Obama’s infomercial

I watched the 30-minute program on Wednesday that was produced by the Obama campaign. I watched out of curiosity more than anything else. Since I can’t stand even 30-second advertising spots, I was expecting to be bored by what would essentially be a really long commercial. I even feared that it might be Obama giving one long speech. Although he gives good speeches, I am pretty much speeched out at this point.

It was not too bad though, not too cheesy, more along the lines of a PBS documentary, and had good production values. The cutting between the stories of families and his policy prescriptions was a good idea.

The ratings seem to indicate that it was a big success:

An infomercial on behalf of Mr. Obama was a smashing ratings success on Wednesday night, proving to be more popular than even the final game of the World Series — and last season’s finale of “American Idol.” The audience for Mr. Obama’s program far exceeded the expectations of television executives — and many political pundits who questioned whether Mr. Obama was engaging in overkill in buying a half hour on so many networks.

Mr. Obama’s 30-minute commercial, which played on seven networks, broadcast and cable, was seen by 33.55 million viewers, according to figures released by Nielsen Media Research.

“I was shocked by the number Obama was able to draw,” said Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS. “It’s just a stunning number.”

The early part was bit choppy and lacked continuity. I expected each family’s story to be followed up by his solution for the specific problem they faced but the first two stories did not quite do that. For example, the second vignette featured an old couple who thought that had enough money to retire but the husband had to go back to work at Wal-Mart in order to pay his wife’s medical bills. But Obama’s plans to deal with health care did not immediately follow but came later in the program.

The second half of the program seemed to be much better. The segue at the end to the live rally in Florida was a bit gimmicky but smoothly done and showed that the campaign is capable of tight scripting and scheduling, right down to the very second.

Would the program have changed any voter’s minds? I doubt it, and I expect the Obama camp does not expect to either. I suspect that the goal was to reassure those who have already decided to vote for him that they had made the right choice, to show Obama as a calm and thoughtful person, looking presidential. I think they succeeded in doing that.

One noteworthy feature of the program was that Obama did not mention John McCain even once. It was focused entirely on the problems faced by people and what he would do to address them. This quite a contrast with what the McCain-Palin duo has been doing recently. Their message has been highly Obama-focused, almost a non-stop attempt to portray Obama as a dangerous and mysterious and unknown and untested socialist-terrorist-radical, to which their supporters have added other weird things like saying he is a Muslim or even not an American. The complete nutcases have been trying to propagate even more bizarre stories, not worth retelling here.

McCain-Palin have even sunk to the character assassination of a respected Columbia University scholar Rashid Khalidi, using merely the fact that Khalidi is Palestinian to insinuate that he is a neo-Nazi. Josh Marshall and John Judis make the convincing case that the McCain-Palin campaign has to be the sleaziest and most despicable in modern American political history, which is saying a lot considering past campaigns run by the likes of Karl Rove and Lee Atwater.

It is also kind of a bizarre message at this late stage to try and raise such outlandish stories, considering that Obama has been running for president for about twenty months and has been under constant scrutiny. Will this strategy sway voters? I have no idea. I think it will energize the faithful and maybe cause some undecided people to perhaps vote for McCain.

I notice though that when McCain-Palin supporters are interviewed, after saying all these crazy things, they often end up saying that they could never vote for someone who was pro-choice. So ultimately, that is what is driving these people. They do not want a pro-choice president and are willing to say whatever is necessary to achieve their goal, even if it means lying. It is ironic that these people often call themselves ‘Christian values voters’.

The infomercial was narrated by Obama himself, and it struck me that he has a very good radio voice, smooth and modulated. When he retires from politics, he could have a successful second career doing voice-over narration for documentaries or as an interviewer on NPR.

POST SCRIPT: The Great Schlep

Sarah Silverman urges young Jewish people to go to Florida and canvass their grandparents to support Obama. (Language advisory)

Las Vegas musings

Towards the end of last week I spent three days in Las Vegas for the first time for a conference and stayed at one of the hotels on the infamous strip, the mile or so of road that has all the big hotels and gambling casinos. Since I do not gamble, such locations for conferences do not provide any special attraction for me. A monastery that has internet access would attract me more because I prefer peace and quiet and those two things are in very short supply on the Las Vegas strip.

I did spend an hour or so one evening wandering through the hotel casino watching people gamble. What struck me was how little fun people seemed to be having. They would sit staring intently at their slot machines or at the blackjack tables or at the roulette wheels. The casinos are deliberately designed to have few windows and no clocks so that the gamblers have little sense of the passage of time and can get into an almost trance-like state.

The gamblers I saw did not seem to be particularly well-to-do, just ordinary people, perhaps on their annual vacation from working ordinary jobs. There were some special closed-off rooms where I assume the high rollers gamble, away from the hoi polloi.

I spent the most time watching people play craps, a game I do not understand at all. It has this table that is covered with green baize cloth with patterns and markings and numbers. People would place chips of various colors and patterns at various places on the table, someone would throw a pair of dice, and based on the result the workers would move chips around or take them away or give some to the players. All of this was done solemnly and largely in silence and strongly reminded me of religious rituals, where everyone knows exactly what needs to be done and when, with the croupier as a kind of ersatz priest.

I felt really sorry for the workers in the casinos. They looked bored out of their minds. The constant bright flashing lights, the loud dinging noises from the slot machines, the cigarette smoke were all so aggravating that it drove me out of the room after an hour because I could not stand it any more. I cannot imagine how the workers tolerate it night after night.

It is also physically demanding work. I noticed that the workers at the various gambling tables had to stand all the time though they could easily have been given high stools to sit on and still do their jobs. Presumably the owners and management think that fatiguing their workers this way squeezes out a little more profit. I see this same thing happening with grocery and department store cashiers.

When I was eating at a restaurant in the hotel, a young woman would circle the rooms calling out ‘Keno’, another gambling game that seems to be some kind of scratch-card gamble that one can play while eating or doing something else. In the forty-five minutes that I was there she must have circled the room about twenty times and was always on the go. At one point, I stopped her and asked whether she had ever used one of those pedometers that would measure how far she walks during work. She said she hadn’t but thought it a good idea. She must walk many, miles in the course of each shift and I suspect that she gets paid close to the minimum wage.

I also spent a couple of hours driving around the city with a friend looking at the sights. It is unbelievably tacky, with huge hotels based on various architectural styles, faux classical Roman and Greek and Egyptian being the most popular, all clashing with each other. The parts of the town that were away from the center had some of the traditional charm of the American southwest but the ubiquity of slot machines and other garish gambling venues invariably spoiled it.

It was a relief to leave Las Vegas. I will not be going back if I can help it.

POST SCRIPT: Living in two different worlds

One can understand why John McCain, despite his new-found admiration for Joe the Plumber, might find it hard to appreciate the life of a regular working person. The median household income in the US is $48,000 per year, ‘median’ meaning half the households make less than that, and half more. But John McCain spends over five times that amount ($273,000) on paying for his household staff alone!

That may explain why he thinks cutting taxes even further for the very wealthy is good policy because then the rich can create more jobs by hiring even more domestic help, in his case maybe someone to keep track of how many cars and homes he owns, so that he is not embarrassed by not knowing. It might also explain why he keeps talking about a capital gains tax cut as being good for the middle class. People like him have little idea of the kinds of concerns that everyday people have.

Spreading the wealth-8: On living simply and with dignity

I knew an old couple that lived in Youngstown, Ohio. They had grown up in the Great Depression but later as teachers led comfortable middle class lives. But they never forgot their hard beginnings. I remember being their weekend house guest about thirty years ago and noticed that the bars of soap in the bathroom and kitchen rested on their narrow faces, not the usual broad one. When I asked them about it, they said that this way there was less waste of soap from seepage due to contact with the counter surface.
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Spreading the wealth-7: More on the opposition

In the previous post, I said that the arguments in favor of having a more progressive tax system are so obvious that it was an interesting exercise to see why even those who would directly benefit from it still oppose it. I suggested some reasons for this behavior and in this post want to explore some more.

Another group consists of those who are still living in the shadow of the Cold War and have been effectively brainwashed to think that any effort to raise the living standards of the less well-off is ‘socialism’. The label socialism has been demonized so much that for such people anything to which that label is attached is automatically a bad thing, even if they do not understand the term and are really poor and would benefit from the proposed plan. Witness how universal, single-payer health insurance is fought by the health insurance-pharmaceutical-physician complex by labeling it as socialism, though the only people who really benefit from not having it are the very wealthy and the health insurance-pharmaceutical-physician complex.

This group of people have completely bought the myth sold to them by the rich that we would all be better off if we let a very few people make and keep as much money as they can by whatever means. It is this group that the McCain-Palin rhetoric is aiming at.

The instinctive siding of such people with the ‘plight’ of someone who makes $250,000 or more even while they make a small fraction of that and have little or no chance of ever joining those ranks reveals the depth and extent of this brainwashing. They may be finding it hard to pay the rent or the mortgage, they may be fearful of losing their jobs, they may have little or no health care, they may be living in decaying neighborhoods that cannot provide basic services, but somehow they think the very rich and the giant corporations and Wall Street are on the same side as them and deserve to have even more money. Such people are simply not thinking things through.

Another possible reason is that many people share the illusion that some day they too will be rich, and when that happens they want to be able to enjoy the unfettered high life, even though they may be quite vague about how this could come to pass. For some the fantasy may be little more than thinking they will win the lottery. For others, it may be that they have some talent they are proud of and think that they may be ‘discovered’ by a talent scout and suddenly become a world famous singer or model or comedian or actor or writer or athlete. They do not want to spoil the imagined enjoyment of that future success by supporting policies now that might even slightly reduce the free-spending habits they hope to have when they strike it rich.

The media helps maintain this illusion by feeding this obsession about what rich and famous people are really like. Notice how the interviews with these famous people usually emphasize that they are just like you and me, except for being very wealthy. George Clooney eats corn flakes for breakfast, just like me! Scarlett Johannson likes to lounge around in sweat suits at home, just like me!

At the same time these same media features also indulge in what might be called wealthy-lifstyle-porn, talking about the massive houses, many cars, elaborate parties, and jet-setting lifestyles of the celebrities. The popularity of celebrity-lifestyle TV shows and magazines and the existence of a paparazzi industry to bring us snippets of personal information about these people (“Look! We have photos of Branjelina’s babies!”) testify to the dream world these audiences are creating for themselves.

All these reinforce the belief that the only thing that separates the very wealthy from you and me is a single stroke of luck. This might well be true. But to base your political decisions on the chance that lightning will strike, that you will hit the jackpot, is foolish. To think that your interests coincide with those few very wealthy people is to live in a dream world.

Tom Tomorrow wrote about this fantasy world that people inhabit and which is encouraged by the celebrity-obsessed media.

A few years back, I was on a road trip with my wife, and somehow, probably from some junk shop along the way, we ended up with the audiobook version of Valley of the Dolls, the classic trashy novel about the lives of the rich and unhappy. After the third or fourth lengthy description of wealthy people enjoying caviar and champagne, I commented that the book was not intended to be about the lives of the wealthy, but rather, about the lives of the wealthy as imagined by the trailer park set: they spend all their time drinking champagne! And eating caviar! (Which brings to mind something I was once told by a prominent contributor to Vanity Fair — that it’s not a magazine aimed at the upper class, it’s a magazine for the middle class to buy believing they are reading a magazine aimed at the upper class. But I digress.)

All these things are designed to give the middle class and the poor the sense of identification with the wealthy. It is quite an amazing thing to see. The reality is that any person with no inherited wealth and who depends on a regular paycheck to meet life’s needs has far more in common with the financial situation of a janitor than they have with Paris Hilton.

But as long as they fail to realize who their real allies are, they will continue to be exploited.

POST SCRIPT: Undecided voter=idiot?

The Daily Show tries to understand how people could still be undecided at this stage of the election.

Spreading the wealth-6: Understanding the opposition

Recently, Joe Biden said it would be patriotic of rich Americans to pay more taxes and Sarah Palin chided him for it, saying that no one should pay more taxes and that everyone should want to pay less. This is the mantra of the right-wing ideologues. While I disagree with Biden’s choice of the word ‘patriotic’ (a word that has long since ceased to have any operational meaning but instead is just used as a political weapon), I cannot understand the logic of people who think that paying less taxes is always better. Even the ever-conventional New York Times columnist Tom Friedman took issue with Palin on this fetishization of lower taxes for everybody. (Thanks to Norm for the link.)

Recall that what is being proposed is to make the income tax structure more progressive by raising the rates on the highest slabs of income and reducing it for the lower tax slabs. This seems so eminently reasonable, even downright common sense, that we should try to understand the sources of the opposition to it.

One group consists of rich and greedy and callous people. Such people simply do not care about the poor. They have made (or inherited) a lot of money and it gives them a weird sense of entitlement, that this somehow makes them superior to those who have less. They seem to take pleasure in ostentation. Such people enjoy being much richer than others and think that creating a more a more progressive tax scale is somehow unfair to them.

There are also those ideologues that think that the best system is one in which there is no government at all and that all taxation should be abolished and a pure unadulterated free market should reign supreme. Of course these people are nuts. Such a system has never existed except perhaps in small isolated communities back in hunter-gatherer times. Modern societies are far too large and complex to function without significant government involvement and the only meaningful debate is about the proper balance between the private sector and government.

In fact it is the presence of government that has enabled people to be highly productive by specializing in one or two areas of activity and excelling at it, rather than having to take care of all their needs themselves.

Then there are others, who while not rich themselves, subscribe to the economic theory that says that having a few people make enormous amounts of money is good for all of us because this gives them the incentive to work, hard create new inventions, make new discoveries, and use the wealth generated by the fruits of their labors to invest in more businesses that will create more jobs and so we all benefit in the long run. This is the theory of trickle-down economics.

But does this happen? Do people who make enormous amounts of money use the excess after meeting their living needs to invest in new businesses that create well paying jobs? Or do they largely use it for ostentatious living that results in the creation of mainly low-paying service sector jobs (waiters, valet-parkers, maids) to support that lifestyle?

In other words, is trickle-down economics a good theory? That is a question that one should be able to answer empirically and I will leave it to the economists to provide a definitive answer. But there is clear evidence that the rapid rise in income inequality that started around 1980, with huge gains for the very rich has not produced a commensurate rise in the general well being.

Look at figure 2 in this paper that analyzes the rising inequality in incomes from 1980 (which is the year that the stock market started to rise like a rocket) and 2000. Notice that while the lowest four quintiles of family income have stagnated and even decreased slightly over that period, the share of the national income earned by the top 1% rose steeply, doubling its value. So we know who actually benefited from the so-called boom years of Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II.

In fact, as we see from the graph below taken from this paper, the share of the total income of the top 1% of households rose from about 8% in 1980 to 20% in 2006.


As Table 1 in the same paper shows, from 2002 to 2006, when George Bush and the Republican congress gave massive tax cuts for the rich, the income of the bottom 90% of households rose by only $1,446 (4.6%) while the incomes of the top 0.1% rose by a whopping $1,809,824 (57.6%).

Note that the only time in the past when the wealthy had this large a share of the national income was in 1928, just before the Great Depression. That is not a good indicator of what lies ahead. The idea that allowing a few to amass great wealth is good for all of us is an argument that is hard sustain.

POST SCRIPT: The people in your neighborhood

Stephen Colbert looks at the new middle class loved by McCain and Palin, which consist of those people who are identified solely by their first names and occupations, like the famous Joe the plumber and Tito the builder.

Spreading the wealth-5: Class warfare against the poor

Why do so many have a reflexive aversion to paying taxes and think that any adjustments in the tax system to shift the burden away from the poorer and towards the richer is somehow unfair? This is because class warfare has been consistently waged against the poor for so long by both parties that we have come to think of it as the norm. But when attempts are made to redress this balance, the rich are quick to shout ‘class warfare!’ to distract attention from the fact that they are the masters of it.
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Spreading the wealth-4: Who is in the middle class?

The problem with discussing the distribution of wealth and income in the US is that politicians of both parties have for years been pandering to the ‘middle class’ and courting their votes by promising to improve their condition.

The rich have exploited this by giving small income tax benefits to the middle class while giving themselves huge tax benefits, and then claiming that the entire middle class has benefited. David Cay Johnson in his book Perfectly Legal: The covert system to rig our tax system to benefit the super rich – and cheat everybody else (2003) describes how this spreading the wealth in favor of the rich is done. The title of his book says it all. Then the rich (and the middle class dupes who have been taken in by this scam) get outraged and scream ‘socialism!’ when someone comes along to try and spread the wealth in the opposite direction.

They have been getting away with this because the phrase ‘middle class’ has been bandied around a lot without being defined by politicians and the media. As a result, we have the curious phenomenon that almost everyone, from the quite poor to the quite rich, thinks of themselves as middle class. Thus someone who is earning $30,000 a year feels they are in the same class as, and feel a sense of class solidarity to, someone earning $250,000 a year. Hence they react with a sense of grievance when someone with much higher income than them doesn’t come out ahead because of any change in fiscal policies.

The word class has become perceived as based not only on income but also as a proxy for family background, the nature of one’s job, the social circle one moves in, and lifestyle practices. This vagueness has enabled almost everyone to think of themselves as middle class because in at least one area of their life they may overlap with those much better off than them. So someone who has a good formal education but now works at minimum wage job may still consider himself middle class because he reads newspapers and books, listens to classical music, and is involved in arts and community activities.

But if we narrow the definition of class to purely income and leave those other unquantifiable elements out, we can get a better idea what the terms ‘poor’, middle class’ and ‘rich’ might mean.

To see how income is distributed in the US, take a look at this table published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of the Census. It gives the range of income in 2005 for each quintile of households. Note that this is for households, not individuals, and thus includes the income of all the wage earners in a household.

20% of households earn less than $19,178
20% of households earn between $19,178 and $36,000
20% of households earn between $36,000 and $57,568
20% of households earn between $57,568 and $91,705
20% of households earn over $91,705

Only 5% of households earn over $166,000.

It is reasonable to think of the middle three quintiles as defining the middle class, so it consists of those households with incomes roughly between $20,000 and $90,000, where I have rounded each figure to the nearest $10,000. If one wants to, one can split those three middle quintiles into lower-middle class, the ‘true’ middle class, and upper-middle class.

Those earning below $20,000 can be called poor and those earning over $90,000 can technically be described as rich. But there is something jarring about the notion that those earning around $90,000 are actually rich. That level of income does not really allow for the kind of lifestyle that one associates with really rich people. It may be more accurate to label that group as simply ‘well-to-do’.

But if we split the well-to-do group into finer-grained slices, we can perhaps get a better understanding of who is really rich. Footnote 1 of this paper provides a link that downloads a spreadsheet that breaks down the income ranges for the highest income groups (excluding realized capital gains) in 2006. (See Worksheet Table 0)

It shows that:

10% of households earn between $100,349 and $138.254
5% of households earn between $138,254 and $329,070
1% of households earn between $329,070 and $482,129
0.5% of households earn between $482,129 and $1,401,635
0.1% of households earn between $1,401,635 and $6,473,710
0.01% of households earn over $6,473,710

Using this table, one can subdivide the top quintile of the well-to-do category into the ‘rich’ (the roughly 5% of households earning between $140,000 and $330,000), the ‘very rich’ (the 1% earning between $330,000 and $480,000), and the ‘super rich’ (the 0.6% earning over $480,000), where again I have rounded each figure to the nearest $10,000. These labels agree more with out intuitive notions.

So Joe the Plumber, who says he hopes to earn over $250,000, rather than being the middle class everyman he has been portrayed to be, belongs to a very tiny and select group, definitely rich and approaching the very rich. He is in the top 2-3% of income earners.

So why is he is whining about his marginal income tax rate for the amount over $250,000 being increased from 35% to 39%, which is hardly going to have any impact on his ability to meet the needs of him or his family? And why do so many people, who will never ever get close to earning that kind of money in their entire lives, identify with him and are sympathetic to his complaint?

More on this later.

POST SCRIPT: McCain supports ‘spreading the wealth’

Listen to what John McCain says at the end of this clip at a town hall meeting in 2000:

Transcript of last portion:

Audience member: “Why is it that someone like my father who goes to school for 13 years gets penalized in a huge tax bracket because he’s a doctor.”

McCain: “I think it’s to some degree because we feel obviously that wealthy people can afford more.”

Audience member: “Are we getting closer and closer to, like, socialism?”

McCain: “Here’s what I really believe: That when you reach a certain level of comfort, there’s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more.”

Stewart: “That, of course, is the late socialist leader John McCain. I believe he passed away during the Republican primaries. He will be missed.”

Looks like McCain was for spreading the wealth before he was against it.

Spreading the wealth-3: Meeting a hierarchy of needs

My view is that one should formulate tax policy based on the extent to which one meets a hierarchy of needs.

The first level of needs is to provide food, shelter, clothing, and medical care for oneself and one’s family. That undoubtedly takes priority over everything else. People who are struggling financially just to get by even if they live frugally, would tangibly benefit from paying less taxes and should pay less. In fact, there is no reason why such people should pay any taxes at all. Tax cuts or policies that result in higher incomes meet that level of need very well.

But once those needs are met, the next level of needs consist of safe neighborhoods, well-lit and well-maintained streets and sidewalks, parks and recreational areas for children and adults to enjoy, well-stocked libraries, and good schools. Those are very real and tangible needs that I would directly and personally benefit from but it beats me how giving me a tax cut is going to help me attain any of them. This level of needs cannot be met by tax cuts or even higher income, unless the increased income is so large that I can live in a gated communities, send my children to private schools, hire private security services, and otherwise pretty much cut myself off from most of humanity.

Since that is unlikely (and even undesirable from my point of view) am I supposed to take the few hundred extra dollars a month in tax cuts and go around and find other people who share my needs and we then pool our money to build a park? To hire police? To build schools and libraries? That is madness. Only an organized system like government can provide the kind of personal benefit that comes from creating a public good.

Giving people tax cuts when they are already able to meet their first level of needs while this second level of needs is not met makes no sense. It seems to be based on the belief that by using that money to buy consumer goods like iPods, I can compensate for the decay of public services.

Beyond the level of meeting the first level of basic needs, the deeper pleasures and joys of life do not come from private wealth but communal wealth. I would gladly pay more taxes to pay for those needs that can only be met by a collective community effort. What is the point of buying a large flat screen plasma TV instead, unless I am planning to shut myself up in my fortress home, cut off from the pleasures that come with being a social being? Surely this should be obvious? Or do people think that they can be happy in a cocoon while surrounded by poverty and decay?

But I also have a third level of needs, this time on a psychic level. At some level of my subconscious and occasionally of my conscious mind, it bothers me that there are people who go to sleep each night hungry, live in sub-standard and rat and cockroach infested housing in dangerous neighborhoods, whose schools are experiencing physical decay and lack of resources, and who suffer and die from treatable illnesses because they do not have access to affordable health care.

I do not routinely see these people because I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to live and work in neighborhoods where they are largely absent, or at least invisible. But I know they are out there and sometimes as I drive through poorer neighborhoods I can envisage the grim lives such people must be leading. It is depressing. I would gladly pay more taxes to alleviate the hardships those people face.

In order to meet that psychic need, I would gladly pay higher prices for my food if that meant the food service workers were paid better. I would gladly pay more for my groceries if that meant that agricultural workers lived better lives. I would gladly pay more for my clothes if that meant that sweatshops were shut down. And I would gladly pay more taxes to pay for better housing for low-income people and to create a single-payer universal health care system so that no one is denied appropriate care.

All those are also ways to ”spread the wealth around’ and they are good things, just as it is a good thing to raise taxes on the well-to-do and use that money to create greater social goods that everyone benefits from.

Even those who do not share my third level of needs must surely recognize the value of the second level, which is why the opposition to spreading the wealth is so surprising.

POST SCRIPT: Fake Americans unite!

Jon Stewart rips into the ridiculous notion put out by McCain and Palin that there is a ‘real’ America and a fake (?) America.

Spreading the wealth-2: Why this benefits all

What is interesting about the flap over Obama telling Joe the plumber about the benefits of spreading the wealth around, is that if you listen to the exchange between Joe and Obama, what Obama is saying not only makes absolute sense, its truth should be blindingly obvious to anyone.

What Obama said was that while he was happy for Joe’s success, he also cared about the waitress and the teacher and the store clerk and the policeman and all the others in that community who do not earn anything close to $250,000 per year and were currently struggling and who needed a break. He pointed out that if they were able to do better in life, then they were more likely to be able to afford the services of a plumber like Joe and he would do better too.

That is exactly right. I myself hate plumbing chores. Even though I do not earn anywhere near the $250,000 that Joe is hoping to earn, fortunately I still can afford it so that when something goes wrong in our home I call Nate the handyman and he comes along and promptly takes care of it, while shooting the breeze with me, exchanging information about our families. It is all very pleasant.

As a result, my plumbing problems get solved by an expert professional, Nate gets my business and some income, and this frees up my time and energy to do the things that I enjoy, such as reading and writing. We are both better off.

If I could not afford Nate’s services, I would have to learn to do the plumbing work myself and spend a lot of my spare time on it and would probably end up doing a lousy job if not actually flooding the house. And if that fails, I would have to ask friends who know more about plumbing to help me out. A lot of poor people do exactly that. They sacrifice their own time and energy to do such things, bartering their own skills and services for those of others. That is perfectly fine, but it does not help the neighborhood plumber’s business.

This example can be multiplied over and over. I pay people to work on my car, to repair the roof, to trim the tress in my yard, to plow my driveway in winter, and so on, because I can afford to. And we all benefit from that in different ways.

But if most people are impoverished and barely making ends meet, and the more concentrated wealth becomes, the less likely it is that small businesses will succeed since fewer people will be able to afford their services. It is far better for a plumber to have a hundred middle class people in his neighborhood than one multimillionaire and a hundred poor people, since a single rich person will not have a hundred times the plumbing needs of a hundred homeowners.

Henry Ford discovered this many years ago when he realized that if he and other employers like him did not pay their employees good wages, there would not be a large enough market of consumers who would be able to afford to buy the cars he made. So while higher wages reduced his profits in the short run, it increased the viability of his business in the long run.

But this basic truth has to be obscured in order that the rich can benefit by impoverishing others, The rich have always depended upon duping the poor to support their lifestyles. As Voltaire said, “The comfort of the rich depends upon the abundance of the poor.” But they also have to persuade the less well-off that that this exploitation is good for them. They do this by using their wealth and power to make the political structure serve their needs, then suggest that the resulting structure that redistributes wealth to benefit the rich is ‘natural’ and that reversing that change to benefit the majority is somehow unfair. What is amazing is that so many poor and middle class people actually believe that argument.

This English nursery rhyme (c. 1764) captures the idea of how the laws have always favored the wealthy. (Thanks to blog reader RCarla.)

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common.
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own.
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

‘Spreading the wealth’ means taking the commons back from those who have taken it for their private benefit. It has so many benefits for so many people that one has to wonder why there is so much fierce opposition to the idea from the very people who would benefit.

In the next post, this question will be explored further.

POST SCRIPT: The other Palin for president

Spreading the wealth-1: Introducing Comrade Bush

By now, practically everyone must be sick of hearing about Joe the Plumber. But bear with me for a minute as he provides me with a peg on which to hang a point I wish to make. I thought his interaction with Obama was quite interesting and was planning to comment on it even before Joe became John McCain’s BFF.

What I found most amusing is how the right wing has seized upon Obama’s comment to Joe about the need to ‘spread the wealth around’ and has thrown one of their by now patented manufactured outrage hissy fits, screaming “There, I told you! Obama is a socialist!” and warning that if he is elected president he is immediately going to take all our money and give it to winos and panhandlers and make us wear grey tunics and work on collective farms.
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