I Want The World To Know Nothing Ever Worries Me



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224 Responses

  1. Avatar George Turner says:

    Well, it’s complicated. Most of the infrastructure was paid for with taxes paid by the top 2% of earners, so everybody really owes them. We also collectively owe all the manufacturers whose initial sales were hurt because we didn’t have the infrastructure to support their product. Ford would’ve been much richer if we had built a network of paved roads and gas stations before his model-T hit the market. We failed him.

    Globally, most of the world has immensely benefitted from inventions and innovations made in the West in general, and the US in particular, like powered looms, sewing machines, electricity, telephones, radio, TV, computers, automobiles, airplanes, plastics, antibiotics, vaccines, etc. So the third world owes us a huge debt, and should just give us the bulk of their tax revenues so we can keep on inventing stuff to sell them.

    His logic of debt falls apart in so many strange and contradictory ways that it’s virtually useless as a starting point for thinking deeply about much of anything. It’s more like something that gets brought up in Sunday school class to get the kids to talk about morality for 30 minutes.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      Cite me: National Road and Pennsylvania Turnpike.Report

    • Avatar Lyle says:

      Actually until recently highways were built with gas tax dollars. The railroads were somewhat aided by land grants and the up/cp with loans but the branches were all built with private capital.Report

  2. Avatar greginak says:

    I’d say you are obligated to follow the law and pay your taxes. Other then that you have no obligations that you HAVE to follow. Any other obligations you feel are dependent on your own morality, ethics, sense of fairness, social group, personal sense of shame, personal sense of wanting others to think well of you and how your parents raised you.Report

  3. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    Ah, this ought to be interesting.

    Okay, a couple of ground clearing shots from the 16-inch guns to make sure the beachhead is reasonably clear: I am of the following considered opinions…

    1. Society, (ours, specifically, for the remainder of this comment) has granted unto itself the right to positively meddle in various sorts of affairs. I find this generally (not always) only marginally objectionable. “We will make this available to you because we think it might help” isn’t usually a bad thing.

    2. Society also attempts to grant unto itself the right to negatively meddle in various sorts of affairs. I find this generally (not always) tending towards the more objectionable. “You will do this or we will cause you some sort of hurt” is usually a bad thing.

    3. The two main subgroups in our local population have a tendency to dress up the second as the first, and I find this terribly disingenuous and disgusting, because (a) it’s usually b.s. and (b) often people that are bringing forth the dressed up argument don’t see it as b.s. and (c) when you try and show how it is b.s. because it generalizes directly to something with which they disagree vehemently, the Special Pleading begins and I find this really annoying.

    Here’s a practical example of something splitting the middle in the above.

    I don’t mind everyone saying, “We’re giving everybody single payer”. This seems to me to be a reasonable precaution against anyone becoming an outsized burden upon a very small subset of the population (particularly their children or their parents, neither of whom really need the burden of taking care of their dumb ass). We are, as a society, agreeing that footing this burden (to some degree) is nice enough because anybody can have a jackass parent or child. I am not, however, overly cheered by the idea that if we decide to do this, we are then also free to treat them like our children or parents. If you want to mandate that they have health insurance, you’re pushing the boundary pretty far, but you’re probably not crossing my Maginot Line. If you want to mandate that they eat healthier (why not, we’re paying for it!) I think you can go jump in a lake. If you don’t like taking on the costs of letting x-gamers get emergency care, tough. Don’t cover them.

    Yes, this does mean that cost control will be a problem. A rather pernicious and sticky problem. Well, if you don’t want to pay extra to cover that, keep your nose out of other people’s business.

    This generalizes to partially cover your questions:

    To what extent am I obligated to “we”/”us” because I have received this help?
    Is there a point at which my obligations can be considered “met”?

    with these answers:

    Not much; and
    See Sydney Poitier’s rant in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”.

    We ought to do that stuff because it’s what we think we’re supposed to do, not because we expect that you are going to do it too. If you choose not to do it too, well, that’s too effin’ bad for us. Nobody says the children are legally required to be grateful and take care of their parents in their dotage.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      This is a bit off the point but why does poking noses into peoples business go with providing single payer. Most often that is used as an argument by people against single payer or Ocare as a reason not to do. A good single payer system certainly might offer incentives to stop smoking but that doesn’t mean somebody is busting down the door to stop you from smoking.

      Way to mix military comments BTW.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        The best way to convince me that further subsidization of health care will not lead to the justification of more intrusion of my health choices… is for people not to be using the current subsidization of health care as a justification of more intrusion of my health choices.Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          Maybe its late, but which justifications are you referring to. The stuff i hear is mostly from people who don’t want HCR so they raise the spectre of the gov telling people what they can eat. Are you talking about Bloomberg’s soda and transfat bans? Was every bodies health care costs really a part of that? I’ll admit i see the gov intrusion on what we eat/drink/smoke/chew as mostly a product of the slippery slope logical fallacy and not a major fear. so maybe its just me. In fact i just saw a commercial for some burger with cheese and some dipping thingee at Chili’s ( and we don’t have a Chili’s locally any more) that made me hungry and i have no fear of the gov whacking my wrist for it. Then again to be fair, and to ramble on, American’s do seem to have a strong strain of intrusiveness.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            When I wrote my thing on the soda ban, I knew someone would make a comment like this.

            From an article announcing Bloomberg’s intent for a soda ban:

            According to Bloomberg, New York City spends $4 billion a year on health care for overweight residents, and sugary drinks are the most significant factor in the increasing number of obese or overweight New Yorkers.

            A supporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer:

            Such indulging is not only making us fatter — it’s making us poorer. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “obesity costs $95 billion a year in medical expenditures, of which half are paid through Medicare and Medicaid.”

            I hear it from arguments that actually have nothing to do with HCR (and I heard it predating Obama’s election).

            I’ll start flagging them for you, if you would like.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              What’s your take on that linked comment, Will? Are the costs of obesity a legitimate worry?Report

            • Avatar greginak says:

              hmmm quotes supporting your contention….damn you…
              I’ll note there are, by my rough count 10 McD’s, 4 BK’s, 3 Wendy’s, 3 Carl’s Jr’s, 3 all you can eat feeding troughs and about 35 quikee mart stores where you can get 56 ounce soda’s and ding dong food group objects by the metric ton within a 20 minutes drive of my house. And cigarettes. I just can’t work up a fear that those places are going anywhere. What they are doing, in some cases, is trying to offer some healthier choices for people who are interested.

              That some things cost money doesn’t imply there will be restrictions. Certainly some people will go that route like the R’s have gone after people on welfare programs with UA’s and such. Problems can be attacked with education and incentives and at some point just paying the bill for HC.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                If you lived in New York City, none of them could serve a 20oz soft-drink, which I would have thought absurd – even in New York City – a few years ago.

                Okay, to take off the debate hat and get real for a second… I’m generally not going to let this get in the way of government intervention I would otherwise support. It might take me off the fence on something, but it’s unlikely to do more than that.

                I was less than 10 when EMTALA was passed. But assuming I was older, and assuming at the time that I was told that EMTALA would be used to later justify motorcycle helmet laws (which it was in my state)… I still would have supported EMTALA. However, using EMTALA to justify motorcycle helmet laws (which I’m not even sure I actually oppose) drives me batty. If we want the government to be able to do more for us, we should really be circumspect about using its involvement as a justification to dictate our behavior. It gets me all ornery.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            slippery slope logical fallacy

            A.k.a. “Modus Ponens”Report

            • Avatar greginak says:

              “slippery slope logical fallacy”
              aka The laziest argument in the world. It proves anything and everything, no muss, no fuss.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                The only problem comes when government starts banning 22 ounce drinks, stops and frisks people without a warrant, and so on…

                It ceases to be a strawman when the government makes these things into policy, Greg.

                It’s a manman at that point.Report

              • Avatar greginak says:

                How can somebody know and point out every logical fallacy yet see the slippary slope as a good argument? The mind boggles. Slip Slope can prove anything you ever want, which is , i guess, why people like it.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Slippage does occur, though. There is a fallacy in saying that it must occur, but not in fearing it might. Or in thinking “the possibility it might outweighs the benefit of this measure.”

                Saying “If we do this, then that might happen” is not fallacy. There’s a track record involved.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Aren’t we, at this point, pointing out that we did this and then that happened?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Slippage does occur, though.

                If we permit gays to marry, next thing you know dudes will be marrying their pet goat!

                If we abolish slavery, next thing you know blacks will be granted the right to vote!Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Maybe if Bush wasn’t marrying his pet goat, he could have prevented tower 7 from collapsing.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Not sure your point, Still.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                The uselessness of slippery slope arguments.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Maybe if Bush wasn’t marrying his pet goat, he could have prevented tower 7 from collapsing.


              • Avatar greginak says:

                Slippage can sometimes occur. But not always or in the direction people fear. However SS is used a generic the sky is falling for every concern people can raise. Why is something going to keep getting worse? Will there be pushback? ( the answer is almost always a big yes). SS is a lazy argument since a person can construct a doom scenario from anything. SS is the we are going to end up like Somalia or Stalin argument.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                The questions when it comes to slippery slope arguments are:

                1) What is the likelihood that what they fear will happen will actually happen?

                2) How bad would it actually be if it did happen?

                3) How do #1 and #2 stack up against the benefits of the current proposal.

                Not all slippery slope arguments are the same. Saying something is a slippery slope argument is not the same as pointing out its flaws. Some slippery slope arguments aren’t flawed. Your argument that our fast food places aren’t going anywhere is a valid one. Your argument that it’s a slippery slope argument is not. Because, well, we’ve already slipped precisely along these lines. So now we need to discuss the possibility of further slippage, how realistic it is, and how that weighs against the proposal at hand.Report

        • Avatar b-psycho says:

          This. For real.

          That anyone remotely claiming liberalism reacts to promotions of lifestyle regulation with anything beyond “shut up” these days is a shame.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            yeah. they’re mostly just pawns for insurance companies. And TRUST ME, I know a thing or two about insurance companies (my health insurance company is non-profit. as if it matters).Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      you will do this or we will cause you some substantial degree of hurt is the only way civilization survived. Not commenting on the morality, perse.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      See Sydney Poitier’s rant in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”.

      Man. This totally should have been part of the original post.

      You listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you’ve been doing? You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got, and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing! If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you’re supposed to do! Because you brought me into this world. And from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me like I will owe my son if I ever have another. But you don’t own me! You can’t tell me when or where I’m out of line, or try to get me to live my life according to your rules. You don’t even know what I am, Dad, you don’t know who I am. You don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life you will never understand. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand, you’ve got to get off my back! Dad… Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. Now, I’ve got a decision to make, hm? And I’ve got to make it alone, and I gotta make it in a hurry. So would you go out there and see after my mother?

      At what point has our country created an adult?Report

  4. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    It’s fair and interesting to wonder about when, if accepting these assumptions do lead to a conclusion that obligations are owed in some direction or other, those obligationss might be considered met. But let’s remind ourselves that the actual claim being made here is not that those who provided the help are owed an obligation. The claim is that those who have thrived in part as a result of what they themselves did not build are not owed any particular presumption as a result of that success in discussions that take place around what is a fair distribution of the burden of paying for public spending. The aim here is to establish what is the legitimately fair neutral in that discussion in light of the observation that no one can do social-economic creation purely on his own, and that in this era the background social, public, and/or technological contributions to individuals’ economic creation are large — not to press for repayment as such.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      But let’s remind ourselves that the actual claim being made here is not that those who provided the help are owed an obligation. The claim is that those who have thrived in part as a result of what they themselves did not build are not owed any particular presumption as a result of that success in discussions that take place around what is a fair distribution of the burden of paying for public spending

      That’s a non sequitor. It doesn’t follow from the fact that I thrived in part as a result of other people’s efforts that there is no presumption in favour of me holding the fruits of my success.

      It may turn out that there is no presumption, but the argument that was provided either by Obama or Warren does not have the implication they think it does. This is so for 2 reasons:

      1. While I may have thrived in part as a result of other people’s efforts, I also thrived in part as a result of my own. If the effort being yours entitles you to the fruit of said efforts, then you are entitled to however much of that fruit is that is a product of your part of the efforts.

      2. I may have already duly compensated others for their assistance.

      Combine these two and we can see how there could be a presumption in favour of me keeping my existing wealth even if others helped me. Once I have duly compensated everyone who helped me (including the state via taxes for infra-structure etc), then whatever I have left is the wealth that can be attributed to my efforts. More strongly, if it is at least possible that 2 is true, then 1 being true is sufficient to give at least some kind of presumption in favour of keeping my wealth.

      The only way Obama can make the argument stick is to show the people who have helped have not been duly compensated or that the role played by one’s own efforts in the accumulation of wealth is ultimately negligible. I’m not sure what kind of arguments would settle the first issue one way or another, but on the second issue, if Obama actually argues that any individual contribution is always negligible when set against the background community contribution, then Tom would have been right about the anti-“heroic-entrepeneur” nature of the argument and he certainly would not have deserved the pushback he got on his post.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        No, it doesn’t follow. All I’m saying is that what Obama is doing is arguing against such a presumption – not seeking affirmative repayment. You can argue against him. You should. I’m just making clear what he’s doing here.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        Note on this:

        1. While I may have thrived in part as a result of other people’s efforts, I also thrived in part as a result of my own. If the effort being yours entitles you to the fruit of said efforts, then you are entitled to however much of that fruit is that is a product of your part of the efforts.

        I would argue this differently.

        If we agree that you will help me and in return I will help someone else, then I have incurred an actual obligation.

        If it is agreed that You (abstract You) will help me when I need help, then in return I need not do a goddamn thing except help to the extent that You (abstract You) are also obligated to help.

        If Joe Schmoe benefits from Head Start and subsidized lunch and welfare and gets a state-sponsored subsidized full ride to SJSU where he gets a degree in electrical engineering and invents cold fusion, he “owes” nobody a thing,…beyond what he thinks he owes them.

        When you start expecting someone to do something, you’re no longer providing charity. You’re proselytizing.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          When you start expecting someone to do something, you’re no longer providing charity. You’re proselytizing.

          Can you elaborate on this a bit Patrick, at least insofar as you think it relates to Obama’s speech?Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

            I don’t know that Jason, Tom, and the other commenters critical of Obama’s speech are reading it correctly, but I don’t know that the defenders are reading it correctly, either.

            There’s a dispute, in my head, as to who he’s actually talking to.

            If you’re talking to rich people, then reminding them of the things that enabled their success is fair game; whether or not they choose to feel largess for those things that they honestly have probably forgotten about is up to them at that point.

            If you’re talking to poor people, and you’re trying to establish that you understand the disconnect that they feel with the rich because you feel it too, well, that’s okay.

            If you’re talking to poor people because you’re trying to make them feel like everybody who is rich is a greedy bastard who cares not which people helped them get that way AND gee those people are everybody “over there” (waving hands) AND you’re totally not one of those guys AND hey poor people I’ll MAKE those guys live up to their obligations and that’s really what you poor people want, right, because SCREW THOSE GUYS… well, then I’m Sydney Poitier.

            I expect that this is a case of Obama ad libbing and screwing it up. I think this is spot on. I think we’re making lots of mountains out of one molehill.

            But seriously, when it comes to the social safety net, and some degree of National Important Projects and Infrastructure, I totally agree we should have one. If you want to add something else to the Important Projects list and you can get a bunch of other people on board with it, I’m probably okay with it.

            But it’s a charity project. You do it because it is important to be done. You don’t do it because you want people who benefit from that project to carry an actual obligation. That is what nanny statism actually *is*, right there.

            It’s not helping. It’s helping and then demanding that anyone who benefits from the help kowtow to the provider as an authority.Report

            • Avatar Will Truman says:

              THIS! I owe you one, buddy, for collecting my thoughts for me.

              It’s not helping. It’s helping and then demanding that anyone who benefits from the help kowtow to the provider as an authority.

              I knew there was a link between “If you used public roads, society owns a part of your success” and “The government funding of health care means that the government has a say-so in how you live your life”… and I think you’ve found it. If you want to sell it as helping, don’t then use it as leverage.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              Thanks. I dispute the idea that he’s talking to either rich people or poor people: I think he’s talking to everyone who aspires to success by appealing to the sense – a factual one, in my view – that such success can only occur because lots of social and economic infrastructure is already in place.

              I also need to pick a bone with this:

              You don’t do it because you want people who benefit from that project to carry an actual obligation.

              I don’t read him as saying that beneficiaries have an after-the-fact obligation to others – that’s JB’s framing of his argument (one which is consistent with his framing of all political issues). I think he’s making a pro-active argument that sustaining those programs is necessary – not out a moral obligation, but out of pragmatic necessity – if we (as a society!) want to sustain individiual success as a cultural value.

              I could be wrong about this second point, acourse. Could you cite some claims in the speech that suggest he’s talking about retro-active obligations rsulting from success rather than proactive commitment to the conditions which foster success?Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                > I think he’s making a pro-active argument that
                > sustaining those programs is necessary – not
                > out a moral obligation, but out of pragmatic
                > necessity – if we (as a society!) want to sustain
                > individiual success as a cultural value.

                Hey, that’s a fine argument to have. Certainly I’d cede that – at least, given our current frameworks of supporting, say, basic science research – to disband some of those programs out-of-hand would be terrible. There are other examples, sure. Now, maybe there are ways to do those things *without* a government program (or with a government program of a different style and/or scope or whatever), too, but that’s a third argument to have.

                > I don’t read him as saying that beneficiaries
                > have an after-the-fact obligation to others

                > Could you cite some claims in the speech that
                > suggest he’s talking about retro-active obligations
                > resulting from success rather than proactive
                > commitment to the conditions which foster success?

                Well, you’ve got the opening line: “There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back.”

                This is problematic, because it rhetorically (albeit not logically) implies the people who are wealthy successful Americans who *don’t* agree with him don’t agree because they *don’t* want to give something back, right?

                That’s sort of the difference between rhetoric and logic. Logical arguments, you link together Ps & Qs and your argument is correct or it isn’t. Rhetoric, on the other hand, is all about framing those Ps so that you say something that can be interpreted multiple ways, and you can always say to Tom or Jason, “Oh, no. Of course I didn’t mean that!” (and then turn around to Your Team and say, “See how paranoid they are that they think that!?” Logic is rigorous. Rhetoric is all about the Iron Law of the Excluded Middle: the message is in what I’m not saying, not in what I am saying.

                He could have said, “There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with my idea that raising taxes is necessary at the present time to sustain important government programs while maintaining a reasonable budget. They believe that the tradeoff between balanced budgets and deficit spending is best mitigated right now by increasing the tax burden on the highest tax brackets by a historically small amount. Warren Buffet is a successful businessman because he understands reasonable risk for substantive award, and he supports my plan.”

                Doesn’t roll of the tongue quite as well, sure. I see the original line instead, and it stinks up the rest of the speech. This is the sort of framing that supports Tom’s much-disparaged reading of Obama as much more inclined to reach for the class warfare toolkit than he ought to be. Because if nothing else, Obama is a pretty skilled orator and he should know the distinction between rhetoric and logic and what people will think of what he isn’t saying.

                Now, hey, is this a mountain made out of a molehill? Probably. But still, it’s a crappy speech.Report

              • Avatar Scott Fields says:

                The case for “pragmatic necessity” as Obama’s angle in this speech is bolstered the fact that “pragmatic necessity” has been Obama’s rhetorical stance since he first started speaking publicly.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Yes. Very good point. But my guess is pointing that out won’t keep people from attributing to him the exact opposite because it reinforces their preconceptions.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                Oh, absolutely.Report

  5. Avatar Stillwater says:

    I’d turn it around, JB. Your questions presuppose that you have no obligations to others (society, as it were) unless an affirmative argument can be made to justify them. Obama’s argument is challenging that belief by claiming that what most people view as individual success derives from complex and highly cooperative social structures, often fostered by direct government action, which create and facilitate individual success.

    He’s basically rejecting your premise while you’re primarily concerned with what follows from his conclusion.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      But we already had to pay for the government infrastructure we built, and the agreement to build it was done with the full knowledge that not everyone would benefit exactly equally. The traveling salesmen and trucking companies profit far more from a stretch of road than a person visiting their grandmother for Thanksgiving.

      Among the many ways Obama’s assertion falls apart is that the wealthy have been taxes at far higher rates and contribute the majority of government revenues, and thus these construction projects, even though in many cases they actually gain little from an infrastructure project (When was the last time Barbara Streisand used a highway?)

      Looking at the very rich, how many are rich and successful because they were especially good at driving down the highway and crossing bridges? How many derived any significant revenue from government public works spending, which by its nature tends to be targeted at programs that will benefit a large swath of society? As for the contractors themselves, the ones who most directly benefit, they already give back huge amounts in the form of bribes and kickbacks.

      Obama cited the Internet, which did generate large and unequal revenues, and amazingly claimed that is was created to help businesses. Actually it was illegal to do anything except official government business on the Internet for over a decade, with the exception of innocuous e-mails between colleagues. Sending anything over the Internet for commercial purposes was forbidden and considered anti-social. It wasn’t until private industry took over its operations that the Internet became viable. So how much do Internet millionaires owe the government for keeping them locked out of the Internet for a decade and limiting its expansion to only government facilities and universities?

      And highways aren’t the only infrastructure we use. We all benefit from electricity, phone lines, and gasoline, but what would the public reaction be if your private utility company, phone company, and Exxon campaigned to double your prices in the name of social justice, because you’ve been benefiting from the services they provide?

      Another thing I find nauseating about Obama’s statements is that he sounds like a cross between a con-man and a panhandler. You cross the Brooklyn Bridge and get stuck at a stop-light, so he runs out with a squeege and tells you that you’re in a fancy car because you haven’t paid your full debt on the bridge, from which you benefit daily. So he sticks his hand in the window and demands $5 bucks. He didn’t build the bridge, doesn’t know who did, doesn’t own it, doesn’t know who paid for it, but he’s using its existence as a hook to extort more money out of you. Obama’s message is that some teacher somewhere along the way helped you out, so give him money.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        “When was the last time Barbara Streisand used a highway?”
        Let me check sources in the gov . She used the PCH 2 days ago to hit the drive thru at the In and Out Burger.

        You’re welcome.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Obama’s message is that some teacher somewhere along the way helped you out, so give him money.

        Actually, Obama’s message is that anyone who claims their success is entirely the product of their own own efforts is wrong. That’s about it.

        Why do you think he’s talking about rich people giving their fifth grade teacher money? He’s not. (Unless you think he’s speaking in Code, like another of our regular commenters.) He’s talking about the social infrastructure which individual success depends upon and which allows people to succeed.

        I’m not making that up. Here: “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”Report

        • Avatar George Turner says:

          But often success comes from going against the grain, outperforming everyone, and sometimes driving the competition into the ground. Sam Walton didn’t team up with mom-and-pop stores and small grocery chains, and netflix and redbox didn’t join hands with local video outlets.

          Sure, we went to the moon together, and it took 400,000 people working on Apollo to do it. Elon Musk will probably replicate the feat with a staff of about a thousand. Does Elon benefit from the knowledge gained from Apollo? Certainly he does, but he’s already paid for that information when he paid his taxes like the rest of us, and paid vastly more than most of us. And Apollo owes a lot to the private contractors because it benefitted from their in-house initiatives, and they all benefitted from the Nazi V-2 program that killed thousands and thousands of Jews at Dora. So we owe a huge debt to the people who ran a Nazi death camp, many of whom we hired. It’s all part of the circle of life, I suppose.

          So back to his roads argument, they’re pretty useless without cars, and cars are completely useless without gasoline. Should every American feel grateful enough to write a $5,000 check to Ford, Exxon, and BP, or is the fact that we already paid them for the car and the gas enough? Likewise, we already wrote a check for the highways and bridges, and our parents already paid the teacher that helped us out. No man is an island, which is why we pay for stuff, and charge for stuff we sell. If we tried to use some South American Indian cargo system of social obligations, we’d be as poor as South American Indians, because the accounting is imaginary and success is punished by bigger social obligations instead of rewarded. His philosophy is how Africa is run, and we can see how well it works for them.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          Why do you think he’s talking about rich people giving their fifth grade teacher money? He’s not.

          In fact, he is talking about forcing them to do just that, through higher taxes. Click through the speech and read it in context. He’s trying to justify his proposal for raising taxes on high incomes.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Of course, His whole argument is that government funded programs are necessary for people to achieve individual success, so let’s continue to fund those government programs. One way to do that is to return taxes on the wealthy to pre-Bush levels. He’s been stumping for that ever since he took office. Does that come as a surprise to you?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        “…and the agreement to build it was done with the full knowledge that not everyone would benefit exactly equally. ”

        Oh really? Can I get a roll call of who exactly agreed to that?Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          the military. part of national security to build Ike’s interstate highway system.Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

          Everybody with open eyes and ears, Kazzy.

          That’s almost nobody. But just because you believe something in spite of eyes and ears doesn’t mean that you should.Report

  6. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Without getting into all the deep philosophical problems here, I just want to point out that there’s no numerical analysis here at all. As such, nothing Obama is saying is inconsistent with the proposition that the rich are paying too much in taxes already. Nothing he’s saying is inconsistent with the proposition that a flat income tax would be more fair. Or that a flat consumption tax would be more fair. Or even that a regressive tax would be more fair.

    This isn’t a call for a proper reckoning of debts. It’s a blank check.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Exactly. Ask how much the rich should pay in taxes, and the answer is always “more.” There should be something wrong with that answer at some point, but it’s not clear where, and this kind of talk doesn’t clarify at all.Report

      • Avatar Elias Isquith says:

        I find this difficult to accept as a piece of analysis considering the President is specifically proposing the marginal income tax on money in excess of 250K is raised to 39.6 percent from its current 33/35 percent rate. It’s a rather specific number he’s seeking.Report

        • Avatar Morat20 says:

          Let’s be honest. What he’s proposing is that the tax cut voted on 10 years ago, which was written to be a ten-year cut and then expire, not be extended for everyone.

          Really, all he has to do is ready his veto pen and they all expire. Which is what happens when someone passes tax cuts with gimmicky accounting because they don’t want to pay for themReport

          • Avatar Kolohe says:

            If we’re being honest, the tax cuts were voted on 11 years ago and were supposed to sunset in 2010. Obama had it well within his power to break out the veto stamp back then and restore the Clinton Era tax rates, but did not.

            Because he’d rather have a failed two term presidency (which is what he’s going to get) than a one term presidency with long term positive effects.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        More often than not the answer is, “Their fair share.” How can we begin to determine what their fair share is without engaging the points made here by the President?Report

        • Avatar Murali says:

          Will wilkinson’s piece on this is about right.

          If you are going to argue that the rich are not paying their fair share, the above argument isn’t it.Report

          • Avatar Elias Isquith says:

            A bad Wilkinson post, one that is either objectively false (“As it stands, high-earners do “give something back”: 35% of yearly income.” Nope. Marginal.) or chooses to ignore the whole gamut of counter-arguments that I’m sure Wilkinson has encountered previously. He doesn’t quite, but he comes perilously close to repeating rightwing talking points about 47 percent of taxpayers not paying a federal income tax. Wilkinson at his most movement conservative-y.Report

            • Avatar Murali says:

              You missed the very next line:

              the top 5 percent earned 31.7 percent of the nation’s adjusted gross income, but paid approximately 58.7 percent of federal individual income taxes”. If that’s not giving something back, what is?

              But let me just grant that he is wrong on the details. If we are going to say that rich are not paying their fair share, we should be having arguments about what percentage of wealth the rich hold and what percentage of taxes they contribute to: not vague statements about how the rich got rich.Report

              • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

                Isn’t that the point of issue though?

                Do you have a natural and inalienable right to the fruits of your labor, or is their no such right, ergo how much the government can take will be determined to the degree that people think X amount will make things “better?”

                The rhetorical move isn’t to persuade us how much to tax, but to persuade us that such a question has nothing to do with property rights.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                Even these are not the most fundamental questions, good as they are.

                The real question is — What determines the value of a good? If a buyer and a seller both agree to a price, there must at least be some assumption, however rebuttable, that they have reached a proper price. Buyer and seller are usually the two people most concerned with the transaction, and if they agree, their agreement ought generally to be respected. How much value did the seller produce? Ask the buyer.

                Any price the buyer names, the seller does deserve to receive — or possibly more.

                And neither the good nor the money in question properly belong to anyone else. Denying this proposition is, in effect, a claim that the buyer should receive the good without the seller getting the compensation that they both agreed upon.

                Pounding the table about how great our government is won’t change anything in the above.Report

              • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

                I’ve been wondering about this lately.

                As I’ve gotten deeper into pricing efforts at work, but on our side as well as on the side of suppliers, I’m less and less confident that anyone (at least medium to large businesses) ever feels they paid the “right” price.

                Access to information is so imperfect.Report

              • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

                The guy who completes a transaction where he walks away paying much less than he was willing to pay going in?

                That guy feels like he paid the right price. Nobody else does.Report

              • Avatar Plinko says:

                Every buyer wants to pay no more than the marginal production cost of a thing.
                Every seller wants to be paid no less than the buyer’s marginal utility of that thing.
                Rarely, if ever, could those things line up, so everyone is enying someone else’s surplus – often both the buyer and the seller simultaneously.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                The real question is whether our way of life depends on the fear of destitution as a consequence of bad choices or bad luck to make people shut up and work harder.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                Our economy runs on ignorance and fantasy.
                If it didn’t, most restaurants would cease to exist in current form.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                Do you have a natural and inalienable right to the fruits of your labor, or is their no such right, ergo how much the government can take will be determined to the degree that people think X amount will make things “better?”

                Oh, I think that this is a question worth asking and the answer is definitely not simple. However, Obama’s objection does not ask this question. Rather it takes for granted that people have a right to the fruits of their labour. i.e. if your objection amounts to “you did not do it on your own”, you are already presupposing that if in fact you had done it on your own, you would be entitled to the fruits of your labour. If the justification of any kind of property regime did not rest on some kind of desert basis, but on, say, rules that would maximise the lifetime prospects of the worst off, then telling me that people didn’t actually achive their wealth on their own would be irrelevant.Report

              • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

                True, he’s operating more from a place of: you have to give in proportion to what you get. Which might be the best political strategy, but would be impossible to see through in practice, not to mention go a long way toward further entrenching current privilege/”meritocratic” winners.Report

              • Avatar Plinko says:

                Doesn’t your suggestion get it backwards, Murali? Shouldn’t the policy goal be to determine how much revenue is necessary to fund operations and then determine how to raise that revenue?

                Just because there are few folks on the left that see income taxes as Pigouvian taxation doesn’t mean that should be the default policy analysis.Report

              • Avatar cfpete says:

                The suggested tax increases do not by any means fund operations.
                Where are the “serious” proposals to fund operations?
                By “serious,” I mean tax proposals that stabilize the deficit at approx. 3%.Report

              • Avatar Plinko says:

                I’m not sure what kind of objection this is. It seems unlikely that any single policy change will itself cause bring the federal ledger into reasonable balance (even accounting for some varying definitions of ‘reasonable’ balance), we’re going to need several of them.Report

              • Avatar cfpete says:

                “we’re going to need several of them.”
                Any suggestions?Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                Doesn’t your suggestion get it backwards, Murali? Shouldn’t the policy goal be to determine how much revenue is necessary to fund operations and then determine how to raise that revenue?

                True I was merely assuming for the sake of argmuent that we had already performed the first step. When doing the second step apart from the efficiency of any particular way of raising revenue, the effect such taxation is going to have on the worst off should also be considered.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:


            I’m not sure which “above argument” you are referring to, nor am I necessarily saying the President is right. Only that his statements here are a legitimate and reasonable part of any conversation aimed at determining a “fair share” of social obligation. No man is an island; nor is any man cimpletely devoid of agency. Thus, the number is somewhere between 0 and 1, exclusive. It might very well be that the rich are taxed too much. But how will we know if we don’t have precisely the conversation the Presudent suggested?Report

            • Avatar Murali says:

              I suppose that the quoted paragraph in the OP is an argument that the rich should contribute more because they are not paying their fair share.

              I’m all fine with having the conversation. I’m just saying that insofar as the statement is supposed to be an argument, it is not a particularly good one. In so far as it is not an argument, I don’t know what it is doing there.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Ask how much the rich should pay in taxes, and the answer is always “less.” Or has been for the past 30-years.Report

        • Avatar cfpete says:

          Puh-lease, the answer to how much (federal) taxes any American should pay, for the past 30 years, is always “less.”Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

            No, it’s a disgrace that poor people pay nothing. Ask the Wall Street Journal.Report

            • Avatar cfpete says:

              Poor people should pay nothing. You and I should pay more. I will give up my home interest and property tax deductions today. Will you do that?
              I am currently in the 33% marginal bracket. I will accept an increase to 43%.
              I will accept a 15% VAT.

              Let me state this clearly: No one in the United States gives a shit about the poor.
              When California and Illinois cut the budget, where did they go?
              They cut Medicaid, they cut hospice for the elderly poor, but Richard M. Daley still gets his six figure pension.

              The “Ultra Rich” should pay more, but we will never be able to fund a welfare state solely on the earnings of the top 5%.
              How about these marginal rates:

              We should provide for less advantaged Americans much more than we do.
              However, we need to be honest about the cost of that assistance.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

            Any opinion polls to back that up?Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            Guys, guys, come on, let’s get real.

            The question and its answer is actually twofold, and it’s obviously always

            1.) How much should the other guys pay? (A: more) and

            2.) How much should I pay? (A: less).Report

            • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

              That’s what people think. What politicians say is:

              1) How much should their supporters pay? (A: more) and
              2) How much should you, my beloved supporters who are downtrodden pay? (A: less)

              Usually they don’t actually *do* that, but that’s an aside.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        … yeah, 100% would be bad. Other than that? So long as the rich retain their structural/systemic advantages by other means, I don’t think they’d mind/notice/care.

        (if you let them have slaves, why should they care how much you take from them with taxes. after a certain point, money means nothing more than keeping score).Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      This isn’t a call for a proper reckoning of debts. It’s a blank check.

      It not a reckoning of debts (Obama’s argument is proactive – not reactive) or a blank check. He’s trying to nudge people into admitting what ought to be an uncontroversial fact: that cooperative social structures play a fundamental role in individual success, many of which are created and supported by government. And given that, his political argument is pretty simple: let’s sustain those good structures. Part of that, no doubt, is returning taxes on the wealthy to pre-Bush levels, since funding those programs is – per his argument – necessary for the expression of individual success.Report

      • Avatar cfpete says:

        “Part of that, no doubt, is returning taxes on the wealthy to pre-Bush levels, since funding those programs is – per his argument – necessary for the expression of individual success.”

        Make the f*cking math work where only the wealthy pay more.
        I have committed to substantial tax increases for myself and my family.
        What are you willing to pay?
        Will you commit to a 30% tax increase?Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          Let’s slow down a minute. What are you arguing against in this comment- my interpretation of Obama’s speech, or the misinterpretation being foisted on him?

          My interpretation is this: Obama is arguing that since collective action, usually derived from government supported and created programs, is necessary for individual success to emerge, funding government to maintain those – and similar – programs is necessary. Part of it is an appeal to the facts, part of it is an appeal to a shared ‘unity of purpose’ wrt government and society, and part of that is funding (making it happen).

          Do you accept that interpretation?Report

          • Avatar cfpete says:

            The responsibility for “collective action” is limited to 5% of households and I can keep my tax breaks and low rates.

            There is no interpretation necessary.
            Some other person will pay for it – Vote Obama!

            To remind you, I am for higher tax rates on the ultra-rich and myself.
            I want an honest conversation.
            This administration is advocating for the tax base of Argentina.
            It might win elections but it is no way to run a country.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              So your complaint is about the way Obama structured his argument rather than the conclusion? That’s fair enough, I suppose. But what is the better argument – the honest conversation – that correctly leads to that same conclusion?Report

        • Avatar Morat20 says:

          So if we can’t close the entire deficit through a single, unified tax hike we…shouldn’t bother?

          Bush cut taxes in 2000. The people who got the biggest cut, in terms of real dollars, were those upper 5%. Those upper 5% did just dandy during the 90s. They made out like bandits during the 2000s.

          Ergo, they can afford to roll back their taxes to the 90s rates. They got the biggest cut, their share of the national income skyrocketed, and they were still doing better than everyone else back in the 90s.

          So, um, why not raise it on them? What’s special about the current rate? It’s not like we’re doing something new, after all. We’re going back to how it was only a dozen years ago.

          It narrows the deficit. Excellent. That’s part of the problem solved. The remaining deficit problem is now…smaller.Report

      • Avatar MFarmer says:

        Will we also return to pre-Bush spending?Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        Part of that, no doubt, is returning taxes on the wealthy to pre-Bush levels, since funding those programs is – per his argument – necessary for the expression of individual success.

        Vigorous hand-waving is doing all the heavy lifting here. For one, the federal government actually spends very little on programs that facilitate individual success. The majority of it subsidies to personal consumption, while a big chunk of the rest is military.

        Second, it’s not at all clear that raising taxes on the wealthy is either the fairest or the most economically sensible way to raise funding for the few things the federal government does that actually create opportunities. Cutting spending in other areas is an option. So is raising taxes on the middle class. After all, we have most of the income.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          Fair enough, but now we’re past arguing about which reading of Obama’s speech is the correct one. That’s good. At that point, yes, I agree with you that there are different policy packages that can achieve Obama’s goals. But it seems to me – could be wrong – you’ve conceded his central premise.

          At that point, the debate becomes one of priorities and policy mechanisms and so on. That’s the debate Obama wants to have.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      Without getting into all the deep philosophical problems here, I just want to point out that there’s no numerical analysis here at all. As such, nothing Obama is saying is inconsistent with the proposition that the rich are paying too much in taxes already. Nothing he’s saying is inconsistent with the proposition that a flat income tax would be more fair. Or that a flat consumption tax would be more fair. Or even that a regressive tax would be more fair.

      This isn’t a call for a proper reckoning of debts.

      This is all exactly right, in terms of what is being argued in the part of the speech being highlighted here, as far as I can tell.

      It’s a blank check.

      I’m not sure how you get there from all those other things also being consistent with it, then. It’s a call for a conversation about what it might be agreed the check might be made out for, if there is to be a check (I would say clearly, since, as you point out, so many possibilities are consistent with it), in which he lays out what attitude he would bring to that conversation, and why it’s a defensible one, even though it’s one he knows that he’ll have to continue to argue for it if it is to carry the day, and that no one has to accept it as appropriate who isn’t convinced in the course of the conversation (however, among non-felons age 18 and over legally in the country for more than so many days, what will ultimately happen is settled by a permutation of one-man-or-woman-one-vote. Even then, though, you don’t have to accept that what happens is what should be happening).Report

  7. Avatar Matty says:

    Maybe look at it as more like a business transaction, yes people have paid up to now but if they want to keep on getting the product year after year they have to keep paying – you don’t get to pick up a second car from the dealer for free and say “I already paid you for the first one”. Things like infrastructure maintenance and education are like that you are getting more so you keep paying for more. If you want to add features, well then the unit cost will probably go up.

    As for how much, well even I with my ignorance of economics know that will be the balance point between how much one set of people are willing to pay and how little the second set are willing to accept. You can’t work it out a priori from principles you have to actually go out and ask.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      But this is the car dealer coming back to you wanting you to give him more money for the car you already bought. Building infrastructure is very expensive. Maintaining it is not. In 2010 the Federal Highway Administration only spent about $41 billion on roads and bridges, including new construction. That’s about $125 a person. In the 2012 federal budget Obama wants to blow $3.72 trillion, which is $11,270 a person, so for every dollar he’ll spend, about a penny will go to highway maintenance and construction.Report

      • Avatar Matty says:

        So what will the other 99 cents go on and are those things ongoing costs that the taxpayer benefits from?Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        > But this is the car dealer coming back to you wanting
        > you to give him more money for the car you already bought.

        Oh, if ONLY it were that easy.

        This is the collections company who bought the bad debt from the finance company who floated us the loan when we bought the car five years ago.

        And the car needs work in order to actually, yanno, run properly.

        And the collections company is knocking on the apartment door, and the four stoners inside are trying to get the son of the more-well-off parents to pay the bill. Never mind he can’t cover the whole thing. Never mind the guy with two jobs is the one who uses the car the most, he can’t afford to pay for it either since he’s got a pile of other obligations.

        Nobody wants to pay the trillions, George. They’d be willing to pay for a new car, though, and everybody seems to think that this is an available option, it just depends one who we vote for in November.Report

  8. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    I’m just waiting for other people to build me a business. I’m sure they’ll get to it soon.

    And after that, I’ll owe the president for their efforts.Report

    • Avatar clawback says:

      Is your reading comprehension so poor you think that’s a correct parsing of what Obama said? This truly has gone beyond bizarre.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        I do understand — or at least I want to understand — what he’s saying in the rest of the passage. But then he says:

        If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.

        Okay, great. Someone come build a business for me then. This is the land of opportunity, isn’t it? Opportunities… provided at the expense of someone else.

        After I’ve got my business, I’ll think about paying taxes. Build it for me first. The fact is, this truly was an outrageous thing to say. There’s no getting around it.Report

        • Avatar clawback says:

          Hard to believe I have to spell this out, but “that”, in the context from which you yanked the sentence in question, refers to infrastructure. This is a matter of grade school reading comprehension. You say you understand the rest of the passage; this might have tipped you off to your mistake regarding this sentence.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

            If you are right, then he should have made it clear. The obvious and most natural reading is not yours, but mine.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              No, it’s not. The obvious reading, in context, is that the “that” refers to everything he’d mentioned. Yours is a tendentious one, almost certainly informed by your politics.

              One has to remove the sentence to make it refer to the business. It’s even clearer when it’s spoken.

              Anyway, this is a common problem in speech (see the post I linked below), but at some point you have to be honest. The fact that it conforms to something you already believe makes the more obvious interpretation less accessible to you, which is fine. That shit happens to all of us. But it’s been pointed out to you. This is that point.Report

            • Avatar clawback says:

              The “obvious and most natural reading” is the one consistent with the context, not the one obviously informed by your political preconceptions.Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

              And Bush really meant that he put food on his family.Report

            • Avatar Simon K says:

              Its only the “obvious and natural reading” if you’re looking for Obama-is-a-secret-communist gotchas in the rambling, tedious motherhood-and-apple-pie that is a typical campaign speech these days. The cynical reason to read it like that is to score political points. The non-cynical reason is because you’re trapped in the right-wing echo chamber and really believe that a Democrat sufficiently moderate to be elected president might really believe that business people have no responsibility for the success of their business. Even TVD sort-of acknowlegded this, Jason. Shame on you.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                It’s not a gotcha or even all that much of a surprise to find evidence that Obama, like almost everyone on the American left, is a communitarian. (Not a communist.) I already had plenty of evidence to that effect, and this is just one more bit.

                Denying it is the thing that strikes me as cynical.Report

              • Avatar Simon K says:

                So you actually believe that President Obama thinks business people have no personal responsibility for having built their businesses?

                The President is a standard issue American liberal, which may or may not be what you mean by “communitarian”. Standard issue American liberals believe a mostly-private economy is the best available form of economic organization. If you believe in a mostly private economy, how could you simultaneously believe that entrepreneurs don’t really do anything? I don’t see how you can. There’s no way someone of that general persuasion, could possibly believe that “if you have a business, you did not really build that business” but implicitly somehow merely stumbled upon it. If you really do believe that’s what liberals think, you’re putting yourself into the camp of people who fail utterly to understand the other side of political debate.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer says:

                No, Obama said it takes personal initative, but…

                It’s all the stuff after but that I listen to. Obama believs that to succeed it takes individual effort, but like he said, which undercut his argument, lots of people try hard and are smart, but they don’t all succeed. To me the successful entrpreneur has special skill, knowledge, insight, motivation, imagination, whatever you want to call it, and this is what ultimately makes the great majority of successful businespeople successful. Stalin thought of businesspeople as clerks, and although Obama would never say this, he believes that government created infrastructure provides the essential elements for hardworking people to succeed, but that there’s nothing special about those who succeed. He said he finds it funny when successful people think they are different or special. Most successful people don’t go around bragging about how special they are so this is a strawman, but it really reveals Obama’s communitarian philosophy.Report

              • Avatar Simon K says:

                Right, Mike. I’m not comfortable with what Obama actually said, either. That’s no reason to take one non-sentence out of context and use it as the basis of disagreement. That’s what we have talk radio for. In a serious discussion, it misrepresents and in some ways underplays the actual disagreement.

                For any success, some amount of it’s value comes from explicit investment, some amount is hard work and ingenuity from those who pursued it, some is luck, and some is social capital, stuff someone already bought and paid for but which isn’t charged for. Obama is saying the amount of social capital is non-trivial, growing, administered by the state, disproportionately benefits the wealthy and requires constant contributions to its upkeep. Were he a more lyrical type, he’d probably talk about debts incurred to past generations redeemed by contributions to the future. You on the other hand, would presumably say social capital is mostly not administered by the state, and to the extent that it is (the rule of law) requires only modest contributions to its upkeep, right?

                This is a reasonable argument to have. Its not the same as harping on about a potential misreading that’s not even plausible.Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        Here’s the “too long, didn’t read” version:

        A principle of clear writing that I’ve publicly advocated was suddenly found to weigh against a political candidate whom I favor. Therefore I now recommend jettisoning the principle.

        LanguageLog didn’t exactly cover itself in glory there.

        Additionally, the use of the word “this” earlier in the paragraph to denote infrastructure weighs strongly against the word “that” also being used to denote infrastructure. When we distinguish two items, we use precisely the words “this” and “that.”Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          Dude, now you’re just dancing. Like I said, it’s the point where you can be honest. It’s a simple mistake, people are biased and make them all the time when utterances are ambiguous (I’ve actually conducted experiments where we induced bias and looked at the interpretation of ambiguous sentences). So you’re human, but stop dancing, because you don’t do it as well as this site’s habitual dancers.

          Also, read the sentence after the ambiguous one.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

            There are two entirely objective reasons why my reading is the more plausible one.

            First, as I said, “this” and “that” are distinct words, and when they are used close together, it is to denote two different things.

            And second, if there were any ambiguity, a single word might have sufficed to eliminate it: “you didn’t build that infrastructure.”

            That said, I’ll freely admit that the speech may have been sloppily drafted or mis-executed. Sure. And such mistakes never, ever indicate anything about how a person actually thinks.Report

            • Avatar clawback says:

              So now it was a Freudian slip? You truly are pathetic.

              Look, you simply misinterpreted the statement. Own it.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                No. You are wrong about that. I’m right on this.

                (See how easy it is?)Report

              • Avatar MFarmer says:

                At first, I thought he was referring to roads and bridges, but when he originally answered the criticisms regarding what he said, he answered by saying we are all in this together, that we are one nation, which implies he was rationalizing what he said — he didn’t respond by explaining he was referring to roads and bridges — other apologists later popped up and said he was refrring to roads and bridges, but Obama’s first response was to spout communitarian platitudes. If he had meant roads and bridges, he would have come back with that explanation.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                Quite so.

                If he’s not making the walkback that you would prefer him to make, well, that does say something.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer says:

                That I prefer him to? I didn’t state a preference. I merely observed the walkback he did make. Perhaps I misunderstand your comment.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                The walkback that so many others here (not you) clearly prefer Obama to make.

                Basically I was agreeing with you.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer says:

                Now, I understand.Report

              • Avatar Chris says:

                Look, he’s not pathetic. He’s just wrong. It’s possible to be wrong, and loath to admit it, without being pathetic. Hell, if that was pathetic, we’d all be pathetic, because we all do it.

                That said, he’s pretty obviously wrong. The previous sentence, along with the subsequent one, make it quite clear what Obama means, and this is even more clear when the paragraph is heard rather than read. The “this” and “that” distinction might hold in formal writing, but it’s really just rationalization in this case. That said, it’s clear Jason’s going to stick to his guns for whatever reason, and I can’t imagine it matters enough to me, and I can’t imagine why it matters enough to you, to beat him up over it.

                Also, I should note that I wish Obama had said what Jason interprets him as saying, not because it would allow people to score points against him politically, but because it’s true.Report

              • Avatar clawback says:

                Most of us gained the maturity to admit mistakes, at least when the evidence is patent, early in adolescence. And we gave up on devising ever more elaborate and unlikely rationalizations for our errors in childhood. So yeah, I’d say this is pathetic.

                Not really interested in your attempt to turn this back on me, but let me just say the reason to explore this is simply as an attempt to plumb the depths of extremism. Though in his case this might be of limited value since apparently he’s paid to maintain the positions he takes.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                This has been a remarkably unequal discussion. I’ve offered reasons for what I believe. You’ve replied with name calling, charges of bias, and ad hominem argument.

                Now, I certainly could reply in kind, but I’m not about to. It is, after all, disingenuous to pretend — as you do — that I am the only person here who has any political opinions that might color his judgment.

                I’m also guessing that you have no clue where my real preferences lie. Given the choice between Romney and Obama, I would choose Obama. I really would. But this doesn’t put him beyond criticism. (I’m glad that these aren’t my only choices, but that’s neither here nor there.)

                Finally, I did not realize that the liberal creed required denying the distinction between “this” and “that” — a distinction akin to the one that exists between “here” and “there.” And in fact, the liberal creed required no such thing as recently as last week. But whatever, it’s fun to be in a club. You get to try a whole lot of exciting new things that way.

                And to Chris, who actually cites some evidence, which I find commendable: To the extent that other textual evidence contradicts my reading, and a bit of it does, I would say that the passage becomes incoherent. Not that its meaning changes obviously from X to not-X.Report

              • Avatar kenB says:

                Has anyone here listened to the original speech? It’s quite possible that his intonation on the word “that” would disambiguate the reference.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                Anyone reading the full paragraph gets it. Sixth graders practicing “reading comprehension” and “context clues” would get it.

                The only people not getting it are the people who want it to be a gaffe, a revelation of Obama’s sekret un-American beliefs.

                Which appears to be the theme of the weak, according to Sununu.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

                Better thee than me, Jason. I should sleep in more often.Report

            • Avatar The Crafty Trilobite says:

              Obviously, nobody came and built a business for you. That would be a crazy thing to say, and Obama ain’t nuts. What I hear the line as, is, ‘you didn’t build it all by yourself, somebody helped.’ That’s a point worth making, in an America where I have literally heard a successful small businessman call his workers “parasites” on his genius and hard work. Where people routinely call the big-idea guys at the top “job creators,” or “wealth creators” as if nobody else involved had anything to do with making the business a success.

              You could take the position that the only thing owed to workers is a free-market wage, but that’s far from enlightened self interest. If you want a quality labor pool – educated, diligent, honest – you have to pay taxes too. Besides (and this may strike some here as heresy) not all of human interaction and social obligations can be reduced to quid pro quo. There’s also the attitude of the man who plants oak trees now because his great-great grandfather planted them for him a hundred years ago, and that’s the kind of society he wants to live in and have his descendants live in. There’s the worker who puts in extra effort, not because he wants to get ahead, but because he feels like part of a team or just plain likes his boss.

              So it is appropriate to remind people like that small businessman who despises his workers, that he didn’t actually pull himself up by his own bootstraps, and just as others generally helped him because of a sense of decency and dignity, he should do the same. Or at least stop pi$$ing and moaning that he can’t buy the second Rolls Royce because of a marginal tax increase on his investments.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      ayup. just have the idea, and have it be a good idea.
      of course, YOU don’t get the profits.

      a friend of mine does it ALL the time.Report

  9. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Far more than taxes, I think the more important “obligation” would be a shift in mindset. And I wouldn’t really call this an obligation but a damn good and right thing to do. The narrative that folks who work hard succeed and those who don’t work hard struggle and fail has been used to justofy increasingly horrible things. We will truly address gross inequality and inequity when our cultural mindset around what is earned and deserved changes. No one is obliged to do this and I honestly struggle to see a way to truly oblige individuals to their fellow man and partner-in-success through the tax code or any other means. But if we continue down the path we’re on, things will likely only get worse.Report

  10. Avatar clawback says:

    The passage you quoted says nothing about obligations. Thus your questions, which inexplicably are focused almost exclusively on that subject, can be easily answered: you’re not obligated, your obligations are met, etc. Glad to help.Report

    • Avatar Scott Fields says:

      I find it interesting that when someone says “We’re in this together!”, some will first think “Okay, what can I do to help?” and others will first think “Damn, what am I on the hook for?”Report

  11. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    Couldn’t you have asked just one of these questions, friend? Anyhow, let me try to answer several at once.

    I more or less share Obama’s philosophy of social obligation here because I don’t see human beings as merely autonomous individuals, but rather as also members of one body, so to speak. We’re one and many, and we have obligations as individuals to other individuals, as individuals to society, and as a social body to particular individuals and to society as a whole. These obligations, however, are not always quantifiable, especially at the social level, so it’s difficult and maybe impossible speak of extents and points at which obligations are met.

    As Brandon Berg and Jason noted above, this lack of enumeration causes no small amount of political and economic trouble. Laws and other social structures can’t require vague generalities; they have to quantify, but since justice–i.e., giving to others what they are due–is often unquantifiable, these measures attempt the messy business of quantifying the unquantifiable.

    As Derrida would say, justice is always ahead of us; we never reach it. It’s impossible.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      Derrida is wrong. Given that ought implies can, whatever is impossible to achieve is beyond justice.Report

      • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

        Being the coy messianic dude that he was, Derrida would say that justice is beyond justice. Or that the justice that we can achieve–the ought that implies a can–falls short of the justice we can’t achieve–the justice beyond justice.Report

        • Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

          On the other hand, I’ve been told it’s always wise never to assume that one knows exactly what Derrida means. About anything.Report

          • Avatar NewDealer says:

            I think Foccault once called Derrida a “Linguistic Terrorist”. He wrote in absolutetly unreadable prose but bashed anyone who brought that up as a moron.Report

  12. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    Well, to start with, we’d need something approximating a communal notion of the good. We don’t have this, at least not in our politics. So everyone talks past everyone.

    Not that I’m claiming that we ever truly had a commonly held idea of the good. But there was, once, some set of commonly held assumptions that, right or wrong, enabled large(r)-scale attempts to answer these questions. Now we just have the right and the left preaching the gospel(s) of the partially radically atomized individual in his/her own perfect autonomy — except when they aren’t, because some vague, ill-defined notion of “the bad” must be stopped. This, of course, is typically determined by the question of who proposed something, not what was proposed. Like the President said, we used to do things together. Now at least 45% of the voting public immediately lines up in favor of any item that at least another 45% immediately opposes.

    So now I should give some sort of reply to the questions… The dignity of the individual (note which term is the concrete noun, please) in relation to… something that I don’t quite know how to phrase. To the common/communal good? As defined by the aggregate of individuals and their dignity? The problem is that the scale we’re talking about is so damned large that I can’t fathom how to apply the obligations that I believe hold for the individual — or for local communities of individuals — to the level of commonality we’re talking about here.

    This, of course, is because my notion of the good is rooted in the obligations of individuals toward other individuals. But the population of the United States has nearly doubled since my parents were born, and the world’s has more than doubled. That’s a lot of individuals; the old ways of applying individual obligations to the common good/communal obligations simply can’t hold. Neither, I’d propose, can our political arguments, which don’t fully reckon with the scale of this change. So maybe it’s easier to give up on what’s common. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Well, to start with, we’d need something approximating a communal notion of the good. We don’t have this, at least not in our politics. So everyone talks past everyone.

      What we need is a really strong leader to tell us what the communal good is. Democracy has failed, it’s time to try something more efficient.Report

      • Avatar James B Franks says:

        It has? heh Do you really think this is the first time that politics have gotten this partisan?Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          I’m sarcastically setting up the next step in The Road to Serfdom. Roughly:

          1. A liberal democracy develops a popular affinity for central economic planning.
          2. Trouble is, no one can agree on the details of the economic plan.
          3. Democratic institutions grind to a halt.
          4. People lose faith in democracy.
          5. Dictatorship begins to look reasonable.

          By my count, we’re on step four.Report

          • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

            I was really hoping you were going to open up the subject of a philosopher-king, not Hayek’s bucket o’ cold water. After all, my 10th-grade English teacher still has quite the appropriate beard for the role…Report

          • Avatar NewDealer says:

            How would Hayek explain Canada, Sweden and other welfare states that not devolved into dictatorships?

            The Road to Serfdom seems to be another variant of Malthaus. A great thing for doomsayers to always be wrong about but never give up.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              The Road to Serfdom seems to be another variant of Malthaus. A great thing for doomsayers to always be wrong about but never give up.

              Heh. It gives them hope!Report

          • By my count, we’re on step four.

            This is why I’m quite thrilled that Americans Elect was such a colossal failure, and why I frankly applaud disrespect towards the centrist elites characterized by the David Brookses and Tom Friedmans of the world. If Mayor “Stop and Frisk for Big Gulps” Bloomberg or one of his acolytes ever mounts a serious third party challenge, you will know that we are on Step 5.

            It remains my firm belief that Left and Right in this country have as much or more in common with each other than they do with the Center (or at least with the elitist Center). A big reason why they can’t realize this, unfortunately, is that they’re increasingly not even speaking the same language.Report

          • Avatar Burt Likko says:


            1. A liberal democracy develops a popular affinity for central economic planning.
            2. Trouble is, no one can agree on the details of the economic plan.
            3. Democratic institutions grind to a halt.
            4. People lose faith in democracy.
            5. Dictatorship begins to look reasonable.

            By my count, we’re on step four.

            I smell “symposium.” Let me propose that in August or September, we have a symposium on the health of liberal democracy, with a non-exclusive focus on the United States.Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            By my count, we’re on step four

            And I’ve been doing my part to show people that 5 is true *grin*

            But seriously, at a certain point, libertarians have to ask themselves whether there is any form of government which would be an improvement in terms of respecting people’s rights. While dictatorships have a particularly bad record, it is not clear if being disenchanted with democracy necessarily means we proceed to endorse dictatorships. Aren’t there other alternatives?Report

      • Avatar J.L. Wall says:

        Is my tendency for Classical political thought showing again?Report

    • Avatar Marchmaine says:

      J.L. outstanding post; personally I think you’ve nailed why the rhetoric strikes a chord, but is fundamentally incomplete. It is subsidiarity without the sub.Report

  13. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    Rather than answer the questions on obligation you listed Jaybird, I’ll propose rejecting them and simply positing that I’m obliged to give however much is needed for the best (read: most optimal) moral outcome.

    Whether that’s according to Kantian principles, virtue ethics, or utilitarian standards, or some combination of them, how much I have of something would have no bearing on how much of it I ought to give, in so far as I must give what I must give, independent of what I have, with the exception of giving more than I have, which I obvioulsy cannot do.

    Example: If I have a million dollars, and only $50 of it is needed to arrive at a “pretty best case” scenario, then I “owe” $50, regardless of whether I’m in a good position to give even more.Report

  14. Avatar J.L. Wall says:

    The more I think about this section of the speech, the more I reach the following conclusions:

    –If Obama was not on-script, then his team needs to reign him in, because it’s a botched attempt to state something that, if properly done, wouldn’t be politically damaging.

    –If Obama was on-script, then whoever wrote the script needs to be put on coffee-grabbing duty for the remainder of the election.

    If you squint, you can see the “It takes a village…” sentiment. But dear Lord! Don’t people get paid to put sentiments down clearly in writing? As I’ve said for many years about the Chicago Cubs bullpen, if you want someone to come in and blow the save for you, I’ll do it at a tenth of the price.Report

  15. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    To what extent am I obligated to “we”/”us” because I have received this help?

    We might ask instead, “to what extent have you benefited from living in this society?” Your tax obligations satisfied, with the help of a competent tax guy, we could say you’re done with the government.

    Is there a point at which my obligations can be considered “met”?

    Your relationships with others are an ongoing proposition as is your relationship to your society. Might we also ask if we have any obligations to those who serve our country more than others, such as our military or police officers or regulators?

    Are there a substantial portion of my obligations to “we”/”us” that are not financial in nature? (If so, are they more interesting than merely “not breaking laws”?)

    Can we describe voting or jury service as obligations? It seems fair to say so. Civic duty might also oblige us to go to town meetings or participate in democracy in other ways. We could hope good people would run for public office on the strength of the need for good leadership.

    As we move from the movers and shakers that are the creators/business owners to those of us who are merely fortunate enough to work for these folks, is there a substantial change in the obligations owed? (If there is a financial/non-financial ratio for the business owners, is there a different ratio for workers?)

    Sole proprietors are not employed by others. We aren’t movers and shakers. We certainly pay more taxes than you employees but less than large corporations. We small business owners benefit from many intangible aspects of society, including the availability of educated people, usually educated at the partial expense of society, property taxes pay for public schools, state taxes for state colleges, Pell Grants and many other mechanisms benefit the business owner substantially.

    Moving from there, I find myself wondering about people who are more obviously receiving help from all of the infrastructure that was set up by other people. Is there a change in the obligations owed by the people who are more obviously getting this help? (If there is a financial/non-financial ratio for the other two groups, and if this ratio is different between them, is it different yet again for this group?)

    But not all such help is obvious, nor is the help these Obvious Beneficiaries receive, by which I presume you mean the greedy, grasping poor, to the exclusion of the Movers and Shakers, a loss. Those poor people spend their money. It collects in the cash drawers of small businesses and the bank bags of landlords.

    But the Movers and Shakers are also beneficiaries of this system, as we can easily observe. The largesse bestowed upon them through tax abatements and loopholes, subsidies, government contracts, tariffs. bailouts and the like benefit their bottom lines mightily.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      But not all such help is obvious, nor is the help these Obvious Beneficiaries receive, by which I presume you mean the greedy, grasping poor, to the exclusion of the Movers and Shakers, a loss. Those poor people spend their money. It collects in the cash drawers of small businesses and the bank bags of landlords.

      I phrased that paragraph *VERY* carefully, for the record.

      I think that meaningful distinctions can be made between this group of people receiving this kind of government assistance and that group of people receiving that kind of government assistance… and, since we agree that we are all in this together and we all have obligations, wondering if there are meaningful differences in the obligations held.

      (If you can’t tell, I find this topic exceptionally squicky.)Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Okay. let’s down to tacks. Farmers versus DrugDealers. farmers put a lot less of their fin aid back tot he rest of us. ought we to give them less??Report

        • Avatar Murali says:

          We shouldn’t be giving the farmers anything. If they can’t grow food without subsidies, then they should be doing something else.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            … what subsidies are okay? Is National Weather Service a subsidy? How about metereological/climatalogical research?

            If you don’t give farmers subsidies, they have a MUCH MUCH greater desire to grow corn (or the next “most profitable, most reliable, most roundup proof”), which would adversely harm our food quality.Report

            • Avatar Murali says:

              If you don’t give farmers subsidies, they have a MUCH MUCH greater desire to grow corn (or the next “most profitable, most reliable, most roundup proof”), which would adversely harm our food quality.

              The reason why there is a high usage of corn syrup and corn starch in food products made in america is that the production of corn is heavily subsidised (and probably tarriffs on agricultural imports like sugar)



              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                The sugar tariff is in fact the primary subsidy for corn. Spangler candy company, maker of the ubiquitous Dum dum suckers, estimates it could save $10,000 per day on sugar if they moved their operations to Canada or Mexico.

                Another major subsidy has been the ethanol subsidy, but that’s finally ending…maybe.

                what subsidies are okay? Is National Weather Service a subsidy?

                Not, it’s not a subsidy because it doesn’t exist solely to benefit farmers, and it doesn’t exist to transfer wealth to a particular subset of the populace. It’s a general benefit program–all of us can enjoy the benefits of the NWS. It’s possible the original purpose was primarily to benefit farmers (I don’t know that, but it wouldn’t be surprising), but the key is that the benefit is not targeted specifically to them.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            Now if only people would stop eating, we’d have this problem solved in no time.

            Our Colorado River no longer reaches the sea. What little reaches Mexico is just the run-off from a few fields and it’s horribly polluted. Usually it doesn’t flow at all. California is utterly dependent upon the Colorado River. It’s only got maybe a decade left before water rationing becomes a fact of life.

            It’s okay if you don’t understand how agriculture really works. Without government projects, the only aspect of agriculture left is dry-land farming and not much of that. The central USA is now enduring a terrible drought, its impact will be far larger than Katrina or any other natural disaster in American history. If we want the farmers to plant anything next year, we might want to keep them alive long enough to do so.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        It is squicky. Exceedingly squicky. Especially so when we consider those who would complain about the Obviousness and Strangeness of these onerous obligations to each other and to society. Any effort spent on pointing out the rich web of support structures, created and paid for at public expense that we might all enjoy life a bit more — such effort is wasted. Anyone who dares to say such things will be given a dismissive wave of an (uncalloused) hand and we shall hear “Somalia!” in short order, the Libertarian Corollary to Godwin’s Law.

        Somalia is a real place. It’s not as bad as all that. Fresh produce is flown in every day, the mildly hallucinogenic plant khat, grown in Yemen mostly, it arrives in small planes. Granted, people are starving in Somalia but if you have the money, you can get fresh khat. There’s your Free Market at work, folks. Strange stuff, khat. Tastes absolutely horrible. The Vikings used to dance around the fire and scream and yell to get in a berserker mood. Its chemical equivalent is khat. Ever seen a really mean drunk in operation? That’s what khat does, only the khat-chewer is wide awake.

        There are no meaningful distinctions here. The only distinction is the Obviousness of it all.Report

  16. Avatar damon says:

    I’ll turn this around.
    Assuming that “others” have help each successful person a lot, and helped the vast majority somewhat, are they/we not responsible for how that benefit came about? To wit: Our standard of living is based upon our level of technology and our status in the world as a major power. Said technology originated from a lot of gov’t work during the cold war and our various conflicts in the last 100 years. Our position in the world and the dollar as reserve currency were achieved because we have a global empire and we maintain it, fighting wars of choice over the world. We’ve knowingly allowed the slaughter of millions, the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands, and the oppression of millions (through installation of puppet regimes)

    Are those that benefit in the US by any amount, not responsible for all this as well?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Is there any point at which we can cease to say “if it weren’t for us, you’d be speaking German!” to the British?Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Trivia: there are parts of France which are sovereign US territories. Not an embassy. The American graveyards at Colleville-sur-Mer and scattered throughout France are a perpetual concession to the USA and American money maintains them.

        The answer to your question is “Never.” It can be rephrased to the French: if not for American blood and treasure, you’d be speaking German.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          “If it weren’t for my ancestors interacting with your ancestors, your present would be different” strikes me as obviously true, but I don’t see how this necessarily obliges me to you (or you to me).Report

          • Avatar dhex says:

            if not for even earlier french efforts, we’d probably all be speaking english.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              I’ve got crates and crates of extra U’s ready to distribute if some time traveler ever goes back and reverses the American Revolution.Report

            • Avatar George Turner says:

              The French only speak French instead of Gaulish because the US wasn’t there to stop the Romans. But if we had, they’d probably have ended up speaking English.Report

      • Avatar Matty says:

        Russian more likely, didn’t the Red Army got to Berlin with relatively little help from the west?Report

        • Avatar greginak says:

          Yup the Russians got to Berlin w/o us. We provided a lot of equipment for them like trucks, tanks, etc in the begining and certainly helped them in to a significant extent. However by 43-44 the Russians were an unstoppable juggernaut that defeated the bulk of the German Army.Report

  17. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I think Obama is talking about more than social infanstructure. He is talking about law. We have laws in this country that help set-up businesses. You can sue someone for breach of contract and recover. Bill Gates mentions Rule of Law a lot in terms of Microsoft’s success. Now I’m sure he did not like the DOJ’s antitrust suit but he still acknowledges the importance of a functioning legal system and other parts of the government.

    Perhaps this is my Litvak blood speaking, or the fact that I have mainly lived close to or in very large and diverse cities with multiple cultures that do not naturally get along well but need to live in close proximity; but I never got the notion of Rugged Individualism. Rugged Individualism always seems like a myth to me. Yes people come up with ideas for businesses but as someone said above, we are also a part of society. Humans by nature are social animals. We form groups (both familial and larger) to survive and thrive.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      Litvischer, interesting. I always loved the Jewish concept of mip’nei tikkun haOlam, things done beyond mere obligation for the healing of the world.

      No human relationship is quid-pro-quo, tit-for-tat, except for bad ones: even in financial transactions, we must first establish trust before drawing up contracts. The Individual is a bad premise for anything in life: we live in the context of a wider world. Others can preach the virtues of selfishness: they always end up in the same bad place. Even Ayn Rand ended up surreptitiously and shamefacedly applying for Medicare.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:


        Tikkun Olam is a brilliant concept.

        I am as secular as secular can be. I believe that humans wrote the Torah (along with all other holy books) and am a firm agnostic when it comes to the existence of a deity or not. Unlike the Dawkins set, I don’t treat this as bad. Torah and Talmud can be treated like philosophy. Some is highly relevant and worth following. Other parts, not so much.

        Though what does carry with me is the material nature of Judaism. I am not concerned with pre-determination and salvation like Calvinist based Protestantism. Judaism is concerned with the here and no and does not believe in fate. Too much of the Republican party platform is wrapped up in Calvinist notions that I disagree with and find disturbing.Report

        • Avatar wardsmith says:

          Newdealer, welcome aboard and Blaise, welcome back. The question from a morality standpoint is pretty clear. If you’ve benefited from society and are OBLIGATED to pay back (however that might work out), how are you equal to someone who VOLUNTEERS to pay back? Will philanthropy itself go the way of the passenger pigeon?

          That great philosopher king Jesus said, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          I’ve always loved Judaism’s approach to many things in life. We are given life, as babies were are helpless, we are fed, our butts are wiped. In our turn, we become parents, create life, have babies and wipe their butts. We grow old and feeble, we again enter the care of others. We die and those whose butts we wiped wash us and carry us away. It’s all about the butt-wiping and the washing and the carrying, it seems. Butt-wiping doesn’t seem to be listed as a mitzvah but I sorta think it ought to be one.

          Whatever we may choose in the way of religions, we are all drafted into the ranks of butt-wipers. I’ll go with that as the first act of charity, all other acts of tzedaka pale in comparison. eshmr achi anki We are our brothers’ keepers.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Well, one of the reasons we institute government is to maintain the rule of law to prevent cheating and to see that transactions are just, etc. As John Locke pointed out, people who are wronged go to extremes in seeking retribution. So we have courts, judges, and a system of laws which benefits everyone (except for the guy who swears he didn’t do it), including successful people.

        I think what Obama is arguing, badly, would apply. Since the rich benefit from the rule of law, which protects them from having to pay an extortionist or a swindler, they therefore owe the money saved to the court or the judge, because without the court they’d have been screwed. They should thus give back to the crown because they benefit so much from the crown’s protection.Report

      • Avatar SevenSmiles says:

        The Individual is a bad premise for anything in life

        As opposed to what? What is the alternative, treating everyone according to their group membership and disregarding all individuation?Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          Humans don’t do well alone, despite what every teenager will tell you. There is an old Grimm’s fairy tale. A man and his wife cared for his elderly father. As old men do, he was a bit trembly and when he ate soup, it slopped sometimes upon the table. They criticised the old man and told him he could not eat at the table.

          Their little son was playing with bits of wood upon the floor. He started to make a trough. “What are you making?” his parents asked. “A trough for you to eat from when you are old.”

          Thereafter, the old man was invited back to the table and if he slopped a bit in his beard or on the table, the parents said nothing.Report

  18. Avatar trizzlor says:

    Obama was not making this speech in a vacuum, he was responding to the claims by his opposition that taxation is the equivalent of theft. His entire lengthy statement reiterates the basic idea that government provides for the general welfare and so has the power to collect taxes that pay for those things that it provides. If we took off our party hats, no one but the staunch minarchist would find what Obama is saying as contentious, but the “Taxes = Theft” argument is made so frequently and self-evidently by pundits that it has to be refuted through this silly “It takes a village” monolog.

    To your questions. The obligation stems from the fact that every American citizen has agreed to pay taxes in return for living in a generally well fared society. Ideally, your contribution would be the exact amount with which the government can provide for the general welfare better than the individual could. In addition, you’ve got to consider the potential harm done by the government taking too much or too little and err on the side of minimal risk. Since time is money, the government can conceivably recruit you to other obligations besides monetary contribution, but the harm-risk of this may be so high that it’s only done in extreme cases (say, drafting for a war). While the obligations should be distributed according to the bolded principle, the interaction between man and society is hard to quantify so it’s difficult to say exactly how much each person should ideally contribute; and because we don’t know how the two will interact in the future it’s almost impossible to say when the obligation is “met”. We have some short-hand though: generally the poor are harmed more by income loss than the affluent, so we tend to structure the contribution progressively. Obviously at this point we have to put our party hats back on and look to past experience, first principles, or empirical evidence to guess at where this magical line should be drawn.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      But suppose you lived in a totalitarian dictatorship where all the taxes collected went to building statues of the glorious leader, paying for his palaces, and supporting a massive police state. What social obligations are you under to support the state’s spending? Just because a government collects revenues doesn’t mean society is benefitting in any way, and all the spending could be causing social harm. If you pay the exact amount by which the government could support the general welfare better than the individual, it still doesn’t mean the dictator will spend a dime of it to benefit the people.

      Likewise, not all US federal spending benefits the people, even welfare spending. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued, the US welfare system was an experiment, and the experiment did catastrophic damage to black families. Or you could look at multi-billion dollar failed military programs, like the Sgt. York, the Avenger automated artillery system, the A-12 flying Dorito, or the Commanche attack helicopter.Report

      • Avatar The Crafty Trilobite says:

        What’s your point? There is inefficiency in the execution, therefore there is no obligation? May I suggest that all human institutions f*ck up from time to time? And most make consistent errors in some areas, which are not quite bad enough to destroy them. There’s a reason that 70-80% of all new businesses fail in the first 3 years – people do dumb things. (Which, btw, is why I get these uncontrollable giggling fits at the phrase, “government should be run more like a business. What, collapse every 3 years? But I digress). So if you’re going to have government at all, which Adam Smith says we must, we will most certainly fund boondoggles.
        Is this some variant of “starve the beast”? That if we kept government on a lower budget it would make fewer mistakes or waste a smaller percentage of the budget? At some level this may be true, but where’s your evidence that it works this way in terms of the actual revenue limits proposed in modern America? My own experience is that government offices forced to pinch pennies are perforce pound-foolish.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor says:

        George, in a totalitarian dictatorship the rules change dramatically because you can’t leave and you can’t vote. In that case all sorts of options become open to you (including violent resistance against the state) that make the little question of taxes pretty much moot.

        In the US system, obviously you have to take waste and abuse into consideration when you’re determining the optimal tax-rates, that’s why they’re optimal, and how close we get to the optimum is up to experimentation and analysis. But Jaybird is questioning the very idea that we should pay for government services at all. Which, frankly, is the only objection you could really raise to Obama’s statement that people who live and work within a state draw benefits from some services that the state provides.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          But Jaybird is questioning the very idea that we should pay for government services at all.

          For the record, I’m not.

          I am, however, wondering if there is ever any point at which I am allowed to say “my obligations to you have been met”.

          For the record? Your obligations to me have been met. Well, outside of acknowledging that I’m not questioning the very idea, etc. Am I even owed that, though? Perhaps that’s me mistaking something I really want with something that I’m owed…Report

          • Avatar trizzlor says:

            That’s fair, I see the questions of “why must I pay taxes” and “when do I get to stop” as joined at the hip but it was not my intent to misrepresent your position.

            My contention is that your obligations have been met when you stop using the services that government provides (and that includes contracts, courts, defense, etc.); barring that, it may also be prudent to stop taxing you if you would make better use of that money yourself.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              The argument that my obligations are an ongoing concern is an accurate one and I should have probably phrased it that way… but meeting my obligations is also an ongoing concern and I could just as easily rephrase it as “how do I know my obligations are being met?”

              Is there a point at which even you would say “you don’t need to do more that what you’re doing?”

              Thorny question: is this point more likely to be if I were not employed and living in a $300/month apartment paid for by someone else or is it more likely to be if I were making more money and paying more in taxes?Report

              • Avatar trizzlor says:

                This is well stated, JB, and I had a few responses but they don’t feel precise enough. So let answer the question “do I every have the right to any of my income?” which I hope is not too distinct from yours.

                I would argue that a) the state is established to provide for the general welfare; b) the very idea of “income” exists because the state recognizes contracts and property rights; c) you have aright to that part of your income that the state cannot use to further it’s stated goal. If you want to take all of your wealth and burn it in a beautiful fire, the state has the right to prevent you from doing that. If you don’t like it, you knew the rules ahead of time and you should have amassed your fortune elsewhere. On the other hand, if the state creates a law that takes your income with a net-loss to general welfare (and perhaps no law can be created that prevents wealth burning without being net-negative), then it has created an injustice i.e. you didn’t need to do more than what you were doing.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              My contention is that your obligations have been met when you stop using the services that government provides

              Can I make an upfront payment that will cover it? When I stayed at a Bed and Breakfast last year, I paid them when I arrived, then didn’t pay them anything more over the next three days of my stay.Report

              • Avatar trizzlor says:

                Can I make an upfront payment that will cover it?

                Sure, there’s nothing stopping you from paying forward to the IRS, but just as you would have to pay the B&B anew if you showed up again this year, you’ll have to continue paying the IRS once your upfront payment is exhausted.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                I think you’re missing the real question. Is there any limit to what I may have to pay for the benefits I receive? Is there any necessary correlation between how much benefit I actually receive, and how much I can be required to pay? Or is it legitimate for the state to require me to pay far more than I actually receive in benefits? Is so, how much can they take from me consistent with the idea of justice?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Thinking about this some more, I’m pretty sure you don’t mean this:

              My contention is that your obligations have been met when you stop using the services that government provides (and that includes contracts, courts, defense, etc.);

              I’m pretty sure you’d agree that “the poor” are entitled to the services that government provides.Report

              • Avatar trizzlor says:

                I see a big difference between the “obligation” and the “amount”. The poor are obliged to pay taxes just as they are obliged to follow all the other laws, even though the optimal amount they have to pay is zero.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                They’d be obliged to pay nothing.

                Fair enough. I imagine that society would be obliged to provide a non-zero amount of goods/services?

                So there’s be a point at which they would be taking in more in goods/services than they’d be providing *BUT* we’d see that their obligations were being met in the same way that I am meeting mine, no?Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      Excellent comment Triz!Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      The obligation stems from the fact that every American citizen has agreed to pay taxes in return for living in a generally well fared society.

      Is that true? How would we know if it’s true? And if it is true, does it say anything about how much tax any given American citizen has agreed to pay? Or are you saying that “every American citizen has agreed to pay” as much tax as the government votes to impose on him/her? And if so, that takes us back to “is that true,” and “how would we know if it’s true”?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        You’re cutting down to the bone here James. What does it mean to agree? Is it explicit consent to tax X for Y? Is it implicit consent to tax X for a basket of goodies, some of which you don’t agree with? Is it implied by utilizing government provided services to promote your own self-interest?

        There’s lots of room in there to wiggle, even your already pinned down.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          Stillwater, I agree it’s a very thorny question. I don’t claim to know the answer. I only claim that it’s not as simple as trizzlor suggests.Report

      • Avatar trizzlor says:

        I’m assuming that every American citizen has agreed to obey the laws of the land, which stipulate that they agree to pay as much tax as democratically elected representatives impose on them. If they disagree with the premise, their option is to break the law or forfeit citizenship. If they disagree with the outcome, their option is to petition their representatives and their fellow citizens to change it. I’m not trying to be patronizing by the way, maybe I’m missing your point?Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          Well, my point is that you do indeed have an assumption. Whether that assumption can actually be conclusively demonstrated…well, that’s been an open question in political philosophy for a long time.Report

        • Avatar George Turner says:

          Not even Obama will agree to obey the laws of the land, so why should anyone else? His lawsuit against Arizona being a case in point (and the judges expressed their astonishment at the Administration’s argument that it’s unconstitutional to enforce federal law if it conflicts with a federal agency’s policy of priorities).

          It’s true that we have the option to break the law (almost everyone does) or forfeit citizenship (record numbers have been doing so), but we can also just go on strike. Most of the wealthy can live comfortably off savings, and many haven’t had much choice but to do so because the economy is in the toilet. One of the reasons state’s like California and Illinois are virtually insolvent is that they used a highly graduated income tax, and the incomes at the top levels are highly unstable. Essentially, they’re gambling the state budget on the continuing success of in-state gamblers whose stock picks were doing well. This also raises the question as to why the state should take in more money when stocks are doing well, since they should need less revenue during such periods (low unemployment and welfare costs). Perhaps if taxation was run less like a shake-down operation people wouldn’t be so irritated by it.

          Another issue is the majority abusing its power over a minority, which is something the Founders tried to ensure wouldn’t happen by granting everyone equal access before the law, adding the Bill of Rights, etc. But they didn’t put in any mechanism to prevent abuses in the tax system, whereby a majority can vote themselves all the money possessed by the minority, which is the foundation of modern class warfare. Tax money, and the control of it, is fueling a divisive civil conflict in this country just as much as blood diamonds are fueling African civil wars, and all we hear is various warlords claiming they need all the diamonds to give their people a fair share and protect them from exploitation and harm by nefarious evildoers.Report

  19. Avatar Lyle says:

    If you take the line about someone gave you help, and ignore the rest then it is true. To start with likley in a lot of cases parents gave help (Bill Gates for example got private school because of his parents). Then there are teachers and other adults that influence children. I don’t know if luck is help but to take an historical example Andrew Carnige was just a lowly telegrapher, until he met Tom Scott of the PA railroad who took him under his wing and got him started.
    So one could come back that yes everyone got help but it was not necessarily from the government (at whatever level). But of course doing this spoils all the fun.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      and bill gates’ private school was paid for by the governmental giveaways that his parents or their parents were eligible for (and other people weren’t.)Report