Wednesday, September 19, 2012

'Robin Hood Obama?'

One day after the revelation of a videotape in which Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said that the 47% of US taxpayers who did not pay income tax were dependent people who would not vote for him, an audiotape of President Barack Obama applauding " least at a certain level," has surfaced.

The tape is from an event that took place at Loyola University nearly fourteen years ago. Obama, careful in his phrasing, doesn't advocate a wholesale confiscatory redistribution of tax dollars. Nor is it clear that he's even talking about federal monies, as the other references are to local government agencies, which have separate taxing authority.

But the suspicions of many are bound to be aroused by any talk of redistribution of wealth, conjuring up images of Robin Hood taking from the rich to give to the poor.

And while that conversation will happen as a result of this audio's disclosure, I'm more interested in the underlying assumption behind most talk of redistribution.

While I've often addressed the dangers of materialism and consumerism (sinfully caught up in them as I may be as an American). But there is a school of thought that says that continuing economic growth, even if it allows more of the have-nots to enter the ranks of the haves, is both negative and unrealistic: Negative, because growth inevitably leads to environmental degradation, this school of thought says, and unrealistic, because the pie is only so big.

It's on this latter point that most talks of use of the tax code for resource redistribution often hinges: The belief that growth is inherently limited and that consequently, the job of government is to redistribute wealth.

In an article in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs, Danish scholar Bjorn Lomborg shows that assumptions of the finitude of potential economic growth, first posited some forty years ago, are inaccurate. Human beings are very creative in expanding the overall economic pie, with new technologies, some of them both economically and environmentally friendly

Does Barack Obama believe in wealth redistribution through the tax code? What does he mean by that, if he does? And on what economic assumptions does he build if he does think the federal government should play Robin Hood?

These are all questions raised by the audio.

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