An IOU response to John Goodman

Last month, John Goodman excoriated a Wonkblog piece I wrote, which had  criticized Greg Mankiw’s defense of the 1%. I argued that Mankiw fails to appreciate what we all owe each other, given our differing roles and resources in a prosperous, interconnected society. I was caring for my dad at the time, and so didn’t have an opportunity to post a proper answer.

You get a flavor of Goodman’s argument from this passage:

Pollack even individualizes his argument by describing help he got from a tow truck driver at road side. Presumably, the tow truck driver got paid. So there was a mutually beneficial exchange ― the kind of exchange that is at the heart of the free enterprise system. But Pollack thinks he owes the tow truck driver something more:

                       My taxes help provide his child with subsidized lunches and preschool. I help provide his family with health insurance. That’s as it should be. I still get a very good deal. He had my back. I should have his.

But wait a minute. What exactly does he owe the tow truck driver? Does he owe more or less than he owes people living on $1 a day? Or people living on $2 a day? Or…?

If the tow truck driver has a moral claim against Pollack, we never learn what it is….

In some ways this is all very surprising. After all, the 20th century was the century of collectivism. It was the century of communism, socialism, national socialism (fascism) and the welfare state. Each and every one of these isms was devoted to taking from some and giving to others. After all these years and all that misery you would think that someone, somewhere would have perfected an argument for forcible redistribution of income. And yet what we find today at the leftwing blogs is truly pitiful.

No doubt Goodman would find this liberal fascist perspective pitiful, too.

In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons…

Look, you can’t speak of poverty without having experience with the poor. You can’t speak of poverty in the abstract: that doesn’t exist. Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures…

I confess that my tow-truck Samaritan story–indeed my entire blog post–failed to replicate A theory of justice or to delineate a framework of just income distribution in the United States or across the globe. My basic point remains clear enough: A market-generated distribution can easily fail, at some obvious human level, to meet our obligations to many people we count on every day. Equating democratically-derived structures of progressive taxation with Soviet-style practices is a little crazy, particularly when what’s being argued right now amounts to whether or not we should enact some mild increases in the top tax rates.

Goodman seems to have lumped together Franklin Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Clement Attlee, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and (apparently) Pope Francis into the same opposing category. His crude blog post thus provides an ironic foundation from which to argue that leftwing blogs lack nuance in arguments regarding income redistribution.

As I mentioned in the (very unfortunate) comment thread to Goodman’s piece, I am well-acquainted with the criminal nature of the regimes he mentioned. I grow up in a town that included conspicuous numbers of Holocaust survivors and refugees from the Soviet Union. Our JCC held an elegantly bound memorial notebook, in which were inscribed many names of relatives lost to Hitler. These were the aunts, uncles, and grandparents of my classmates and friends. I knew a local poet, Israel Emiot, who walked with a limp due to injuries he had suffered in a Soviet work camp.

For 45 years, 300,000 American GIs provided a thin green line protecting Western European democracies from the Soviet Union. Our troops weren’t there to preserve low capital gains tax rates, or to hold back the menace of subsidized day care, universal health care, or school lunch programs. They were there to defend the structures of constitutional democracy, the rule of law, respect for individual rights, freedom of speech and assembly, protections against racial and ethnic discrimination, respect for religious and cultural pluralism.

Societies with such democratic norms and structures can make different economic choices. Some wealthy democracies have large public sectors. Some implement stronger redistributive fiscal policies than others. Societies that lack such democratic structures make different economic choices, too. Some profess to follow market models. Others prefer the rhetoric of state socialism. The specific technocratic details of fiscal policy prove far less important than the lack of democratic accountability, racial, ethnic, and religious antagonism enacted in law, authoritarian government that disrespects individual liberties.

Nordic social democracies are much more free, more admirable, more free and stable societies than were market-oriented right-wing dictatorships such as (say) Pinochet’s Chile. At least I believe so. I hope Mr. Goodman agrees with me.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

25 thoughts on “An IOU response to John Goodman”

  1. I have missed that, and in retrospect that was probably a good thing. But some of the fact-free assertions do baffle me:

    “After all these years and all that misery you would think that someone, somewhere would have perfected an argument for forcible redistribution of income. And yet what we find today at the leftwing blogs is truly pitiful”.

    NB: It’s interesting that he points to classical liberalism, just after I wrote the other day how classical liberalism is the political movement of the establishment (and why I’m a social liberal myself).

    But more important is that he’s simply wrong. We not only have a perfected argument, we have actual working models that show that “forcible redistribution of income” can actually work. I am talking, of course, of Scandinavia in particular and also some other European countries (such as Germany or the Netherlands) who seem to be doing just fine without screwing over the poor. In fact, it turns out that their net social spending is lower than ours (source). The price the European social democracies are paying is that their countries tend to be a lot more nanny-stateish than the US (oh, and they also likely have a deplorable shortage of car elevators, I’d guess).

    But not working? Inefficiency and wastefulness, thy name is America; our GDP is built on wastefulness to a depressing degree. If we brought down our healthcare costs to the level of that of the average affluent European country, our GDP would instantly go down by 8% or so. Our social safety net consists in great part of people inefficiently and incompletely self-insuring (often via the clever mechanism of running up credit card debt when unemployment hits). Our net social spending is higher and we’re getting less out of it than those redistributivist countries (see, e.g., the national embarrassment that calls itself Section 8 housing). And we can continue with a discussion of energy intensity, GDP/barrel of oil, our prison system, etc.

    Now, some people may not want to live in an America-sized version of Sweden or Denmark. That’s perfectly understandable; lutefisk, in particular, is an acquired taste. But that’s not the same as saying that it can’t work.

  2. You didn’t have to respond to this guy. So what if he’s the “Father of Health Savings Accounts”? He might as well have invented the payday loan for all the good it does people.

    He’s just another in the long line of right-wing sociopaths, trying to destroy the society that makes all his cute little models of behavior seem workable. Flush and forget.

    1. Really!? I’d like to slap him, then. Right now I am trying to spend down my HSA on some things like extra pairs of prescription sunglasses so its not lost. Whereas last year I was trying rather desperately to pay cash for unforeseen things after it ran out. And wondering why all necesary health care costs couldn’t be tax-deductible, instead of just those that Lady Fortune gives or takes due to unforeseen events.

      The answer, of course, is because Americans can’t have and dont deserve nice things, like the Swiss do; no, we have to lose and suffer a little bit, or things are not right. Because of dopes like this guy.

  3. “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”
    ― Frédéric Bastiat

    1. Of course, with control of the economy you can set the effective GST to whatever you like. The GST is regressive, but with flattened income hierarchies neither that nor the income tax is the true determinant of income distribution. It is my (distant, layperson) impression that lifestyle hierarchies in the Soviet Union were established not through money but through off-budget privileges: permission to shop in well stocked, heavily subsidized stores; better apartments; cars, and perhaps drivers; a country cottage – none of them sold at market rates and so not depending on income level, but on political level.

      1. Quite. But the wingnuts specifically link high income tax rates with Stalinism, which wasn´t so.

        Has anybody got a reference on cash wage inequalities in the Soviet Union? They were nothing like today´s America, – nobody earned th eequivalent of a million a year – but my impression is that they were quite significant, and that´s before the perks Warren emphasizes. Plant managers, for instance, were paid large bonuses for plan fulfilment; enough to leead to a not-so-small industry in rigging the targets.

        1. We have a very high income tax. In effect.

          I’d gladly trade my situation for a 50% tax rate or more — right now I’m paying for my graduate eduction, my own retirement, my own health care costs,and those of my offspring. Also self-insuring for long-term care, and putting oney away in a HSA. When you take all that out plus my 28% federal, 6% state and 2% payroll tax, I’m sure I’d be much, much better off with more cash in pocket at the end of the month in any European social democracy, where all of those goods are essentially free, and I wouldn’t be spending the middle third of my life financing the first third and the last third, and hoping nothing happens to my parents or my partner or that I am not ever disabled or unemployed, because I would be on the street within months. Oh, and I’d have three or four more weeks of vacation a year.

  4. “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”
    ― Frédéric Bastiat

    At some point, I start to believe that when a cause is never skillfully defended, it’s because it’s not really defensible.

    1. At some point, I start to believe that when a cause is never skillfully defended, it’s because it’s not really defensible.

      Never? Barry, please.

      Pollack’s point is basically correct. Wealthy, industrialized (WEIRD) countries live in “worlds of welfare capitalism.” They make different choices about tax policies, transfer programs, etc. and these have different effects. Ireland, Sweden, Singapore, and South Korea are all countries that can be characterized as democratic capitalism. They all have social safety nets of one sort or another. There are different arrangements for healthcare, etc.

      To summarize, your witty retort suffers from the same problem as Goodman’s “argument:” a strong streak of Manichaen thinking standing squarely in opposition to observable facts.

      This is not the way grown-ups argue.

  5. From the linked article, speaking about the tow truck driver: “I believe it’s presumptuous to believe that Greg Mankiw and I make fundamentally greater contributions merely because we hold more lucrative jobs.”

    I think the problem is valuing people’s contributions. Who gets to do it? I don’t believe you or the tow truck driver contribute as much as the delivery driver to my local grocery store. I’d die pretty quick without that man (or woman). Why should your favorite guy get more than my favorite guy? And is the tow truck driver valuable because he helped you with your expensive car? What if he helped me… someone who had alternate choices, and probably nowhere important to go. Should the tow truck driver be allowed to bargain in such situations? Or can he only charge he amount that matches his contribution to society minus the amount kicked in by society? If he doesn’t, do we penalize him, or just add more compensation from society?

    And when do we decide when we’ve had enough forcible distribution? When it achieves your personal measure of helping the poor to a certain degree? What if I want to help them more than you and those selfish and greedy Scandinavians? if we disagree on how much redistribution, then what? Can we then justifiably engage in violence to decide how much redistribution best?

    Seems much simpler (and more just) to pay people based upon their demand, and let the market decide.

    Also, why didn’t you pay the guy enough, so we’d never have this problem begin with? 😉

    1. Ghu, what a horrific situation. Imagine for a moment that every transaction becomes an occasion to “let the market decide”. The whole damn economy would grind to a halt and stay halted. It’s only by acting as a community that we can reduce transaction costs enough to let civilization function.

      1. What I love about England is that everything is not merely a matter of money. The Ubiquitous Sickness of reductionist economic thinking has replaced human decency in this country.

  6. Putting “moral claim” in italics is a sign of a writer strongly influenced by Ayn Rand until proven otherwise. “Moral claims” occur between autonomous and otherwise unrelated individuals, who are impermeable free agents having, like Aristotelian substances, distinct attributes which define them as unique. All connections between these bounded substances are voluntary and do not change their essences, which endure unchanged as their connections form and are broken.

    This means that there are no co-inherences between members of a human community; there are no threads, however metaphorical (not literal) which connect us one to another whether we seek them or not. Harold may have a sense of life which tells him that he and the tow driver had one another’s backs before he even set out on the highway, while his car was still in working order. The tow driver, the grocery delivery driver, the manager of the produce section of the grocery store, and the worker at the utility plant all have all of our backs as we sit at our computers; even if our cars are kept tuned and running, tow drivers make us all safer as they remover disabled vehicles from our paths as we travel.

    The language of “moral claims” between autonomous individuals has no vocabulary for the co-inherences, which have a reality unrecognized in the frame of reference of John Goodman. His assumptions are, for him, not assumptions at all; they are objective reality, the way things are. That is why he finds the likes of Harold worthy of only his contemptuous pity.

      1. Thanks, Harold.

        The thing to bear in mind was well said by Alfred North Whitehead in a slightly different context. “When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents to all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch.”

        For “epoch,” substitute “school” and the quote applies equally well. The autonomous individual, in the Goodman school, is the primary reality, and the web of relationships, seen and unseen, are incidental, derivative, and secondary. From this unexamined assumption follows the kind of discourse which sees all communitarian measures as collectivism and as ultimately dependent on violence for a forcible transfer of wealth.

        1. Nice, thanks.

          I always like to think of these guys sitting in a public toilet, clapping into a public sewer system, alive now because they did not die of a childhood waterborne disease transmitted via human waste, reading Reason magazine and blathering about their independence.

  7. Yes, safety-net programs “take from some and give to others.” So do private insurance programs: they take from premium-payers and give to those who collect benefits. So do taxes for law and order: they take from taxpayers who may or may not ever be exposed to crime, such as those in gated communities. So do taxes to support our system of civil law: I’ve never sued anyone or been sued in my life, but I’m still paying for all those bailiffs, judges and juries. Political philosophers, politicians and ordinary citizens have been discussing the reasons for “forcible redistribution of income” since 500 B.C. The justifications can be neatly summed up in two phrases: “collective goods” and “social insurance.” If John Goodman has never encountered these two concepts, then his education is sorely lacking. Before he asserts that no one has ever produced a believable argument in favor of “redistribution,” he should try reading the social science and economics literature on these two subjects.

  8. “So what if he’s the “Father of Health Savings Accounts”? He might as well have invented the payday loan for all the good it does people.”


  9. So, I gather “Dr.” Goodman is a libertarian and not a real conservative, right? (Not talking about his party id.)

    Just checking.

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