The Right's Nonsensical Attack on "Redistribution"

In response to public furor over Mitt Romney’s "47 percent" remarks, conservatives have seized on audio from 1998 where Barack Obama gives his support for redistribution. Listen:

The relevant quote comes at the end: “I believe in redistribution, at least a certain level, to make sure that everybody has got a shot.” If you listened carefully, you’ll notice that this is preceded by a fair amount of skepticism about government’s ability to help the poor, and acknowledgement that there’s truth to conservative attacks on the welfare state:

“Some of it has been deserved. The Chicago Housing Authority has not been a model of good policymaking. And neither necessarily have been the Chicago public schools.”

Obama is also concerned with designing programs that work well, so that—presumably—they maintain the trust and support of their beneficiaries and the wider public. These are sensible and mainstream views. They’re held by the bulk of the Democratic Party, and the large majority of our pundits, commentators, and public thinkers. Mitt Romney attacked these comments in his interview on Fox News yesterday, but I would be shocked if he doesn’t hold a more conservative variation on the views expressed. Indeed, his tenure as governor of Massachusetts was animated by this center-right neoliberalism.

The only thing “controversial” about what Obama said 14 years ago is the word “redistribution,” which—thanks to conservative attacks—has become a synonym for Marxism, despite the fact everyone in American politics supports some form of income redistribution.

Romney, for example, has proposed a revenue-neutral tax plan that cuts rates and maintains progressivity. Or, put another way, he’s proposed a plan that taxes the rich at a higher rate, and uses some of those funds to offset the tax burden for middle and lower-income Americans. This would be par for Republicans, who have bragged about tax reforms that reduce the number of people paying federal income tax. Here’s a line from the 1988 platform: “Under Republican leadership, tax reform removed 6 million low-income people from the income tax rolls.” And here is George W. Bush: “Nearly 5 million taxpayers will be off the rolls as a result of the tax relief this year.”

If Romney were genuinely opposed to redistribution, his plan would eliminate progressivity from the tax code—the after-tax incomes of all Americans would match their share of national income. He would also show greater hostility to social insurance programs, including Medicare and Social Security. Indeed, his promise to “restore $716 billion to Medicare” makes no sense for someone who has presented himself as a committed anti-redistributionist.

By virtue of holding public office, Romney will be involved in redistribution if elected president. The question is who benefits from it. On the surface, his tax plan maintains the status quo of redistributing from the rich to everyone else. But when coupled with his large cuts to existing social services—including repeal of the Affordable Care Act and huge cuts to Medicaid—it amounts to a massive scheme of upwards redistribution, from ordinary Americans to the wealthy.