Friday, July 20, 2012

Baby Steps Towards An Ontology of Building Things

. Friday, July 20, 2012

If the people who pay a disproportionate share of the public funds used to create public goods did not, in fact, have anything at all to do with the construction of said public goods, then who did exactly? The Public Goods Fairy?

This may come across as snark, but I mean it to be a real question so I'll phrase it another way.

If the question is "Have the rich paid their fair share into the common kitty?" and the only true empirical answer is "Actually, more than their share when you compare percentage of national income earned to percentage of national taxes paid", then it what sense can it be a true statement "they didn't build that"? I guess in the strictest, most literal sense... most of them weren't actually out laying the concrete.

Short of that, though, if words are to have meanings then this would seem to be an indefensible statement.


Latinamericanist said...

Leaving aside the fact that there is no "true empirical answer" to questions about fairness:

If you acquired your wealth over the last 30 years or so, you obviously did not pay for most of the infrastructure that helped you acquire that wealth, much of which was built prior to that (and funded among other things by rich people paying much higher tax rates).
So whatever its political or normative merits, "you didn't build that" is in almost all cases a correct statement.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Well, then the argument applies equally to everyone, regardless of income. Obama certainly was *not* claiming that "nobody built that so everyone needs to ante up equally".

There *is* an empirical answer to the question: who pays a higher percentage of their income towards the provision of public goods? Sorry, but there just is.

The question isn't even about fairness, although many conservatives would love to have that argument. Obama didn't make a normative argument about fairness. He made a positive argument about where wealth comes from -- public goods -- and who pays for them -- not the rich. This is simply false.

I'm sorry, but all of this shifting from group to individual as it suits Obama's apologists is pathetic. The rich -- as a group or as individuals -- paid more of their income yesterday than the poor did, they pay more today, and they will pay more tomorrow no matter who is president. If *anybody* that is earning income *today* can be considered to have "built that", it's those who pay the most. Obama isn't proposing reimbursing the families of those who "built that" 30 years ago.

Moreover, most federal spending is *not* for the provision of public goods, but are transfers from which the rich are excluded by definition.

I mean, I actually think the rich should pay higher taxes, but I believe I can make that case on its merits rather than through crass and disingenuous platitudes, or by playing to the weaknesses and worst impulses of the populists.

Latinamericanist said...

1. You wrote "fair share," not "equal share". As I'm sure you know, Rawls wrote of and conceived "justice as fairness" so you can very well make an argument that "fairness" requires the rich to pay a much higher share than the poor, including a higher share than they're currently paying, that's kind of the basis of modern liberal political theory. I'd hope if you engage with political theory questions you're aware of that.

2. A lot of infrastructure is paid for by states, whose taxes are slightly regressive. I always get suspicious when people only link to federal taxes. It smells of partisan hackery or ignorance.

3. I think Obama's point was exactly "nobody built this" (by him/herself). It is an argument to counter a very specific anti-tax narrative - the claim "I became successful & rich all by myself so why should I pay more taxes than other people" narrative (he says so explicitly in the speech, so this is no post-hoc justification I'm coming up with). It's also the political theory 101 first line of defense against the naive libertarian argument, so I'm really puzzled why you'd find it so objectionable. It refutes one very narrow argument, but one that is excessively popular among parts of the right. Even if you accept Obama's point , you can still think taxes on the rich are too high.

Shifting from the collective to the individual level is what you're doing. Obama is talking about an argument at the individual level. You're shifting it to the collective level.

And my point is not to be an "Obama apologist," but that your specific arguments, whenever you move into the realm of political theory, become incredibly weak.

Kindred Winecoff said...

1. I defined my terms as percentage of national taxes paid relative to percentage of national income earned. I also said "disproportionate" and linked to a credible source with the precise figures. That's what I meant by "fair share", and I thought that was easily understood in context. My concept of fairness is probably influenced by my background in probability and statistics, which uses "fair" to mean "proportional", as in a "fair" roll of dice, or a "fair" coin. A coin that landed on heads 70% of the time would not be "fair" under any definition of which I'm aware.

If you propose a definition of "fair share" that is, say, that the top 10% pay 80% of federal taxes rather than 60% of federal taxes then we can discuss which of our definitions is more appropriate. But Obama didn't do that, and neither have any of his defenders. We can bring in arguments between Rawls and Nozick all we want, but without some definition of "fair" it would mean nothing. I offered one definition: proportionality; I acknowledge that it isn't the only one. Perhaps I should've left the word "fair" out to have avoided this confusion.

(I also reject the idea that fairness and justice are equivalent concepts. Which, I think, would make it easier to make the progressives' case that the rich should pay more *even if* it isn't "fair" because it would be "just". In any case, "justice" being defined as "fairness" is most certainly not a settled matter in political theory or philosophy.)

2. Obama is not a governor of a state. He's talking about the federal budget. So that's what I'm talking about too. Some states' taxes are somewhat regressive; others aren't. Many of them receive transfers from the federal government for infrastructure projects.

3. Had Obama said "we all benefit from public goods, so we all must pay more for them" there would be no objection (from me, at least). Instead, Obama said "YOU benefit from things WE provide, therefore it's time for YOU to pay up." This is practically plagiarizing Elizabeth Warren from a year or two ago. Obama didn't even reference the concept of fairness. He was saying, almost directly, that society has a greater claim on the incomes of the wealthy than they already take because the wealthy -- like everyone else -- benefits from public goods. This is quite literally a non sequitur.

There are, in fact, some rich people who believe that everyone should pay the same percentage of their income. They believe that would be "fair". I can see their point; by one clear, simple definition that is fair. I can also see the point that the wealthy benefit more from property rights, an infrastructure for conducting business, and therefore it is "fair" for them to pay a higher percentage. Both perspectives are legitimate, in my view.

What is absolutely not legitimate is to claim -- through insinuation or direct language -- that the group of people in this country who pay a disproportionate amount of taxes are not contributing to public goods to the same extent as everyone else.


Kindred Winecoff said...


The problem isn't shifting from the "collective" to the "individual" level; the problem is when people try to dance away from this by saying things like "well, the rich *today* didn't pay for anything... it was the rich from *yesterday* that paid for it". As I said, Obama was clearly *not* suggesting that the rich today compensate the families of the rich from yesterday; nor that anyone who was rich and paid 20 years ago is exempt from doing so once again.

I really don't think my arguments are *at all* weak, under almost any interpretation of the matter at hand. People who disagree with me end up bringing up things like intergenerational mobility -- when, in other contexts, they'd deny that it is exists -- and abstract conceptions of justice, sustainable levels of income taxation, sales taxes at the state and local levels... none of this is germane to the actual claims Obama made in the context he made them. He made positive, empirical, falsifiable claims. His meaning was clear.

P.S. I actually think my reading of Obama is fairly charitable on this. I haven't even brought up the conservative response to all this, which is that the "that" Obama said the rich didn't build were actually their own businesses. If you read the transcript that is literally what he said, but I believe it's clear from context that he was referring to the public goods that facilitate the development of those businesses rather than the businesses themselves.

Latinamericanist said...

"Had Obama said "we all benefit from public goods, so we all must pay more for them" there would be no objection (from me, at least)."

Obama (in that speech, one paragraph down): "So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. (...) You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.”

So yeah, I think that's pretty much exactly what he's saying (while we're at semantics - note that "you" is clearly part of "we" in this context as shown by the together). As I say above, he's saying to "you" - the rich person who argues that she got there on her own - that that's not true.

As for "fair" - your whole point hinges on the meaning of "fair". Because once you accept that "fair" means different things to different people, ""Have the rich paid their fair share into the common kitty?" and the only true empirical answer is "Actually, more than their share" is simply incorrect.
And even if by a super charitable reading I accept that you "defined" fair, that doesn't help you because your conclusion, i.e. that O's statement is "indefensible" rests on the fact that everyone else accepts your notion of "fair share," which you have already agreed isn't the case.

Kindred Winecoff said...

I started a response to this in the form of a one-act play, but it got long so I just made it a new post:

Travis Akin said...

I never thought of this argument in that way. You are exactly right. Accepting the premise that police and fire protection and the public water and sewer services and the advantages of the highway system have helped spur economic growth - the question then becomes where did the money to build these things come from? And since businesses and wealthier Americans pay the majority of the taxes in this country - they did in fact build it. Great point. I agree with you 100 percent. Mark the date: July 21, 2012...

Baby Steps Towards An Ontology of Building Things




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