Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Thoughts on progressive taxation, redistributing wealth

Here is a quick, multiple choice, quiz.  First, consider the following quote:

The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.

Now, who said that?

(A) Karl Marx
(B) Vladimir Lenin
(C) John Maynard Keynes
(D) Adam Smith

I’ll get to the answer shortly. I bring it up due to recent discussions on the “redistribution of wealth” in the context of the imminent presidential election.  Specifically, John McCain criticizing Barack Obama for wanting to “spread the wealth around” and such.  But, as a recent Slate article points out,

Government redistributes wealth to some extent by its very existence, since it’s impractical for citizens to pay for or benefit from it in equal proportion, even if that were desirable. So long as you have a system of taxation and a spending on public goods like education and roads, some people will do better in the bargain than others.

The same article points out that McCain himself supports all sorts of programs that unquestionably distribute wealth, including inter alia Social Security, Medicare, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.  And he opposed President Bush’s 2001 tax cuts on the grounds that they unfairly favored the rich.  (He has since changed his mind.)  And then there’s McCain’s hero, Theodore Roosevelt, who said this:

We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. … The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and … a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.

Slate argues, in another article, that McCain should either stop calling Teddy Roosevelt his hero or should stop calling Obama a Socialist. T. R., after all, supported the 16th Amendment which authorized progressive income taxes.  That first Slate piece then critiques claims that, while McCain’s redistributive policies are okay, Obama’s are far different and go too far.  But if you’ve read that article you already know that.

McCain might call this man a Socialist for wanting to redistribute the wealth of nations

McCain might call this man a Socialist for wanting to redistribute the wealth of nations

And you also know the answer to the question which lead off this post.  So, who did say that people “ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities”?  Was it Karl Marx?  Or Lenin? Hopefully you didn’t guess either of them; they weren’t very big on any sort of private revenue at all, let alone protecting it with the state, whose existence Marx disdained.  So it must have been Keynes, right?  Nope.  The correct answer is (D) Adam Smith. The quote is straight from The Wealth of NationsBook V, Chapter II, Part 2 to be precise.  If, like me, you own the Modern Library edition you’ll find it on page 888.  I was pleased to see that I’d underlined that particular passage when I had last read the work.

Anyway, arguments against progressive taxation have long seemed a bit inconsistent to me.  Bill Gates must pay at least tens of thousands of times as much as I do in income taxes. But does he get tens of thousands of times more use out of the Interstate Highway System?  Does the U.S. Army protect his freedoms a million times more than they do mine?  Sure, he’s got more property to protect, but we’d both be about equally upset if the Canadians invaded and destroyed our homes.   So, unless you want a poll tax, where everyone pays the same dollar figure regardless of income, or to have everything based on user fees, you are in favor of redistributing wealth.  But, don’t worry, you’re in good company.

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Evolution of the vice presidency and Cheney’s claims

This man claims he's not a member of the executive branch of government

This man claims he is not a member of the executive branch of government.

Vice President of the United States Dick Cheney has claimed that he is not, in fact, part of the executive branch of government. The claim was part of his bid to be able to destroy large amounts of records produced by his office and to avoid handing those over to the National Archives under the Presidential Records Act. Apparently, Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington told Congress that the vice president belongs to neither the executive nor legislative branch of government, but rather is attached by the Constitution to Congress, by virtue of being President of the Senate.

In modern times, Vice Presidents have only very rarely presided over the Senate, as the position carries almost no power; virtually all the presiding officer of the Senate does is recognize people to speak. Veeps pretty much only appear when a vote that is important to the president is expected to be very close so that they can be ready to cast a tie-breaking vote, the only power of the office specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution.

Modern vice presidents have little to do with the legislative branch, beyond lobbying members behind the scenes, but they are immersed in the operations of the executive branch. This represents a considerable evolution of the office. America’s first Vice President, John Adams, presided over the Senate most of the time it was in session; he angered Senators by becoming involved in actual debate and trying to steer the affairs of the chamber. George Washington’s administration did not allow Adams to attend cabinet meetings, on the theory that he was a member of the legislative branch and that his presence would violate the separation of powers. Most would be surprised to learn that the first vice president to attend cabinet meetings was Thomas Marshall, who served under Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921).

Modern vice presidents do attend, and in the absence of the president preside over, cabinet meetings and meetings of the National Security Council; they perform numerous ceremonial duties, like attending funerals, presenting awards, and giving speeches; and they largely serve as point man for the president, so their actual responsibilities and influence can vary greatly with their relationship to the top guy. Cheney has been a particularly active number two, as was Al Gore before him (they’re probably the two most active and consequential vice presidents in history, excluding those that were elevated to the presidency). By statute, the vice president also serves ex officio as one of 17 members of the Smithsonian Institution’s board of regents, one of very few legally required duties.

Back when the office was rather unimportant, vice presidents mostly seem to have spent their time commenting on how pointless the office was. John Adams, for instance, declared it to be “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” John Nance Garner, the first of Franklin Roosevelt’s three vice presidents, said the office was “not worth a bucket of warm piss” (often bowdlerized to “a bucket of warm spit”). The aforementioned Thomas Marshall claimed that most of the “nameless, unremembered” jobs assigned to him had been concocted essentially to keep vice presidents from doing any harm to their administrations.

Number One Observatory Circle, the official residence of the Vice President of the United States since 1974

Number One Observatory Circle, the official residence of the Vice President of the United States since 1974

There is an interesting anecdote that I can’t help sharing about Calvin Coolidge’s time in the office, back when the office did not have an official residence. Coolidge was living at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. when it was evacuated in the middle of the night due to a small fire. He got tired of waiting outside and attempted to go back in; a fireman tried to stop him, but then decided to let Coolidge proceed when he identified himself as the Vice President. However, before he could actually enter the hotel, the fireman stopped him again and asked, “What are you the Vice President of?” Upon learning that he was the Vice President of the United States, he sent Coolidge outside again to wait with the rest of the huddled masses. “I thought you were the vice president of the hotel,” the fireman explained.

Since 1974, the Vice President has been entitled to live in a large Victorian house on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. Vice President Gerald Ford became President before he could use the home, and Nelson Rockefeller, primarily used the home for entertaining since he already had a residence in Washington. Walter Mondale was the first Vice President to actually move into the home and every Vice President since has lived in the house.

Anyway, I think it makes the most sense to view the vice president as both a member of the executive branch and a member of the legislative branch, but all of his papers and documents produced pursuant to his role and duties within the executive branch, which constitutes the vast bulk of Cheney’s duties, would definitely fall under the Presidential Records Act; it might be permissible to withhold documents produced in his capacity as President of the Senate. Of course, given Cheney’s extreme predilection for secrecy, this would probably lead to much more litigation. Congress could perhaps settle the matter more quickly by legislating on the matter, specifically extending the act to cover all or most of the Vice Presidents papers.

Happy Constitution Day!

Today, September 17th, is Constitution Day in the United States. On this date in 1787 the Constitutional Convention–or, at least, 39 of the 55 delegates–signed the United States Constitution. It was ratified in June of the following year.

I’m often surprised at how much “we the people” seem to not know about our own constitution. Considering the importance that it has in the span of human history, this seems inexcusable to me. So, here’s a link to the document. If you’re an American it’s your Constitution; go and read it.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Wikipedia also has a nice series of articles on the document.  Check them out here.  Go and learn more about what our Constitution says, what it is, how it works, and how it has evolved over time.  It’s important.