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The Coalition for Redistributive Change

October 27, 2008

Shocking Obama video du jour, complete with cheesy music, alarmist commentary and typos baked in the video:

Except it’s not a joke:

If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to invest formal rights in previously dispossessed people, so that now I would have the right to vote. I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order as long as I could pay for it I’d be o.k. But, the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and of more basic issues such as political and economic justice in society. To that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as its been interpreted and Warren Court interpreted in the same way, that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. Says what the states can’t do to you. Says what the Federal government can’t do to you, but doesn’t say what the Federal government or State government must do on your behalf, and that hasn’t shifted and one of the, I think, tragedies of the civil rights movement was, um, because the civil rights movement became so court focused I think there was a tendancy to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalition of powers through which you bring about redistributive change. In some ways we still suffer from that.

Alert the constitutional experts! I was informed (gasp!) that Sarah Palin said that the constitution implies a right to privacy… horrors! Well, what about this?

Obama is advocating that we are a suffering (hopeless?) nation because we haven’t yet broken free from “the essential constraints of the Constitution” as a charter of negative liberties. Even a lowly undergrad degree non-ivy league non-lawyer can kinda get what he’s hinting at: redistributive change enforced by legislation, if not packaged as a constitutional right. That’s clearly the direction.

Reading beyond my pay grade a bit, I see that this involves some discussion about positive rights. (First seen @ Tigerhawk)

UPDATE: Beldar has more commentary– I think a fair read from a conservative perspective. A sample:

Third: That he does not see the federal courts as the preferred means of redistributing wealth does not at all mean that he’s a judicial conservative or anything like that. To the contrary, the SCOTUS Justices who he’s pointed to as models, in the mold of whom he’d choose additional federal judges, are those who are most activist, in the tradition of the Warren Court at its most politically and judicially liberal. The precise danger of appointing more federal judges and, particularly, Supreme Court Justices like Justice Ginsburg is that they’ll take the huge issues on which there is the most fierce political debate among the electorate and in the legislative and executive branches — issues like abortion rights and gay marriage — and stake out positions there which (a) can’t be undone without constitutional amendments or massive changes in the courts, and which (b) will then force the legislatures and state agencies to come in behind them and do the “administrative fill-in” to thoroughly implement those newly decreed “constitutional rights.”

It seems to me that when this kind of “right” is established judicially all sorts of crazy side-effects can take place. For instance, I recently had a mandatory sexual harassment seminar at work. As part of his presentation, the lawyer told us that there is no sexual harassment legislation to follow- only court cases that act as law. The result? A workplace filled with fear of saying the wrong thing.

Obama’s economic policies are clearly geared towards “fairness” and not growth. The devastating effects that will have on our economy, especially right now, cannot be underestimated. We are on the verge of establishing perverse incentives at both ends of the economic spectrum that will encourage rich and poor alike not to work too hard.

MORE UPDATE: Flaming skull and link to the entire audio at Ace of Spades.

LAST ONE I PROMISE: One of my favorite bloggers, Bill Whittle, has a piece up on NRO. He notes with alarm:

The United States of America — five percent of the world’s population — leads the world economically, militarily, scientifically, and culturally — and by a spectacular margin. Any one of these achievements, taken alone, would be cause for enormous pride. To dominate as we do in all four arenas has no historical precedent. That we have achieved so much in so many areas is due — due entirely — to the structure of our society as outlined in the Constitution of the United States.

The entire purpose of the Constitution was to limit government. That limitation of powers is what has unlocked in America the vast human potential available in any population.

Barack Obama sees that limiting of government not as a lynchpin but rather as a fatal flaw.

He also has a great point in observing that it was a private citizen that unearthed this audio, no a journalist. Why? America should have had this information months ago, not a few days before the election.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Timmy C permalink
    October 27, 2008 2:39 pm

    Really desperate reading into that quote.

    Where in that quote did Obama say the Court SHOULD have “broken free from essential constraints” of the Founding fathers. Where did he say the Court SHOULD have been “radical?”
    It’s not there.

    Here is Andrew Sullivan’s reading of this, which seems much more accurate than the strained interpretations you gave:

    “So Obama was arguing that the Constitution protects negative liberties and that the civil rights movement was too court-focused to make any difference in addressing income inequality, as opposed to formal constitutional rights. So it seems to me that this statement is actually a conservative one about the limits of judicial activism.

    Is this really all McCain has left?”

  2. Timmy C permalink
    October 27, 2008 3:13 pm

    Sullivan’s interpretation is buttressed by this part of the call in that interview not listed in the righty blogs:

    “A caller, “Karen,” asked if it’s “too late for that kind of reparative work economically?” And she asked if that work should be done through the courts or through legislation.

    “Maybe i am showing my bias here as a legislator as well as a law professor, but you know, I am not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts,” he said. “You know the institution just isn’t structured that way. Just look at very rare examples where during he desegregation era the court was willing to, for example, order … changes that cost money to local school district[s], and the court was very uncomfortable with it.

    It was hard to manage, it was hard to figure out, you start getting into all sorts of separation of powers issues in terms of the court monitoring or engaging in a process that is essentially is administrative and takes a lot of time.

    The court is not very good at it, and politically it is hard to legitimize opinions from the court in that regard. So i think that although you can craft theoretical justifications for it legally, I think any three of us sitting here could come up with a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts,I think that as a practical matter that our institutions are just poorly equipped to do it.

    So rather than the blogger’s assumption that Barack was saying the court didn’t go far enough, he was clearly criticizing the attempt of trying to use judicial activism to meet goals of fairness and economic change (such as his example of funding schools) to poor people.

  3. Timmy C permalink
    October 27, 2008 5:32 pm

    One more: From the person that interviewed him on the recording:

    A University of Chicago law professor who appeared on the 2001 WBEZ program with Obama, and who also supports him, Dennis Hutchinson, described the interview as “not a bombshell.”

    “He’s saying you don’t achieve stable social change through judicial activism,” Hutchinson said.

  4. October 29, 2008 10:41 pm

    You are entering flame/troll territory. Sullivan has NO intellectual credibility here, and increasingly neither do you.

  5. Timmy C. permalink
    October 30, 2008 8:06 am

    Huh? What did I just do to enter “troll” status? I guess Sullivan is a touchy person to quote?

    But the substance of what I was pointing out is also picked up by the FactCheck folks here:

    In other words, Obama says pretty much the opposite of what the McCain camp says he said. Contrary to the spin put on his remarks by McCain economics adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, he does not express “regret” that the Supreme Court has not been more “radical.” Nor does he describe the Court’s refusal to take up economic redistribution questions as a “tragedy.” He uses the word “tragedy” to refer not to the Supreme Court, but to the civil rights movement:

    One of the tragedies of the civil rights movement was that the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think, there was a tendency to lose track of the political and organizing activities on the ground that are able to bring about the coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change.

    Holtz-Eakin “read a different interview to the one I heard,” said Dennis Hutchinson, a University of Chicago law professor who joined Obama in the panel discussion. “Obama said that redistribution of wealth issues need to be decided by legislatures, not by the courts.

    Not trying to be flame-y or intellectually bankrupt, but isn’t this what Barack said here:

    Don’t use the courts to do what should be the proper place of the legislatures?

  6. Duke of Ray permalink
    October 31, 2008 5:42 pm

    Count, I think you’re being a little harsh on Timmy C, there. I have listened to this part of the interview once and re-read it several times and, frankly, I think Obama is incredibly obtuse in communicating his opinion about the Warren Court at the time of the Civil Rights Movement. He seems to imply that he wishes the Movement had been able to make it more radical… but then says that the Movement became too focused on the courts instead of community activism and legislative change.

    So, frankly, I dont’ know what the hell he’s really advocating… EXCEPT for a goal of “redistributive change.” And that phrase is troubling to many. It reflects part of a trend in Obama’s off-camera philosophy towards “redistribution.” And this is a Marxist, or at least, neo-Marxist phrase, i.e., a European Socialist phrase.

    That’s a fact. It should not be dodged. It should be either embraced or clearly explained by Obama’s camp; but, c’mon, enough with this indignation and eye-rolling over the fact that someone who consistently quacks like a duck actually gets accused of being a duck!

  7. Duke of Ray permalink
    October 31, 2008 5:44 pm

    Correction: I said “off-camera” but I meant more accurately “off-teleprompter.”

  8. Timmy C. permalink
    November 1, 2008 2:21 pm

    Thanks Duke Ray:

    I agree that Obama supports “redistibutive change.” But of course, so does Senator McCain.

    And McCain has been trying to make the case that Obama has some secret socialist side that he has kept well hidden from the American people, and from his strongest supporters and economic advisers like Warren Buffet, Former Reagan Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volker, and former SEC chairmen: Donaldson, Levitt, and Ruder….

    And McCain and team have been trying to show his “Redistributor in Chief” tendancies as examples of that “secret socialist” side.

    But the phrase “redistributive change” isn’t exclusively a European Socialist concept, though they did use it, and often implemented policies around that idea in ways that showed how NOT to do it. How it can worsen poverty and how it can lead to unintended consequences.

    But if you have a Federal government, you have “redistributive change” to one degree or another. Isn’t the main question, from a Christian perspective is does government do so wisely, justly, responsibly?

    I don’t see Obama dodging the question of “redistribution” such as this interview last week:

    “This whole notion, and then it’s been captured by this back and forth about whether I’m a redistributor, I think is a great example. The notion that the progressive income tax, which was instituted by Teddy Roosevelt, supposedly John McCain’s hero, is somehow un-American, I think is an example of how people have gone way off track.”

    This article at Slate makes the same point:

    Until the 20th century, the bulk of government revenues came from tariffs, which are regressive, meaning that they redistribute income away from the poor. The progressive principle was enshrined in American practice with the arrival of the federal income and inheritance taxes. The champion of these policies was none other than John McCain’s hero, Teddy Roosevelt. We got progressive income taxes with the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913. The federal estate tax we have today came in 1916.

    One blogger put it this way:

    1. The income tax has its own amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
    2. The Congress in office at the time enacted a system of progressive marginal income tax rates.
    3. Today’s Republicans believe a progressive marginal income tax system is socialism.
    4. Therefore, today’s Republicans must believe that the legislatures of 36 U.S. states and the U.S. Congress of the teens were…..SOCIALISTS!

    And a defense of a progressive level of taxation comes from McCain himself in 2000:

    “I think you’re questioning, questioning the fundamentals of a progressive tax system where people who make more money pay more in taxes than a flat across the board percentage. I think it’s to some degree because we feel obviously that wealthy people can afford more… I believe that when you really look at the tax code the very wealthy because they can afford tax lawyers and all kinds of loopholes really don’t pay as much as you think they do, when you just kook at the percentages….When you reach a certain level of comfort, there’s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more.”

    Slate continues, now looking at modern day “redistributive” policies, many of which were created, enhanced and supported by Republicans including McCain himself:

    Our most explicit redistributive program today is probably the Earned Income Tax Credit, which supplements the incomes of people who work but don’t earn enough to escape poverty on their own. Gerald Ford signed this bill into law, and Ronald Reagan greatly expanded it.
    John McCain has long favored the EITC, calling it “a much-needed tax credit for working Americans.” McCain doesn’t support the repeal of Social Security, or Medicare, or a raft of other wealth-spreading programs like food stamps. McCain also supports new redistributive measures, such as a tax credit to help people with lower incomes purchase health insurance.

    McCain might respond by saying it is not the principle of redistribution that makes Obama’s policies objectionable but rather the extent of them….Perhaps, but there’s little in Obama’s background or writings to suggest that he favors more-ambitious redistributive policies. His most expensive new social program is an expansion of health care coverage that would not create a universal entitlement (as many Democrats want to do). It has been credibly priced at less, or only slightly more than McCain’s plan.


  1. Obama’s Change: A Second Bill of Rights? « Strange Monkey Doll

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