned with little more than self-promotion and blind ambition. They have an amazing propensity to say exactly what they think their “base” wants to hear. But no matter what they say, they always end up doing what serves themselves and their own glorious careers. I don’t know why that makes me gullible, or any sillier than those who “ooh” and “aah” over the Great Enlighteneds’ every utterance as if it thundered down from Mount Olympus.

The god of the so-called sophisticates is something even loftier than our exalted leaders. It is Sugar Daddy, the all-knowing, all-seeing, infinitely powerful bringer of all that is right, good, and utterly unquestionable. “We’re not worrrrthy! Pray forgive us if we ever — for a millisecond — questioned your wisdom. In your divine awesomeness, call down no drones to smite us!”

Now, that sounds pretty out-there to me. But then again, I’m no sophisticate. Clearly I’m incapable of understanding.

Trusting the government to fix its own messes seems, to me, a prospect considerably more dubious than relying on Gomer Pyle to fix the family car. Goofy as he was, Gomer usually knew how to get that vehicle humming again. Too bad he isn’t running for president. With his cousin Goober as a running-mate, he’d be at least as credible as the geniuses we’ll undoubtedly have to choose from in 2016.

Yet all will be presumed, by their legions of fans, to know what they’re doing. In fact, to know better than everybody else. The Rube Goldberg contraption of the state grows to ever more monstrous proportions, but the gruesome sitcom of power piled upon power continues to entrance many Americans. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is dismissed as hoary, tired, and in need of retirement; but Sugar Daddy is ever young and virile. In his present incarnation, he even wears cool sunglasses and shoots hoops with NBA stars.

Our politicians are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

I believe I’ll sit out this enthusiasm. I can’t get worked up about the controversy over whether the First Lady has buff arms or a big butt. Nor do I get teary-eyed thinking about the First Daughter’s high school prom, or outraged because she and her sister attend private school. They are just human beings like the rest of us. When the Presidential Family became our version of the Windsors, they were not elevated to the Heavens, but merely added to the cast of the sitcom.

When I was in high school, the Student Council candidates divided themselves into two parties: Kiss and P-Nut. At the time I found it absurd. Us kids, pretending to be real politicians! Now I see the Democrats and the Republicans morphing, more and more, into Kiss and P-Nut. They are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, I think that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

Too bad, however, that they’re not wrangling over whether ice cream should be served in the cafeteria, instead of waging wars, jeopardizing our future, and taking our money to pay for their grand schemes. At least on the Student Council, they wouldn’t be out of their league. Nor would we be expected to pay them endless tribute and trust them with our lives.

The Sky Fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are looking better all the time.




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Peak Obama

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"We tortured some folks."

Set aside the occasion — a weekday afternoon speech during the middle of crises both foreign (Gaza, Ukraine) and domestic (border control, CIA surveillance, sluggish economy, et cetera). Set aside also his inexplicable support for CIA chief John Brennan, who lied openly and unabashedly to the Senate about his agency spying on members of Congress. (And potentially, of course, all other United States citizens; the senators naturally only care when such tools are turned against them and their offices.) Set aside all else about the inadequate performance of this president, so lukewarm that all but his most ardent supporters are prepared to spew him out of their mouths. Just savor these words:

"We tortured some folks."

Years of Stephen Cox's Word Watch coverage of Obama's misuse of language can be summed up in those four words. The condescension and arrogance of his affected folksiness, the coerciveness of his forced plural pronouns, the maddening vagueness of his utterances — all wrapped into one short burst of faux sincerity.

"We tortured some folks."

These four words stand as President Obama's most representative contribution to US political rhetoric. God help us all if he manages to top them.



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You CAN Take It with You

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In DC after the Heller decision, you could keep, but could you bear?

I recently wrote about Peruta, a California Second Amendment case originating in San Diego County and decided in February. That federal appeals court decision surprised a lot of people, because it was the Ninth Circuit saying that California’s gun laws were unconstitutionally illiberal, and it seemed to go beyond Heller, the Supreme Court decision on which it heavily relied.

Heller was a District of Columbia case that was appealed to the Supreme Court. It said that the Second Amendment right to bear arms was an individual right, not only a collective right (for militia), but its holding was limited to DC’s laws against keeping handguns at home. It did not directly address prohibitions on carrying guns in public.

Once the Supreme Court finally said that the Second Amendment granted an individual right, that right could not be kept indoors.

But the Ninth Circuit said in the Peruta decision that Heller implies “a law-abiding citizen’s ability to carry a gun outside the home for self-defense fell within the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense.” In other words, the reasoning of the Heller case goes beyond the actual holding of the case, beyond possession of guns at home.

If we forget about the anti-gun culture that predominates in most big American cities and about the decades of anti-gun legislation that we have gotten used to, it’s hard to disagree with Peruta. Once the Supreme Court finally said that the Second Amendment granted an individual right, that right could not be kept indoors. In the Constitution, there is simply no mention of any limitation of gun rights to the home. “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” In fact, “keeping” might be something you do only at home, but “bearing” sounds like something you do in public.

A federal trial court in DC has just agreed, in the case of Palmer v.District of Columbia.(554 U.S. 570 [2008]). The decisionfollows the California casein applying Heller to a question almost identical to the one posed in Peruta.

A pattern has emerged. Civil libertarians (with glee) and gun-control advocates (with dread) might agree that the slope is slippery. Before Heller, DC’s laws were less liberal than California’s. DC “totally ban[ned] handgun possession in the home” and “require[d] that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock” (Heller, 554 U.S. at 603, 628). That is, no handguns at home in any condition, and other guns such as rifles or shotguns stored in pieces or with a trigger lock. You couldn’t get much closer to a total gun ban. I think that’s what forced the hand of the Supreme Court in the Peruta case. It had to decide whether the Second Amendment meant anything for individuals. Once it did that, and overturned DC’s handgun ban, San Diego’s effective ban on carrying guns openly or concealed seemed the most offensive to Second Amendment rights. The Ninth Circuit had to apply Heller, or at least the logic of Heller. Then the district court in DC followed with its decision in Palmer.

Seven years ago in DC you couldn’t keep a handgun at home. Now, if Palmer holds up, you can take it with you.




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Lemony Lerner's Series of Unfortunate Events

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The media are abuzz with the IRS affair. As you may have heard, former IRS official Lois Lerner, in charge of tax exempt groups, directed harassment operations targeting conservative groups. She also recommended auditing Republican Senator Charles Grassley. Appearing in front of the House Oversight Committee (HOC) in May 2013 and again last March, she pled the Fifth and refused to answer any questions. Later, IRS commissioner John Koskinen announced that potentially damning emails that were subpoenaed by the committee had disappeared in a series of computer crashes affecting Lerner’s machine, as well as the machines of at least six other IRS officers with whom she was not discussing anything important anyway.

Soon thereafter, neighbors of the plush EPA office in the District of Columbia reported hearing a huge "you can do that?" cry of relief. The EPA, you see, is also being investigated by the HOC, for unrelated power grabs. It promptly announced that it, too, had been a victim of these temperamental machines and that disk crashes had eliminated all compromising emails that had been subpoenaed. So there.

The administration had already spent millions retrieving emails containing only irrelevant, harmless messages, and duly supplied them to the HOC, chaired by Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Surely, the administration implied, enough is enough. Besides, President Obama himself had designated conservative groups as a "threat to our democracy" as early as 2010. With such divine sanction, how could the IRS be blamed for its actions?

The gremlins sneak in with the mail, escape from the mail rooms, kick office doors, gnaw hard drives, eat magnetic tapes, shred paper records, and hypnotize IT managers into a hardware destruction trance.

Some journalists are starting to smell a fish, but not our modern-liberal media. Oh no. They are jumping to the defense of Lerner, claiming that Republicans are on a witch hunt. This reference to the paranormal may be more accurate than they think. It is the only explanation that makes sense.

Consider the accumulation of bad luck, hardware problems, incompetence, and plain carelessness that was apparently at work. Lerner's drive crashed, and so did the drives in her colleagues' machines — in June 2011, just ten days after being informed of the pending investigation for the targeting of conservative groups. Then, in September, the IRS canceled its contract with email backup software vendor Sonasoft, purged its Exchange email server of old mail, destroyed the tape backups, and decommissioned 22 perfectly good storage servers that were used to archive emails and documents, all the while breaking the laws and rules that mandate the IRS to keep backups. The details of what happened at the EPA are not public yet, but they'll probably reveal a similar pattern of cataclysmic incompetence and bad luck.

This long chain of implausible events cannot be random. The only explanation is supernatural.

Any sane, right-thinking person is forced to conclude that the Republicans send invisible gremlins with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests they issue to our honest, hard-working federal officials. The gremlins sneak in with the mail, escape from the mail rooms, kick office doors, gnaw hard drives, eat magnetic tapes, shred paper records, and hypnotize IT managers into a hardware destruction trance. These critters are hellbent on destroying records just to embarrass Democratic officials. The fact that the officials are saved from the even greater embarrassment of having to wear those unsightly orange prison jumpsuits is purely coincidental.

Fortunately, there is a solution. After all, the US is still at war in Afghanistan, as the press tends to forget. So Obama could stop the madness by simply classifying the work of all federal bureaucrats as wartime secrets, thereby defeating further FOIA requests.

It is high time that the Republican FOIA freaks stop terrorizing our nation with their invisible gremlins. Sanity must return.

References
Forbes timeline: http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2013/06/25/the-timeline-of-irs-targeting-of-conservative-groups/
EPA data: http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/210564-epa-says-hard-drive-crashed-emails-lost




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Not Our Fight

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Excuse me if I sound insensitive, but the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane by Russian separatists in Ukraine is none of our business. It wasn’t our plane, it wasn’t our country, and it isn’t our fight. Moreover, only one passenger was remotely American (I say “remotely” because he held dual citizenship and had lived in the Netherlands since he was five). So we should just keep our noses out of this one. We don’t need to impose sanctions, beef up our military presence, or drive the price of oil down in order to destroy the Russian economy, as some have suggested.

While it is a terrible shame that anyone should be killed in an accident, that’s all this really was: an accident. What seemed to be a Ukranian military jet turned out to be a passenger plane, and the shooter pulled the trigger before making certain of the target. When our troops make that kind of mistake, we call it “friendly fire,” and because it isn’t an intentional act, we hand out some medals to the victims and let the shooter slide.

Am I the first to ask the unspoken but obvious question: Didn’t they know they were flying over a war zone? Didn’t they know that Russian separatists had been shooting down Ukranian military jets for weeks? Hours after the accident, commercial airlines began diverting their flight plans around Ukraine; a map released today shows almost no planes above that country. Seems to me they should have made that adjustment as soon as the fighting broke out in Ukraine. I’m no fan of Putin, but if I were holding anyone responsible for this terrible accident, it would be the air traffic controllers and flight plan originators who allowed commercial jets to fly over a war zone.

Again, if my remarks seem insensitive, I apologize. Not one of the people on that plane deserved to die; the grief of their families is deep, and their deaths are unwarranted. But I would rather cry over 300 people killed in an accident than worry about thousands of additional soldiers sent to police the area. This one simply isn’t our fight.




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R>G Revisited

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The Washington Post chose July 4 — a holiday kicking off a three-day weekend — to bury an interesting article, and it’s not hard to see why. Check out Zachary Goldfarb's lede:

After making fighting income inequality an early focus of his second term, President Obama has largely abandoned talk of the subject this election year in a move that highlights the emerging debate within the Democratic Party over economic populism and its limits.

During the first half of this year, Obama shifted from income inequality to the more politically palatable theme of lifting the middle class, focusing on issues such as the minimum wage and the gender pay gap that are thought to resonate with a broader group of voters.

The pivot is striking for a president who identified inequality as one of his top concerns after his reelection, calling it “a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe.”

The Post is the quintessential establishment newspaper, as in tune with everything DC and its satellite suburbs as it is out of tune with everything else. Generally, the Post house style is to provide justifications for the actions of the powerful and connected, because they must be, on average, wiser and better than the populace — if they weren’t, then how would they have obtained their power and connections?

Imagine a “tax” on power — every year, those in whose hands so much is gathered must surrender a small percentage of it, to be distributed among those who have so little.

With few exceptions, then (notably, the articles on Edward Snowden and national security) you shouldn’t read the Washington Post for intellectual stimulation. Rather, read it for insights into the cramped and contorted psyche of the ruling class — there’s really no better way to place yourself into the sort of mental confines occupied by those who hold federal office.

For instance, to read the paragraphs above, it might seem as if the president is being called out for waffling on a core principle, or worse, betraying a group of people to whom he successfully pandered in the last election. The piece might even be interpreted as a lament for what is “politically palatable” in this country, or for the voters who would put the concerns of the middle class over those of the truly destitute. But the Post would never run even mild criticism without outweighing it with rationalizations or outright praise: thus the focus here is not on the president’s shortcomings, but rather his shrewdness, softening his rhetoric in time for the midterm elections. Where once the president had been determined to bring up inequality, not caring “whether that was a good economic message” (according to that ultimate Beltway insider, the mysterious “person familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private conversations”), he has caved to political reality, and shifted his rhetorical course.

Of course, it must just be a coincidence that this new tack steers the president toward the interests of the DC establishment — and toward Wall Street, to boot. If one thought otherwise, why, there are employees at a whole range of DC-based thinktanks, from the Center for Equitable Grown on the left, to the Heritage Foundation on the right, and plenty more in between, all waiting to give soundbites about how one set of words is so much better than another for this thing called the “American middle class,” which we never actually see in the story, but which must exist given how often these important people discuss it. And of course, even the more radical of Obama’s supporters can delude themselves into thinking that such strategery is necessary so that Obama can devote himself to truly egalitarian reforms in his final two years.

It would be unthinkably gauche for the Post to suggest that Obama’s rhetoric on inequality was never sincere, or to point out that Wall Street has overwhelmingly backed Obama from the start — that’s left for journalists such as Tim Carney and unfavored papers such as the Washington Examiner to do. But all in all, the performance in this article isn’t entirely convincing, as if even the Post was tiring of repeating the talking points of K Street thinktankers and anonymous apparatchiks. Maybe it’s the Snowden files, or maybe it’s the shift to a new generation, or maybe it’s just the unstable position of newspapers with our digital present, but the Post is a little uneasy about just how much the people at the top control. And that means at least some portion of the establishment is uneasy about that as well.

The president might have to stop ordering people locked up or killed without some pretense of due process.

All of this made me revisit the discussion in these pages of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital. Piketty’s massive tome oversimplifies to a single principle, given as r>g, meaning that the rate of return on wealth exceeds the rate of economic growth, at least in Western industrialized nations. Were this true, then income inequality would inexorably increase, and wealth would be concentrated in ever greater amounts in ever fewer hands. Of course, as Mark Skousen and Leland Yeager showed, Piketty’s principle rests on several unsustainable assumptions about the permanence of capital and the assumption of risk.

However, Piketty’s principle makes a lot of sense when viewed as a statement not about wealth, but about political power. Yes, the two are related; in the present day, perhaps fatally so. But that sort of crony capitalism would be impossible without the power consolidation represented by Washington DC — the very arrangement that ensures that power will continue accruing to those already neck deep in it.

Piketty’s preferred solution for his perceived economic problem, a wealth tax, would only increase the flow of money going into, and much more rarely out of, our imperial metropolis. Imagine, however, an equivalent “tax” on power — every year, those in whose hands so much is gathered must surrender a small percentage of it, to be distributed among those who have so little. There are benefits straight off: everyone in office would have to list off all the political powers and assets they think they possess, and these could then be compared to the Constitution to get an idea of how deep the cuts would have to be.

Ideally, the tax would be progressive, so that those with comparatively little scope of power, such as first-year podunk-state congressmen with bottom-tier committee assignments, would only give up, say, a sugar subsidy that helps out a campaign donor. Those at the top, meanwhile, would be expected to turn over much more for the commonweal: the president, for instance, might have to stop ordering people locked up or killed without some pretense of due process.

It would take a while. And realistically, it would never come close to evening things out. But if we had such a mechanism that put power back in the hands of the people — as in, actual control over their own lives, not just as some weak metaphor for voting blocs — we could nonetheless do a great deal to reduce political inequality in the United States. And that would go much farther toward protecting The American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe than anything else Obama or any other DC denizen might choose to do.



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