Behind the Lines: Looters and moochers

Published April 30, 2012 7:35 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson:

Bagley: When I do these cartoons about the wealth gap in America, I get furious blowback from those who think that raising rates another 3 percent after one's first million of annual income is a communist Obama plot. It makes me feel very low. First, because they throw around words like "communist" and "socialist." I actually know a socialist. He lives back east. And real communists are as rare as ivory-billed woodpeckers — I haven't seen one and doubt those who claim they have.

Second, these furious commentators (they're always furious) spring to the defense of the very richest and praise them to the heavens as the source of all our blessings, and damn me for being an ingrate. My mind tends to wander during these missives, and I find myself in feudal Europe being lectured by a serf who is saying that, were it not for the generous prince/baron/earl, I wouldn't have a mud-and-wattle hovel in which to hang my cap.

Lambson: I am not a Randian Objectivist — for example, I am pro-God and anti-adultery — but Ayn Rand was correct in pointing out that there are only three ways we can see to our material needs: We can be traders, looters or moochers. Trade — giving value for value — is ennobling. Looting and mooching, not so much. I do not see wealthy traders as generous. I don't judge them at all. Even Marx recognized that the selfish pursuit of wealth had created great amounts of it. (Yes, I actually read all of Das Kapital during my misspent youth.) The very possibility of the Welfare State you advocate is due to the wealth created by traders. When traders or their successors use the force of government to restrict trade, they become looters or moochers and I oppose them as much as you do.

As for communists, the old joke may be right: Marxism is dead everywhere except North Korea, Cuba and American universities.

Bagley: There! That's another thing that makes me feel very low: loaded categories that divide us. Looters. Moochers. Traders. What was Mozart if not a magnificent moocher? I'm sure his aristocratic patrons agreed with the "moocher" status, which was why it was so easy to cut him off and let the world's greatest composer die and be buried in a pauper's grave. After all, he wasn't giving fair value for performance.

The GOP has trundled out its latest talking point; one is either a "taker or a maker." Despicable. It places us in warring camps where one's value is purely economic. Capital can be measured in ways other than dollars and cents. The next Steve Jobs or da Vinci may be a low-income kid in West Jordan who just needs a fair shot to achieve his/her potential. That latest cut to early childhood education may be the one that denies the world another Einstein.

Lambson: Loaded categories like the 1 percent and the 99 percent? Granted that categories are only tools for understanding, not neat packages. In that spirit, Austrian emperors were looters. The fact that Mozart's patron used some of his loot to fund the trader Mozart doesn't excuse his looting any more than subsidizing various artists excuses the National Endowment for the Arts. These are longstanding debates, of course, not to be adequately addressed in a few lines. I recommend "Free to Chose" by Milton and Rose Friedman and "Free to Lose" by John Roemer for starters.

Bagley: I will give them a look as soon as I'm caught up on my Game of Thrones reading (talk about looters!). "Why Nations Fail" by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson http://whynationsfail.com/ also looks at the source and allocation of wealth in the modern world.

Lambson: It may come down to this. It is easier to recognize that capital can be measured in ways other than dollars and cents, and that our greatest resource is people, than it is to agree on how resources should be directed to increase some notion of public welfare. It is easier to note that the next Steve Jobs might be born in West Jordan (or Somalia) than to figure out how to give her a fair chance or even to define what a fair chance means. When you give government the power to direct resources, you create incentives for lobbying and capture. The result is, well, the tax code.

My choice for best comment is the succinct question by rolandkayser: "I wonder if the four investigations will cost more than the GSA wasted?"