Why Obama’s “share the wealth” argument should hurt him

Joe the Plumber matters because he had the misfortune to ask Obama a straightforward question and, amazingly, elicit from Obama an honest answer about his plan to socialize the American economy.  (I say misfortune because the media is now bound and determined to destroy Joe for having the temerity to have asked the question that startled something honest out of Obama.)  And Obama’s answer matters because it finally spells out to Americans in concrete terms what we on the Right have been fussing about all along with our abstract talk about Obama’s socialism.

Let me remind you what Obama said:

The money quote, of course, comes near the end when Obama finally stops waffling on about his convoluted tax plans, and states his actual goal:  “When you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”  Not so fast, Senator.

First of all, everybody listening instantly understood that the phrase “spread the wealth around” can mean only one thing:  The government is going to play Robin Hood.  It’s going to take from those it deems rich, and give to those it deems poor.  And Obama, in that incredibly long, discursive monologue, makes clear that he defines people who provide employment for others as “rich,” and those who actually don’t pay any taxes right now (or who pay almost no taxes right now) as “poor.”  Undressed, what he’s saying is “from each according to his ability [that would be us “rich” folks], to each according to his needs [that would be those “poor” folks].”  Hmm.  Where have I heard that before?

Right about now, thoughtful people might be worried that Obama’s statement, rather than being a death knell for his campaign, will shoot it into the stratosphere.  After all, there are a lot of “have nots” in America and this sounds as if it would be a very attractive plan for them.  They should be leaping all over it, creating a poor person’s revolution at the ballot box.  That conclusion, however, underestimates the blessed economic and social fluidity that is America, and the fact that most Americans can still readily imagine themselves, or their children, ascending America’s golden economic ladder.

Socialism, with all its many vices, was nevertheless a logical response to a very specific European (and very non-American) phenomenon: The almost complete absence of movement between one economic level and another, a stagnancy that was closely tied to European class lines.  Alan J. Lerner summed it up pithily in a song, famous to all who know My Fair Lady:

An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him.
The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.

In a tightly stratified society, you never could escape the socio-economic status to which you were born.  Sure there were exceptions to the rule, but generally, once a peasant, or a serf, or a Cockney, always a peasant, or a serf, or a cockney.  Only breaking the system could break those limits.

America from its inception was different, in that it was always an incredibly fluid society, both vertically and geographically.  If you failed in Philadelphia as a tanner, you could try reinventing yourself as a printer.  If that still didn’t t work, you could move to Wyoming and try your hand at ranching.  And if that failed too, perhaps you could strike it rich in Nevada silver mines, or California (or Alaska) gold mines.  And once you were rich, you had social entre, even if people did whisper a bit behind your back.

How different from back home in England or Germany or France, where your forebears had lived in the same village for centuries, and were always known as the family too poor to have a separate barn.  (Although the cows in the middle of the one room house did provide some nice warmth during the winter.)

America’s promise, and its reality, was that immigrants could leave their poverty behind in a generation or two.  If you are ever lucky enough to visit the Tenement Museum in New York, you’ll learn that the descendants of those tenants — and they were people who lived in unimaginable squalor and poverty — all moved to the ‘burbs and became middle class.  Sure there were failures, those people who couldn’t make it and just settled into nothingness and vanished from history.  On the whole, however, these immigrants and their children joined America’s generally upward economic the trajectory, one that took them at least as far as working class-ness and, possibly, up to the comfortable middle class.

The only exception to that American truth is blacks, and even that isn’t quite the story most believe.  (That is, most believe that blacks have never had a fair shake, and have been down-trodden without exception.)  The truth is that, despite Jim Crow, African-American nuclear families in the 1950s and early 1960s were making steady economic gains.  They weren’t entering Forbes’ upper ranks, but they were becoming increasingly middle class.

What ended this slow upward economic movement was Johnson’s Great Society, which essentially socialized American blacks.  Rich Americans would henceforth support them.  Men who were working miserably hard, but who were still making it, suddenly scaled back, since a government handout was better than a demeaning, dangerous or back-breaking job.  Families soon fell apart when it became apparent that that they could do better economically if they reconstituted themselves as a single welfare mother with children, rather than as a struggling cohesive family ineligible for welfare.

With the exception of African-Americans (and I do wonder if they’re doing better since welfare changed in the 1990s), America is still a singularly fluid social and economic country.  That’s part of why, despite our vast immigrant influxes, we don’t have the banlieus of France (riot central a few years ago, as you may recall), or the tremendous immigrant unrest one sees in other European countries such as Germany, Italy and England.  Our immigrants start poor, work hard and, always, have the possibility of “moving on up” — and this is true even if not all of them are able to act upon that possibility.  It’s the American dream.

Obama’s plan, however, announces the end of the American dream.  In Obama’s USA, there’s no benefit to be had in moving on up.  If you move to the head of the line, his government is just going to bat you right back down again.

There’s no doubt, of course, that those who are really, really rich will probably still stay fairly rich, because their vast wealth may take decades of government siphoning before it vanishes entirely.  The problem is that those who wish to be rich — and who for America’s whole history could reasonably make that happen — will never get rich in Obama’s America.  That’s what Obama told Joe the Plumber.

Put in simple words, without all the waffle, Obama carefully explained that he was going to take from the ones ascending, and give it to the ones behind.  This will inevitably create an endless circle at the bottom of the socio-ecomic scale.  As soon as a person is lucky enough to “make it,” the U.S. government will snatch his money from him and give it to the person at the bottom of the ladder.  And down the top guy goes again, to await his turn to climb high enough to once again become a target for the government’s redistribution.

I think Americans, all of whom dream in some small part of their mind that they will become real estate mavens, or start a successful business, or get lucky in the stock market, or see their children graduate from college with professional degrees, recognize that Obama will destroy these hopes and dreams.  In his America, there is no up.  There’s only an ever shrinking pie (yup, Obama’s pie), with people constantly having to give up their biggish pieces and start all over again.