Monday, July 27, 2009

Redistributing Wealth

I'm currently reading Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas A. Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name, which is absolutely fascinating and making me think a lot about everything from O Brother, Where Art Thou? to The Andy Griffith Show, from Cormac McCarthy's Child of God to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

One thought that's occurred to me early on, though, is the simple fact that the end of slavery in the South essentially constituted a gigantic transfer of wealth—from Southern slaveholders to the slaves themselves. The wealth transferred, of course, was the value of the slaves, a tangible monetary loss for all of the slaveholders. For the slaves themselves this new wealth was both immeasurably valuable and relatively valueless, as the post-Reconstruction South steadily stripped away blacks' abilities to achieve political power and economic independence.

As the escaped slave Jim tells his young companion Huck Finn, recounting his financial woes, "I's rich now, come to look at it. I owns mysef, en I's wuth eight hund'd dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn' want no mo'."

The emancipation of the slaves was the starkest redistribution of wealth in American history. Arguably, our nation is still feeling the aftershocks of that cataclysmic act of justice. Meanwhile, in the current debate over health care, what's ultimately at stake is another, much less dramatic redistribution. As Hendrik Hertzberg notes in this piece, the Blue Dog Democrats (not to mention Republicans), are resistant to part of Barack Obama's plan and "vociferously oppose a modest surtax on the top one per cent, whose effective tax rates have dropped by fifteen per cent since 1979, while their after-tax incomes have more than tripled."

To what extent should government intervene to ameliorate inequality and offset the damages wrought by vicious greed? It seems to me that that's the fundamental question of politics in America. The federal government fought a war and amended the Constitution to outlaw the owning of one human being by another. Then, over period of decades, Southern states gradually clawed their way back toward a slave system (as Blackmon argues persuasively). The federal government, under LBJ, again came down hard on the side of equality, and in response the South turned its back on the Democratic Party and conservatives embraced a doctrine of states' rights and laissez faire capitalism, essentially declaring that the government should do little or nothing to protect its citizens from being exploited. Profiteering and prejudice, in the minds of some, became synonymous with patriotism.

Those who have wealth will always complain about its redistribution. Slaveowners were outraged to have their chattel taken from them. FDR was a "traitor to his class" for engineering the New Deal (of whose benefits blacks were intentionally deprived, according to Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey's Categorically Unequal). White southerners violently resented the federal troops who made them integrate their schools. And now Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck decry Obama's health care plan as socialism.

But there's a big difference, of course, between the revolutionary seizure and redistribution of wealth that occurred in Cuba or the Soviet Union and the plan that Obama is currently working on within the normal legislative channels of American government (also nicely discussed by Hertzberg). There's an inherently conservative nature to America's political structure, one that probably protects us from wild instability but also serves to entrench the interests of the powerful and the wealthy, even when that concentration of wealth and power threatens the overall health of our nation (literally and figuratively).

Another question that has occurred to me while reading the first seventy pages of Blackmon's book: What would have happened if the South had welcomed former slaves into its society instead of brutally repressing and exploiting them?

To the extent that that repression and exploitation served only to enrich a small percentage of white Southerners at the expense of poor whites (who may have clung to their sense of racial superiority but were no doubt harmed economically by being pitted against oppressed blacks in the labor market), it seems to me that a racially equal society would have spread the wealth out more equitably to both blacks and whites and helped the South to share more fully in the wealth of America at large.

Likewise, in America today, I believe, our nation is stronger if more people have access to affordable health care and fewer people are driven to economic ruin by crushing medical debt. It's not socialism. It's a reasonable plan for moderating a market economy in order to deliver the best quality of life for the most citizens possible. And it's on a spectrum with the abolition of slavery, the New Deal, and the Civil Right Act—a spectrum of controversial but necessary steps by the government to make the nation a better place for its citizens.

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