Monday, July 12, 2010

Douthat's Call for a Class War

In a largely sensible editorial about the need to cut subsidies to people and entities that don't need them, Ross Douthat can't stop himself from injecting some silliness:
... Americans with million-dollar mortgages are defaulting at almost twice the rate of the typical homeowner.... The left-wing instinct, when faced with high-rolling irresponsibility, is usually to call for tax increases on the rich.
A classic invocation of the "hollow man" fallacy. You would think that if something was a "left wing instinct", you would see evidence of it. When was the last time we had a serious political effort by a left-wing political party to increase taxes on the rich at all, let alone on the basis of "high-rolling irresponsibility"? (The closest tax I can think of is the short-lived luxury tax, from almost 20 years ago, and even that's a poor fit.) Where can I find a single person who is arguing that because people who have $million+ mortgages are defaulting, we should raise taxes on them or anyone else?

Douthat may be alluding to the call for taxes on the financiers who broke the back of the world financial system, got bailed out, and rewarded themselves with lavish pay and bonuses and taxpayer expense. But it's better described as a human instinct to want to hold those people responsible for the devastation they caused. My guess is that I could get significant support for such a tax from Tea Party supporters. Douthat complains in relation to that very class, "that we subsidize their irresponsibility too heavily — underwriting their bad bets and bailing out their follies," so how does he distinguish himself from those in the "left-wing" who want to impose at least a small price on those very follies. Further, if Douthat is conflating the type of irresponsibility that leads to foreclosure with lemon socialism, he's not even trying to form an honest or cohesive argument.

Douthat also employs the biased sample fallacy to argue,
The same pattern is at work in our entitlement system, which is lurching toward bankruptcy in part because of how much Medicare and Social Security pay to seniors who could get along without assistance. Instead of a safety net that protects the elderly from poverty, we have a system in which the American taxpayer is effectively underwriting cruises and tee times.
How many seniors use Social Security to make ends meet? Why shouldn't a senior citizen who enjoys golf play golf or take vacations, even if he's a recipient of Social Security? What percentage of Social Security recipients can afford to take cruises even with the benefit of that payment? From all appearances, Douthat doesn't know, doesn't care.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, to his great credit, recently floated the possibility of means-testing Social Security.
It's to Boehner's "great credit" that he is adhering to his party's sixty-five year strategy to diminish and, ideally, eliminate Social Security? Yeah, right.
Many Republican senators have been staunch critics of corporate welfare.
Just not enough to make a difference against their party's overwhelming support for corporate welfare. Hence Douthat's lecture:
But conservatives need to recognize that the most pernicious sort of redistribution isn’t from the successful to the poor. It’s from savers to speculators, from outsiders to insiders, and from the industrious middle class to the reckless, unproductive rich.
As Douthat knows, the very form of wealth redistribution he's describing is a core element of the Republican Party's political strategy. Which isn't to say that the Democratic Party is much better; it's not. Why should it be? Sure, there are significant differences in the parties' approach to policy issues, but both parties cringe at the thought of biting a hand that feeds them.

Update: Although the political argument presented is over-the-top, this information throws some cold water on Douthat's notion of wealthy, privileged seniors who blow their Social Security money on golf outings and cruises:
"One out of three working Americans does not have retirement savings beyond Social Security, and about 35% of those over 65 rely almost totally on Social Security alone," Dallas Salisbury, president of the Alliance for Investor Education and the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) , explained to AlterNet. "Of the remaining two-thirds of working Americans that have some retirement savings, 27 percent report less than $1,000, 16 percent between $1,000 and $9,999, 11 percent between $10,000 and $24,999, 12 percent between $25,000-$49,999, and 36 percent $50,000 or more." Perhaps the most shocking number is that half of Americans have $2,000 or less saved for retirement.

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