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Published: Sunday, October 14, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Guest commentary / Economic sweet spot

What's wrong with redistributing wealth?

I'm no economist, but I think I can say this much without getting in too far over my head: by definition, any change in the tax code results in wealth redistribution. For example, the greatest wealth redistribution in decades followed the tax cuts of George W. Bush. It's just that the money got distributed up. When people call plans "wealth redistribution," what they mean is they don't like where the money is headed.
After taking hits for his "47 percent" speech, Mitt Romney changed the subject by resurrecting fear of wealth redistribution. In those remarks, made at a private dinner behind expensive closed doors, Mr Romney characterized half our citizens as lazy moochers.
Being fair-minded, I'll assume that when he told his pals he didn't worry about that half of the country, he meant he wouldn't bother trying to get their votes. On the other hand, he also characterized them as people who'll never take responsibility for their lives, which seems a little harsh. Now, since Mitt Romney has changed his position on virtually everything he ever said (in the first debate, he dropped the Tea Party like a hot tea bag), I'll concede that maybe he doesn't believe that. The point, though, is that he assumes his donors do; people who evidently built their wealth without having to drive on roads or being taught to read. (The price for a plate at that dinner was more than most teachers make in a year. Yum.) I wonder if they know Romney's parents were once on food stamps?
What those people call wealth redistribution I'd call pitching in. What they see as laziness and dependency I see as mostly hardworking people making too little to owe federal tax, but still paying payroll taxes. Or people receiving benefits after a lifetime of personal responsibility. Are there some who game the system? Yes, there are. But in demeaning nearly half the country (or pretending to, for money) as lazy and irresponsible, the Republican candidate has given us insight, if not into himself, into those whose votes and money he seeks. Now, yet again, he's reversing himself. My mistake, he says. I wonder if he'll give back the money he got for those words?
If I've made you mad, hold on a minute, because here's something on which I bet we agree: tax rates of 100 percent are too high and rates of 0 percent are too low. Funny thing is, the parties aren't all that far apart on where the sweet spot is. While our leaders argue about it, we can look at recent history for guidance. There were the rates under Bill Clinton -- for which no Republican voted, saying it'd crash the economy -- when 20 million jobs were created, we all paid a little more while lowering the debt, and still the wealthy flourished. Then there are the rates of George W Bush, under which it was the deficits that flourished, and the economy actually did crash. Seems like a useable lesson.
Wealth distribution favored by Republican leaders further enriches the already wealthy (and the defense industry), while leaving too little for the most basic needs of a competitive capitalist society: education, student loans, school lunches for hungry kids, research, environmental protection, health care. And, yes, food stamps. Teachers. Cops. Roads. Bridges. Here in Snohomish County, teachers and police have already been cut back, school programs for at-risk kids eliminated. The Forest Service just ran out of money to fight forest fires. What happens if we let it get even worse?
To me, the distribution favored by Democrats isn't Robin-Hooding the rich. It's moving that sweet spot a bit north, to meet the needs of a functioning country. And, according to most analyses, it lowers the deficit more than Republican plans. That's a good thing, right?
We'll never have perfectly efficient government, nor completely fair taxation, but if we're unwilling to ensure that the next generation has access to decent education, a little help along the way if they need it, roads to get there, clean air to breathe, a cool place to rest, I don't see how we make it as a nation. Call it wealth redistribution if you want. To me, it's common sense.

Sid Schwab is a longtime, "mostly retired" general surgeon in Everett.

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