Sit in on a corporate boardroom struggling to come to grips with the new economic climate Barack Obama has created. Do we expand? Create more jobs? Launch a new product line? Step up our marketing efforts? Ratchet up production?
But, wait a minute. The bigger our company gets, the closer we come to being "too big to fail," a "systemic risk." The nearer we are to intrusive government oversight, limits on executive pay and regulators breathing down our necks. We better watch out. We may even get taken over. Stay small. Forget the new jobs.
An investor ponders where to put his 401(k) retirement money. Should he invest in robust, growing companies? Firms with a bright future? But, be careful, they could get so big that they get taken over by the government and you lose your entire investment. Don't invest in firms that will fail, but stay away from those that will succeed, too.
Meanwhile, at the kitchen table, a middle-class family discusses their career moves. Should she go back to school to pursue a better job at higher pay? Should he put in overtime? Move up in the company?
Hey, wait a minute. Our combined income is just under $200,000 a year. If we go any higher, our tax bracket goes up, we start having Social Security withheld on our new income, we lose our current deductions for our mortgage, state and local taxes, and charitable donations.
Forget the promotion. Forget the new job.
Downtown, investors in a hedge fund are meeting to consider participating in the bank bailout scheme by buying toxic assets from failing institutions. We could make a killing. The investments could pan out big time. It's a risk, but the reward could be great.
But hold on a second. If we make tens of millions, hundreds of millions, while taxpayers are having to pay for failed banks, won't we get hit with a 90 percent tax? Won't we get to see our pictures on the front page with the president shaking an angry finger in our faces? Yes, now he wants us to invest, to help him rescue the banks, but once we do, won't he be on our case like he was on AIG's?
The Japanese have a saying that, thankfully, has no English equivalent: The highest nail gets hammered down first. Obama's perverse view of fairness threatens to create reverse incentives, militating against growth, jobs, expansion and upward mobility.
For decades, astute observers of national welfare policy warned of the perversity of the incentives that kept the poor on welfare and discouraged them from taking jobs. Employment meant that their slightly higher income would be more than offset by the loss of other benefits like food stamps, day care, rent supplements and Medicaid. Work didn't pay.
Now Obama is applying the same crazy policies to the upper end of the economic spectrum. Upward mobility is alive and well in the United States, at least until Obama took over. A study conducted in the late 1990s examined the economic fate of those consigned to the bottom 20 percent of incomes in 1980. The analysis concluded that more than four out of five had left the bottom quintile and one in five was now in the top 20 percent!
It is true that the top quintile is getting richer while the bottom is getting poorer, but the bottom is not the same people. There is, fortunately, a constant churning at the bottom as new immigrants move in and those who used to be on the bottom begin their long, thrilling upward climb to the American dream.
But Obama does not believe in individual upward mobility. He would penalize it, tax it, regulate it, inveigh against it and disincentivize it. We will be like salmon swimming upstream to mate. We will overcome the currents, the waterfall, the rocks and the predators, and will grapple our way up the stream. Then, at the top of the waterfall, will stand Obama the Bear, waiting to scoop us up and have us for dinner. The taxman cometh.