27 October 2008

Rumor Central: The Courts & Redistribution of Wealth

This morning (10/27), The Drudge Report features the headline: 2001 OBAMA: TRAGEDY THAT 'REDISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH' NOT PURSUED BY SUPREME COURT.”

The story refers to a 2001 interview on a radio show, Odyssey on WBEZ, in which Obama said:

If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement, and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples, so that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at a lunch counter and order and as long as I could pay for it I’d be okay.

But," [. . .] "The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And to that extent as radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn't that radical. It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, as least as it's been interpreted, and Warren Court interpreted in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you, but it doesn't say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted.

One of the, I think, the tragedies of the civil rights movement, was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways we still stuffer from that." (qtd. in Tapper)

Naturally, Senator Obama’s political opposition has seized on this interview to confirm what they’ve accused him of: his “socialism.” Unfortunately, the entirety of the interview—its context—clarifies that the Senator was discussing the Civil Rights movement’s focus on legislating change—relying on the courts rather than on community action—effecting change from within, if you will.

As Andrew Sullivan writes,

So Obama was arguing that the Constitution protects negative liberties and that the civil rights movement was too court-focused to make any difference in addressing income inequality, as opposed to formal constitutional rights. So it seems to me that this statement is actually a conservative one about the limits of judicial activism.

Interesting, no? A statement from the Obama campaign provides further clarification:

In this interview back in 2001, Obama was talking about the civil rights movement – and the kind of work that has to be done on the ground to make sure that everyone can live out the promise of equality" [. . . .] In the interview, Obama went into extensive detail to explain why the courts should not get into that business of 'redistributing' wealth. Obama’s point – and what he called a tragedy – was that legal victories in the Civil Rights led too many people to rely on the courts to change society for the better. That view is shared by conservative judges and legal scholars across the country.

As Obama has said before and written about, he believes that change comes from the bottom up – not from the corridors of Washington," Burton says. (Burton qtd. in Tapper).

That is the conservative position, isn’t it? Activist judges and all? However, the media is focusing on the interview for this one phrase, “the issues of redistribution of wealth.” An explication of the rest of Obama's comments might prove useful, and chances are that FactCheck and Politifact will jump on this one shortly.

More detailed arguments found at an always fascinating site, The Volokh Conspiracy. There you can find a detailed examination of the Obama radio interview, followed by some intriguing comments. The consensus seems to be that Drudge's headline and the subsequent cries that the interview "proves" that Obama wishes to give hard working people's money to others is little more than "political theater." And this from a site that tends towards Libertarian/Conservative

Update: The analysts have chimed in, and there’s a consensus: the charges of "Socialism" are inaccurate at best.

AP Fact Check: “McCain Misreads 2001 Obama Interview

The Washington Post’s The Fact Checker: "Obama's 'Redistribution' Bombshell"

Politifact discusses the McCain campaign’s claims of socialism, and note the following:

Progressive taxes do indeed spread the wealth a bit. But they do so much more modestly than government owning the means of production.

Few serious policy makers — including McCain — consider progressive taxation socialist. In fact, on the Oct. 26, 2008 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, McCain stood by a comment he made in 2000 that "there's nothing wrong with paying somewhat more" in taxes when you "reach a certain level of comfort."

"You put into different, different categories of wealthier people paying, paying higher taxes into different brackets," McCain told host Tom Brokaw, as if to say progressive taxes are a no-brainer.

Indeed, progressive taxation has been a cornerstone of American tax policy since the federal government first collected an income tax in 1863. It was based on the Tax Act of 1862, which President Abraham Lincoln signed, and which imposed a "duty of three per centum" on all income over $600, and five percent on income over $10,000.

Two days ago John McCain agreed with his 2000 statement that "there's nothing wrong with paying somewhat more" in taxes when you "reach a certain level of comfort." But when his Democratic opposition suggests the equivalent, it’s the Democrat who is socialist? (Aside: worth a read: “Since When Is McCain Against the Redistribution of Wealth?” by Jacob Sullum at Reason).

Annenberg’s FactCheck.org hasn’t commented on the radio interview (yet), but it does feature analysis of recent McCain-Palin ads that are off the mark. One radio aid “recycle[s] old, debunked claims about Obama’s tax plan.” Another, released by the McCain-Palin campaign and the RNC, claims that Obama rewards his pals by handing our taxes over to them. The ad, titled "Unethical," contains some misleading statements and some outright fibs. If you're interested, take a look.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stupid hysteria. Paranoia about BHO changing us to the USSA (United Soviet States of America) is as paranoid that Republicans want to turn us to USCA (United States of Christian America)