Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.
Bagley: In what could be The Thing Which Cost Him The Election, a video of Mitt Romney talking to wealthy donors from last May has been getting even more hits on YouTube than ones featuring cats playing the piano. In the video, Mitt conflates 1) folks who pay no federal income tax with 2) folks who vote for Obama with 3) folks who receive some form of government assistance. The cartoon pictures some of Romney’s imagined moochers from the freeloading 47 percent. So, Professor Lambson, I’m curious to know your thoughts on Romney’s assessment of what ails America.
Lambson: What ails America? Romney’s list of ailing government programs is too short and does not contain the most egregious examples. Getting involved in Iraq and Afghanistan has killed thousands but is unlikely to make the United States more secure. Bailing out banks and corporations is expensive and it enables bad behavior and instability. Underfunded programs like Social Security and Medicare will eventually prove unsustainable. The War on Terror, built around the Patriot Act, is an affront to a free people. The War on Drugs has left horrific violence in its path. Not to mention the Designated Hitter Rule. (To be fair, the DH isn’t actually the government’s fault.)
Bagley: Hmm. Romney supports: more military spending, bank bailouts, drug enforcement, the Patriot Act, another Mideast face-off (this time with Iran) . . . yada, yada, yada. So, what ails America is . . . Romney? I know, I know; a Libertarian curse on both their houses. Republicans and Democrats both fail us.
However, I can’t let your swipe at Social Security go unanswered. Social Security is a success. Last I heard it was fully funded until 2036, alleviating fears among our elderly that their Golden Years might include dining on cat food. With some minor tweaks, Social Security could be made sound for decades to come.
Health care, on the other hand . . .
Lambson: I am not so sanguine. To say Social Security is sound but health care isn’t is like saying that we needn’t worry because only one end of the boat is sinking.
Bagley: Single payer. But getting back to Romney’s comments in Boca Raton (which appropriately means “mouth of the rat”). In the video we see a relaxed and loquacious Romney reveal himself as a total jerk. The message to his $50,000-a-plate audience was loud and clear: Most Americans are shiftless, lazy, goldbricking whiners looking for a handout. Americans are actually among the hardest working in the world, but an increasing number of our fellow citizens are finding that hard work and playing by the rules still leaves them in thrall to bill collectors at the end of the month. The problem is that the wealth being created by all those hard-working Americans is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
Lambson: Americans are indeed hard-working and, in the context of stable property rights and liberty, that has created great wealth. The poorest in our country are wealthy by the standards of most times and places. Wealth is far from equally distributed, of course, but is the class warfare rhetoric a good idea? One can oppose corporate welfare (as I do) without demonizing the recipients who are also playing by the rules. We can advocate changing the rules; the rules allow for that. But if we are to demonize the wealthy, then we have no right to object to being demonized throughout the Third World.
Bagley: The fix is in, the game is rigged, and the playing field isn’t level: in other words the rich have bought off the umpires and written their own rules. Here’s a statistic worth pondering: The six heirs of the Sam Walton Walmart fortune control more wealth than the cumulative worth of America’s bottom 40 percent. Six people. Shall we talk about moochers? They pay so poorly (average: $8.80 per hour) that Walmart employees often supplement their income with food stamps and other government help.
I don’t often agree with George W. Bush’s old speech writer, but Republicans would do well to take to heart this column from Michael Gerson of The Washington Post: “A Republican mind-set without promise.”
Lambson: I have the privilege of the last word this week, but there will likely never be a last word in this debate. Distribution of the fruits of our labor made possible by the legacies of those who have gone before is likely to be contentious, and it seems that where one stands usually depends on where one is sitting. Even Marx (or perhaps especially Marx) understood that Capitalism creates great wealth but distributes it unevenly. He thought that its distribution could be separated from its creation. You don’t need a lecture on the horrors that resulted. Of course we should be charitable, contribute money and time to helping the disadvantaged, and care about the less fortunate. We should encourage others to do the same. But before enforcing charity at the point of a gun, if such is possible, we must reflect on the potential dangers.
The Top Comment from last time is from slippast: On a related note, when we file our income tax there should be an option where we decide where our tax dollars go. Something like, “Check the box where you would like your taxes spent: Military and defense, Human health services, infrastructure, education.” I wonder what the results would look like? I doubt they’d look much like our current national budget.