Monday, December 12, 2011

Why Andrew Sullivan isn't a good source for economic morality

We've inherited a bastardized version of Adam Smith in America, a version which remembers "the invisible hand" but forgets everything that Smith ever wrote about moral sentiments and moral capitalism. And I think we need to get back to discussing the potential morality of capitalism since we seem to be stuck with capitalism for now.

So let's talk morality and capitalism, focusing on one particular person and his morally incoherent ideas about taxes: Andrew Sullivan.

Andrew Sullivan is a) not an economics expert; and b) not a terrible person (as far as I can tell). And yet, he can take terrible positions on economic issues (including economic rhetoric) because they seem the morally correct ones--and he needs to translate economics into morality in order to feel a certain mastery of the topic. Case in point, Sullivan's sticky-fingered hold on the concept of "the successful," which he cannot let go.

For quite a while, whenever Sullivan wanted to talk about the upper-class, he talked about "the successful" rather than the wealthy, the rich, the upper class, the %1 percent, etc. That was a rhetorical choice that expressed his worldview: people with money had worked hard to get it, so taxing them would be punishing them for their success. Even now, when he's altered his thinking enough to say "the wealthy and the successful," he won't let go of "the successful" and the rhetorical defense of low taxes on the wealthy that it implies.

He recently posted a video explaining his thinking for why he's holding onto "successful."

And here are the problems with his thinking on the subject:

1) No one is a self-made success
Sullivan's main complaint is that class war in America focuses on the immoral, lazy inheritors of wealth and not those bold, creative self-made men, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Now, let's accept Sullivan's argument that Jobs and Gates did something cool--but they didn't do it in a vacuum. Malcolm Gladwell makes this point in Outliers: for example, Gates was clearly dedicated to computers, but he had access to a computer only thanks to the work--and the taxes--of the people who came before him. Or we could go to Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward:
Was it not wholly on account of the heritage of the past knowledge and achievements of the race, the machinery of society, thousands of years in contriving, found by you ready-made to your hand? How did you come to be possessors of this knowledge and this machinery, which represent nine parts to one contributed by yourself in the value of your product? You inherited it, did you not?
Emphasis mine because the book is from the 1880s, but Sullivan still hasn't absorbed this. Let's call this problem "the apple pie from scratch problem," after Asimov's joke that, in order to create an apple pie from scratch, one first has to create the universe. In other words, no one is a self-made success. So one would think that those who succeeded (thanks to the previous work of others) might have a moral obligation to give back.

2) Can you tell the successful from the wealthy?
If the government were able to tell the successful from the wealthy, Sullivan might begrudgingly support a higher taxation on those who merely inherited their wealth. (If only there were some form of... inheritance tax.) See, in Sullivan's mind, the successful have a greater moral right to their wealth, whereas the wealthy probably do not. So maybe if we could separate them, we could treat their money differently.

But let's take Jon Huntsman, Jr. as an example of how hard it is to tell those two things apart. Huntsman is probably a smart, hard-working guy. But as Colbert pointed out, Huntsman had a meteoric rise to Chair of the Huntsman Group from the lowly position of... Vice President. Was it Huntsman's success that helped him be born into that family?

Or take Sullivan, a first world success story both as a blogger and as an HIV survivor. How much of his success is due to his talents and how much is due to the luck of being born at a particular time and place? If, after all, luck plays such a huge role in his success, can he claim to have a moral right to the fruits of his success?

3) Incoherence much?
Sullivan moans about how higher taxes are a punishment (because money is good); and then he wants to elicit sympathy for the hardships of being rich (because too much money is bad): "that kind of money is a horrible curse in a way to a life of ordinary living and to real living." Leave aside the weirdness of "real living" and just note the incoherence of that: You can choose one or the other--money is a reward for hard work that we can't morally tax or money is a curse that we should feel sorry about--not both. If too much money is a curse, then taxation isn't punishment  but relief.

Also, notice that Sullivan talks about work as if money is the only or primary reward. There's no remembrance of Adam Smith's moral questions about economics, about how capitalism was meant to improve the world.

4) Objectively pro-wealthy
Sullivan comes from a different culture, and he pisses and moans about the British left, so he might feel that "class war" is the worst thing in the world. But to paraphrase Sullivan (who paraphrased Orwell when he said that people who objected to the war with Iraq were "objectively pro-Saddam"), if you wash your hands of the class war, then you're objectively pro-wealthy. If there's a car and a dog on a collision course, and you don't take a side, then you're ensuring a dog-free world.

5) Feelings--nothing more than feelings!
Sullivan includes that old line (much mocked over at Balloon Juice) about how we need to celebrate the wealthy because they are... what? Job creators? Morally superior to the rest of us? This line helps move the conversation from numbers and economics (which Sullivan doesn't understand) to questions about affect and feeling. And this line exposes Sullivan's confusion between charity (giving something that you have no obligation to give) and taxation (paying back for the things that you have benefitted from or that you want to benefit your children).

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