Feb 092011
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On Sunday, President Obama honored the tradition of presidential interviews being given to the network broadcasting the Super Bowl. Rights for the 2011 edition were held by Fox, and Bill O’Reilly was selected as the interviewer. As might have been expected, the interview that aired before the game was an irritating showcase of rudeness, where Pompous Bill spent 15 minutes interrupting the President (43 times in all) and trying to trip him up.

O’Reilly’s questions started on the topic of Mubarak and Egypt, and the President fielded each of them adeptly, in spite of O’Reilly’s repeated interruptions and attempts to box him into a corner. Having failed to get a reaction on Egypt, O’Reilly moved seamlessly to health care, but only after quickly planting his own opinion on the Muslim Brotherhood: “Those are tough boys, the Muslim Brotherhood. I wouldn’t want them anywhere near that government. Federal judge in Florida said, your health care law is unconstitutional.”

After a brief back and forth on the fate of the healthcare law under the review of the Supreme Court, Mr. Bill took the conversation where he really wanted to drive a stake. Loosely quoting the Wall Street Journal that depicted President Obama as a “determined man of the left whose goal is to redistribute much larger levels of income across society,” O’Reilly asked for a reaction. The president tried to dodge the question, but O’Reilly pressed, “Do you deny that you are a man who wants to redistribute wealth?”

Amazingly, President Obama stepped into BillO’s snare. “Absolutely,” he answered, denying that he wanted to redistribute wealth, and he supported his denial with the fact that he had lowered taxes. O’Reilly pressed again, “But the entitlements that you championed do redistribute wealth in the sense that they provide insurance coverage for 40 million people that don’t have it,” and rather than reframing the issue, the President accepted the pat conservative spin and went directly to defending “Obamacare.”

Make no mistake about it, even though the President held his ground from that point forward arguing certain points regarding healthcare, he missed the opportunity to reassert his previously stated position on taxation of the rich and actually helped to fortify the notion of taxation as redistribution of wealth. As relaxed and articulate as he seemed, President Obama allowed himself to fall into the favorite trap of conservatives — to be cast as a “big government liberal.”

Why Democrats never reject this framing with a legitimate picture of reality, one that’s based on facts and consistent with history, is beyond me. One would think that their only problem would be which conservative myths to refute, and in what order.

Taking on the charge “Big Government” first, it would be a simple task for Democrats to start by offering any one of a number of factual arguments. Each would prove that, to the extent there is a party of fiscal irresponsibility and huge deficits, it’s the Republican Party.

They might base their argument on the debt to GDP ratio resulting from each presidential administration. Going back to the 1970s, that effort would show that Nixon/Ford increased the ratio by .2%; Carter decreased it by 3.3%; Reagan ramped it up by 20.6% and Bush Sr. by another 15%; Clinton brought the ratio back in the right direction, improving it by 9.7%, and GW Bush gave it all back, skyrocketing debt upward and increasing the ratio by 27.1%. The truth of the matter is that all presidents from Truman on have reduced the gross federal debt, except Reagan and both Bushes.

Perhaps pure budget discipline would be a better meter, thereby eliminating the general economy as a variable. Using that metric, one would only have to point out that over the course of the past 100 years, of the 6 presidents presiding over the largest increases in federal spending, 5 were Republicans. Reagan grew the federal budget by 21.9%, and Bush Jr. by 32.2%, both while reducing federal revenues through huge tax cuts — which tends to amplify deficits.

The inescapable truth is that hanging the label of “Big Government” on Democrats is possibly the most unbelievable public relations coup of modern times. It has absolutely no basis in fact. The records show clearly that the Democrats have consistently been more fiscally responsible, and that any connection between the Republicans and small or efficient government is pure myth.

But as flawed as President Obama’s defense of the record was in allowing O’Reilly to paint him as a “big government liberal,” it pales when compared to accepting the paradigm of “redistribution of wealth.” This is classical conservative framing of an issue in order to paint their distorted view of reality.

According to conservative dogma, wealth is earned through the market and later redistributed through taxation and government spending. It has sort of a common sense ring to it, as does the extension of the paradigm — that when the government taxes, it takes what belongs to citizens. Of course, as with all simplistic arguments designed to promote a given agenda, the model presented is fundamentally flawed.

The fact of the matter is that ALL monetary exchanges represent redistribution of wealth, and the government plays a part in each and every one. The issue isn’t whether or not the government should make rules that impact the redistribution of wealth; it does so by default. The question is “should the rules favor upward or downward redistribution,” and on that topic there is a distinct, if shrinking, difference between the two major parties.

Government policies that allow tax advantages for multinational corporations that offshore jobs are every bit as much about redistribution of wealth as programs designed to subsidize the cost of education for low income Americans. The only difference is that the former benefits the wealthy while destabilizing the economy, and the latter benefits the less fortunate while enhancing our national capacity. Republicans are quick to label education spending as “redistribution” but hold tax loopholes as something entirely different — which it’s not.

Instances of this distorted spin on reality are virtually limitless. Healthcare reform, energy policy, mining and drilling regulations, campaign finance, monetary policy, military spending, banking regulation, the list goes on, and in each and every case, government policy will impact the redistribution of wealth. For Republicans, so long as the flow of wealth upward is not impeded, distribution has occurred, not redistribution. This holds true even if it means reductions in compensation for workers, elimination of social safety nets, high unemployment, an under-educated populace — whatever the case may be.

President Obama would have been well served by responding to Bill O’Reilly’s question about redistribution of wealth with a heart felt “Hell yes! But no more than my Republican colleagues — just in the opposite direction” The truth is that government policy over the past 30-plus years has significantly redistributed the wealth of America — straight to the top.

Americans suffered the first decline in median household income since 1967 under George Bush, and meanwhile the average annual income of the top 1% grew by 73%. This is not the result of a free market but rather the result of a rigged market, one that is designed to redistribute wealth in ever increasing concentration amongst the most elite.

Since President Obama didn’t turn the inquiry back on Bill O’Reilly, I’ll ask the question here: how sustainable is an economy that continues to establish policies that have already concentrated more financial wealth in the top 1% than is held by the bottom 95%? I’ll even give Mr. Bill a clue — think Hosni Mubarak.

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