I am a huge fan of Netflix’s House of Cards, which stars Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, a ruthless political anti-hero. Here’s the trailer, if you haven’t seen it. It’s really good:
I launched into the 3rd season yesterday and was fascinated by Underwood’s “America Works” proposal. Very minor spoilers here–Underwood plans to eliminate or restructure America’s entitlement programs, using the money saved to create 10 million jobs, which will apparently cost $500 billion. Now, this is a television show. There are no CBO reports to look at, no detailed policy analyses or public policy research, but I want to dig into this and take the opportunity to explore some of the issues with entitlement programs.
Yesterday, a grand jury decided not to indict white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown. This has resulted in a mix of peaceful protest and rioting in Ferguson, as well as protests in many other major American cities. My Facebook feed is full to bursting with people declaring themselves to be for or against the grand jury’s decision. Unfortunately, I’m seeing many people get caught up in the details of arguing over whether or not the jury made the right decision. This myopic response distracts from the larger structural issue the United States needs to confront–implicit racism in American police forces and throughout American society.
In recent weeks, everywhere I look I see pieces written by people about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Some of the pieces support Brown, others attack Brown, all of them make explicit or implicit claims about what the incident means for America’s soul. All of them seem to take as a given that this incident tells us something we didn’t already know. The truth is that like any individual death (regardless of whether it was murder or an accident), Michael Brown’s does not tell us what the general trends are in America. All it can serve to do is highlight an issue. To understand what’s really going on, we have to look at that issue in a wider statistical context, and this piece seeks to provide that context.
I subscribe to a weekly news magazine called The Week. It’s an excellent magazine highlighting the various things commentators have been saying in the popular press over the past week. In the most recent issue, however, I saw something strange. In the banner, there was a picture of Karl Marx, and the question “Is Marxism Back in Fashion?” This struck me as quite bizarre–I hadn’t seen any mention of Marx or Marxism in the last week. I turned to the relevant article and discovered that the controversy being highlighted was over Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Many commentators, particularly those writing in right-leaning publications, were referring to Piketty and his work as Marxist (for an example, see Kyle Smith’s piece in the New York Post) This apparently is so uncontroversial that The Week felt comfortable guiding people to the story with a Marx reference. I found this extremely troubling, both because Piketty is most certainly not a Marxist and because the practice of calling all those with radical left-wing views “Marxist” is an attempt to straw man those leftists and prevent people from thinking seriously about their views. I’d like to elaborate on both themes today.
Oftentimes when we discuss whether or not economic inequality is justifiable, we have the tendency to consider only the most extreme form of the left wing position. The right often defends its model of the market economy by comparing it to the old communist states, to the Soviet Union–countries in which everyone, at least in theory, had the same income. In places like the Soviet Union, incentives fell apart. If you will be paid the same amount no matter how much work you do, there is little reason to do additional work. The trouble is that this argument straw mans all left wing positions as strictly egalitarian. The left wing position need not be that societies should be perfectly economically equal, it need merely be that much of the economic inequality we see is superfluous and unnecessary. That is the argument I intend to make today.