One of my “guilty pleasure” movies is the James Caviezel version of ‘The Count of Monte Christo.’ There are a few great scenes in it; in one Caviezel, having gathered the wealth left at Monte Christo by AbbÃ© Faria, sits morose in a carriage with Jacopo (played to perfection by Luis GuzmÃ¡n). When asked why, with his newly wealth, he isn’t happier, Caviezel explains that he wants vengeance. Jacopo answers
“Why not just kill them? I’ll do it! I’ll run up to Paris – bam, bam, bam, bam. I’m back before week’s end. We spend the treasure. How is this a bad plan?”
“How is this a bad plan?” is now a standard phrase in our house…
There’s another line which was pretty sharp as well.
Caviezel has just swum from the Chateau d’If, and washed ashore on an island beach were a group of pirates is camped.
The leader of the pirates explains that he must fight and kill one of the pirate group or be killed himself. And then explains that: “Oh, and by the way, Jacopo is the best knife fighter I have ever seen.”
Caviezel replies, with a perfect deadpan – “Perhaps you should get out more…“
I had exactly that thought – perhaps they should get out more – reading Yglesias and Will Wilkinson writing about the problem of income inequality today.
Yglesias realizes that we can’t raise enough money via taxing the rich to really balance income inequality. His response?
The most important thing is to just have lots of tax revenue. Public expenditures are pretty progressive in their impact everywhere, and the difference between a very progressive and a not-so-progressive system is mostly that the more progressive ones are bigger. So while liberals have no reason to give in to conservative demands to make the existing revenue scheme less progressive – by adopting a flat tax, say, or replacing the income tax with a consumption tax – there’s very good reason to basically be looking for revenue by any means necessary. If it’s easier, politically, to get some center-right politicians on board for new consumption taxes than for higher income taxes, then it’s incumbent on progressives to walk through that door and take the revenue.
Wilkinson amplifies the point, in a post delightfully called…wait for it…’Will Coddling the Middle Class Kill Obama’s Plans?‘ Here’s the key graf:
So Yglesias is right (though he doesn’t quite put it this way). Democratic strategists need to be looking at clever ways for the government to take a lot more money away from middle-class families without thereby making the GOP look golden again. Obama’s been behaving as though he’s much less fiscally constrained than he really is. But by catering to the idea that middle-class taxes shouldn’t ever go up, he’s making it even tougher on himself. Unless he’s in the middle of some kind of ten-steps-ahead rope-a-dope wherein reaffirming the middle class’ right to not pay taxes is a way of softening them up to accept huge tax increases, he may be making a mistake.
Now I don’t begin to have an idea of when Yglesias is being serious or not, and Wilkinson is someone I’ve read a few times – not enough to make any judgment about whether the colossally lame post above is a brain fart or a core belief.
But I have one comment to both of these fine gentlemen – perhaps you should get out more…
Look, I’ve written a bunch about inequality – most centrally in 2002 in a post Google archived here (right now www.armedliberal.com exists only as a tar file, sadly – I’ll get it reposted sometime soon)
Look, you can’t have enough traffic police to enforce the laws everywhere. So obedience to traffic rules comes from two sources: First, a sense of “correctness”; a belief that the rules make sense, that we all benefit from the rule being followed, and that others will also follow the rule; Second, fear of punishment, either through direct consequences (an accident) or through the actions of other citizens or agents of the state (being threatened by someone you cut off, or being cited and fined by a police officer).
It ought to be obvious that the first source works better than the second. It works all the time, regardless of the state of enforcement; it is internalized so that each driver can freely respond to current situations. I’ll argue that it is morally better, as well, because it treats each driver as a responsible actor, rather than just a subject for enforcement.
But the first source depends on something which is in ever-shorter supply; a sense of the legitimacy of the rules, and a sense that one is connected to the others who are also bound by those rules. So why not run red lights?
Habra and Schaar each have a different vision of why legitimacy is in short supply; they are rich and difficult to summarize, so I won’t right now. To those, I will add the simple fact of inequality as it exists today (and here I’ll poach from Montesquieu as noted by Bertram, above).
I’m talking about a level of ‘Gilded Age’ inequality that gives us Lizzie Grubman and all she represents, a sense of separation, entitlement, and inheritance which is mirrored by the people who read about her and are convinced that modern American society is structured for people like her, and not people like them.
The kind of separation between people in the SkyBoxes and the rest in the cheap seats.
And the consequence isn’t just bad views or a mild sense of disengagement between classes. It is a profound corrosion of the relations that tie society together, as those in the SkyBox decide that they are above the law, and those in the nosebleed section see no reason to obey, as the law does nothing for them.
So as the light turns yellow, they just gun it, and the rest of us just have to be very, very careful because we are the ones they hit.
I believe passionately that we have to reduce the level of inequality – in wealth, income, and power – in this country.
But to me that means we grow the middle class, not try and hammer it with taxes just as the global hand is wiping it flat into Neal Stephenson’s Pakistani mud.
How do we do that, if we’re not going to follow the suggestion above and just have everyone work directly or indirectly for the state?
Well, for one, we can sit down and look hard at the rules which we’ve allowed to be continually rewritten from the late 60’s through today to advantage capital and disadvantage labor, to advantage investment income over earned income, to tilt the tables away from the working middle class and toward the politically wired wealthy and powerful.
I’m sensitive to the need to make investment more attractive than consumption; neither am I insensitive to the need to make investment more attractive than speculation.
‘Cause we’ve seen how well we do in an economy built on speculation, rather than investment.
Government doesn’t need to put men on the field to play the game; it just needs to take it’s role as a ref seriously.
That’s “smart power,” paid for with “smart taxation.”