A prime reason for subscribing to the New York Times -- a cultural misdeed for which I regularly beat my breast -- is that of tapping into the Times' tips concerning what real, bona fide Forward Thinkers are thinking at a given moment. Like now, when opinion leaders are lining up to assure us the return of Robin Hood economics is way overdue.
To a talkative redistributionist -- the young French economist Thomas Piketty -- the Times turned over a whole page of its Sunday Business section, allowing the subject to make the case for what the reporter called "a progressive global tax on real wealth (minus debt), with the proceeds ... redistributed to those with less capital."
Piketty (pronounced, according to the Times, "pee-ket-ee") explains, "We just want a way to share the tax burden that is fair and practical." His thick new book, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," has vaulted onto the Times' best-seller list, hailed by Paul Krugman -- redistributionist, Times columnist and Nobel laureate in economics -- as maybe the decade's most important economics book.
Forward Thinkers want it understood that the rich make too much money and that, what's more, voters need to know it. Congressional Democrats have taken to talking about it all the time. Old Clinton hands Stan Greenberg and James Carville, in a recent memo, urge the party, instead of talking about the painfully slow economic recovery, to bash the 1 percent. Along comes M. Pee-ket-ee to provide the bashers with intellectual armament.
Redistribution sounds to many Forward Thinkers like good politics, and it may be. As economics, it's pretty bad. We know this because we know the redistributionist impulse -- the "leveling" impulse, as it was once called -- to be historic and the consequences of following the impulse to be, well, unsatisfactory. That would be a good generic word for something that never works out as planned.
Would-be redistributors perennially predict a day of equality and warm sunshine once redistribution is accomplished. They think they will create a static situation. Unfortunately for their way of thinking, static situations never occur. Life is dynamic; there's constant reshuffling of the deck, despite attempts to stack it. New opportunities and discouragements arise. Old ones fade. Invention and ingenuity reshape prospects. Did the railroad barons -- the Huntingtons, Goulds and so on -- foresee Henry Ford? Did Ford foresee Soichiro Honda? Capitalism is a kind of economic Magnificat: "He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and hath exalted the humble and meek." Some rise; some fall.
They do, that is, when capitalism is allowed to work. The redistributors think they have a better idea than what they disparage as laissez faire (let-'em-alone) capitalism -- a species that exists mainly in the minds of New York Times writers. Let the government determine who needs what, is essentially the redistributionist argument. Let the government then supply what is needed. M. Pee-kitt-ee (while proclaiming himself no Marxist) wants to increase taxes on the rich, who are to be counted on, evidently, to labor on without noticing.
Democratic Party gospel calls for raising the minimum wage whether or not employers, to meet the added expense, might reduce or reshuffle employment and take other steps to make the books balance.
The redistributors are right about one thing: Middle class wages should grow. They need to grow on their own, absent the dicey and dangerous strategies of the see-all, know-all set, now dragging down their Pee-kitt-ee tomes in search of validation.
Counter ideas such as Robert Maranto and Michael Crouch vet in the Wall Street Journal -- the Times' philosophical nemesis -- draw from "progressives'" yawns and disdain. The authors point to the rise of single-parent families as "the strongest statistical correlate of inequality." The redistributors can't be bothered with cultural factors when they view everything in terms of dollars and cents. You can raise taxes (maybe), but you can't make or encourage people to keep marriage vows and raise children together.
So raise taxes! Isn't that simple enough? To the redistributors, it is, yes. Simple and sad.