Monday, August 22, 2011

Who really benefits from 'government services'?

Radley Balko is one of the best when it comes to detailing the evils of the drug war and the U.S. legal system as a whole. And he's also linked to me a couple times, so it's obvious the guy has good taste. But when he writes outside of his field of specialty, Balko regrettably comes across all too often as your standard right-winger, as in a recent post wherein he complains, as he often has over the years, that poor people aren't paying their fair share of taxes -- an argument that, merits aside, seems a damn fine way to ensure his brand of libertarianism remains politically marginal and, when it is noticed, lampooned as little more than conservatism for pot heads.

As a libertarian, Balko bases his tax-the-poor stance not on a concern over the government's ability to fund programs he'd like to do away with, of course, but out of a fear that because many poor Americans do not pay federal income taxes, "we’ll soon have a majority of people who pay no tax voting for more and more government services they benefit from, but don’t have to pay for." Implicit in this is the apparent belief that the dramatic rise in government spending and the national debt over the past few decades is explained by poor people voting into office politicians who keep giving them more and more of other peoples' money – and voting out those who don't; in other words, the standard conservative narrative of the parasitic, layabout masses bleeding dry the productive, wealth-producing John Galts.

That narrative, however, is what political scientists colloquially refer to as “fucking bullshit.” Contrary to what conservatives love to allege and big government-loving liberals would love to believe, the majority of what the state collects every April 15 goes not to poor, drug-addicted welfare mothers, but to blowing up poor mothers and their children on the other side of the globe with bombs purchased from very wealthy military contractors. While the bulk of state spending is indeed on Medicare and Social Security – the bread to go along with the circus of publicly financed stadiums – those programs are funded, as Balko acknowledges, by direct, regressive taxes that, yes, even poor people pay.

The majority of income taxes, on the other hand, goes directly to the Pentagon and the legion of quasi-private corporations that make up the military-industrial complex, a fact that ought to make someone who has built a career chronicling abuses of state power -- abuses that disproportionately affect the poor -- queasy at the mere thought of expanding the government's tax base. And as you may recall, it was Wall Street bankers, not welfare mothers, who politicians rushed to hand billions in taxpayer dollars – and trillions more after taking into account the Federal Reserve's printing press – when the economy took a nosedive in 2008 following the burst of a housing bubble inflated at the behest of said bankers and at the expense of the foreclosed upon poor.

When it comes to reaping riches from evermore “government services," it's not the poor that people like Balko ought to fear, but the wealthy elite. Beyond just direct handouts in the form of tax credits and bailouts, the capitalist class benefits from state interventions that are often hard to even quantify, from “intellectual property” laws that guarantee big pharmaceutical giants and software companies monopoly profits to corporate personhood and its attendant “limited liability, which shields firms like BP and Chiquita from the full fiscal and legal liability of their actions.

Right-wing libertarians like Balko are useful critics of state power, often being some of the only voices speaking out against the outrages of the racist war on drugs and the latest and greatest “humanitarian” war, liberals typically being too busy denouncing the most recent Outrage! from Glenn Beck. But by perpetuating the notion that the state is beholden to the poor masses rather than, as history suggests, those with the most money, they demonstrate a seriously lacking -- and superficial -- theory of government and for whom its power serves.

As for me, when it comes to casting blame for the growth of state power and the threat of its expansion in the future, I'm going to look to the guy whose finances are in a shelter, not his belongings.

(See the follow-up here.)


  1. If you wanted to make this point, I don't think you should have used Balko's piece to make it. He proposes a negative income tax and is essentially calling for a way for the poor to have a stake in the game so that if they want some additional government program, they feel some effect of the cost. Maybe this is a good idea, maybe bad, maybe pointless (I'm thinking pointless to decent), but I'm not getting the same inferences you are from Balko's piece. PLus, I don't think Balko would disagree with you on the military budget issue. If anything, this is a disagreement about rhetoric. "Fair share" does not even appear in his post.

    Balko: "The idea is to be sure everyone has to sacrifice a bit of discretionary income when a politician proposes some big new government program, so everyone can decide whether the benefit from the new program is worth its cost."

  2. Christopher, you are reading the implications of the Balko quote you offer rather differently than I do.

    Assuming that poor people vote in large numbers (they do not), and that they vote so that Uncle will give them goodies (not being a dependable voting base, again, they do not), it still does not follow that making the poor worry about the cost of programs will get them to vote with an eye to cost.

  3. Jack, those are certainly fair points. I'm not familiar with the data, but yes, there's no guarantee that if the poor did vote and were responding to these incentives, that they would take them into "proper" consideration. My point was not that Radley is right, it's that I think he's not being given a proper shake. Libertarians are pretty bad a discussing their ideas without pissing people off, but it never hurts to try to understand what they're saying.

  4. Jesus, man. Did you even read the post?

    Nowhere in the post do I argue that we should "tax the poor." Nor do I argue that the poor aren't paying their fare share. I'm making a point about incentives. And I'm arguing for a negative income tax. Which means the poor would be getting a payout from the federal government. My point is that a negative income tax would be more susceptible to change with fluctuations in government spending than the EITC, just as "positive" tax brackets are. This would both give the poor a stake in the debate, and it would make everyone think about the actual costs of proposed new programs (or, if you prefer, it would also negate the arguments that those who don't pay federal income taxes have nothing to lose by arguing for more government programs). It would bring more stakeholders into the public discussion over spending, both on programs that benefit the poor, but also on all the other government programs you tick off in your post.

    You can agree or disagree with that, but at least address my proposal, not some imagined argument that's more susceptible to personal attacks.

    By the way, I think we should end the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. I'm skeptical of intellectual property law. I've always thought Glenn Beck is an idiot (look it up). I think we should dramatically reduce defense spending (by 50% or more). I've been sharply critical of corporate welfare (including public financing of sports stadiums). I'm not much of an Ayn Rand fan. I oppose tax credits that distort the free market. And I wouldn't at all call myself a "right-wing libertarian."

    Also, if you had actually read the post, you'd see that I also propose that Medicare and Social Security taxes be made more progressive.

    In other words, you not only failed to address the argument I actually made, you're wrong about where I stand on every single one of the examples you invoke in your attempt to refute the argument you imagine I'm making.

    Finally, if you read beyond the headline of my old Fox column you link to, you'd see I essentially made the same points there (though I'm now more supportive of the negative income tax). As for the headline, I didn't it. Most journalists don't write their own headlines.

  5. Forget this policy wonkery.

    I'd like to hear Radley defend his position on Johannes Mehserle killing Oscar Grant.

  6. Perhaps explaining why, in his view, Mehserle fled to a NV town on Lake Tahoe where the median income is $65k, and why the defense strategy by Michael Rains -- who loves to call coppers and rent-a-coppers "peace officers" when they're nothing of the sort -- was appropriate.

    I mean, Radley's supposedly critical of police abuse. Right?

  7. Who really benefits from 'government services indeed...

  8. Radley,

    Yes, I read your post. Did you read mine? Because nowhere was I, as you suggest, “wrong about where [you] stand on every single one of the examples” I noted in my piece, and for a simple reason: I didn't actually ascribe any views to you other than your oft-stated opinion that there's something wrong with the fact that many poor Americans don't pay income taxes.

    My point in noting intellectual property laws, corporate welfare, the military-industrial complex – and by extension, the reason I didn't address your specific policy proposal -- was only to show that your concern about the poor receiving evermore government services for which they don't have to pay is a red herring. By any objective measure, the wealthy, not the poor, benefit the most from government services, something your own writing and reporting has highlighted. The whole premise of your proposal is, frankly, bullshit, particularly when its the services for the poor, not the rich, that politicians are busy slashing.

    As for not identifying as a “right-wing libertarian,” fair enough. Labels are imperfect. But it was the best term I could think of for someone who was an ardent supporter of Bob Barr's presidential campaign, is unconcerned with income inequality as an issue, and who pushes a narrative about the poor in America that could have been taken straight from a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

    And finally, it's incredibly lazy to label any critique a “personal attack,” especially when your critic took pains to note that, you know, you're one of the best in your field. I hope I'm someday personally attacked like that.

  9. Radley

    I think the problem is not so much with the "negative income tax" per se, but rather with the idea that it is needed not to give money to people who need it or to equalise the wealth in the country, but rather because it would bring more people into the hypothetical political fold who will "consider the costs" of government in a personal sense.

    Even assuming that there is such a thing as a rational voter in the US electorate, or more outrageously that such people constitute enough of a minority to make a difference to federal government policy with their expressions of preference, you seem to be under some kind of misapprehension about the tax and spending burdens on the bottom 50% as opposed to the top 1% whom the government is in the business of continually enriching. So the rational voter may well discover some margin in keeping $100 as opposed to paying it in taxes for a municipal park (although I struggle to see how any political system, much less the United States Clown Car, would actually implement such a 1:1 transfer), but he would be fighting the interests of someone who would rather cut his $100 and use it to buy some splodeythings, and who can furthermore communicate his desires to congress not by waiting patiently for four years then registering his desires as part of an amalgamation of plebian ids, but by buying a congressman a hooker.

    Further, even now large swathes of that bottom 50% population continue to vote against their own interests in ways which are both amusing and horrifying, be they D or R inclined, so that I don't really see how the hypothetical holds up. It seems to presuppose that we start from scratch with a brand new population of the USA.

    I like the idea of taking money from rich people and giving it to poor people though.

  10. Anonymous8:38 PM

    You want to get the poor to "have more skin in the game"? Well, find a way for them to exercise effective political power in their own best interests in proportion to their numbers.

    The money will follow.

  11. Anonymous3:29 AM

    Government services mainly benefit government employees. I work in the private sector, I have never set foot in a government run hospital, in a government dentist, in a library, etc.

    My parents who work for the government manage to get every last penny out of their free government health care system. I notice they run constantly to the doctor with ailments.

  12. Ah, yes, Anon. The "I don't do a thing, therefore nobody does a thing" chain of reasoning and logic. I'm sure that's not fallacious at all. Well done.

  13. Anonymous @6:29,

    Those private doctors and dentists you frequent: who upholds their generous salaries? The government, through licensing schemes that restrict competition and artificially raise the cost of health care. Why do the drugs they prescribe cost so much? Because the government grants intellectual property monopolies to giant pharmaceutical companies, forbidding the manufacture of more affordable life-saving medication by generic drug makers.

    When thinking of how the government benefits the wealthy, don't be distracted by the direct deposits (e.g. welfare programs, pensions); the greatest transfers of wealth are a result of the conscious decision to structure our economic system in a way that rewards capital more than labor.

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