Redistribution flashback: 1996

Barack Obama opened a can of worms with Joe the Plumber and his remarks on government “spreading the wealth”.  Over the weekend, an NPR interview from 2001 surfaced in which Obama noted that the failure to achieve redistributive change through the civil-rights movement was “one of [its] tragedies”.  Today, a reader sends me this recap from a spring 1996 meeting of the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has a 34-year-old Obama talking redistribution at the beginning of his political career (emphases mine):

Barack Obama observed that Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in the 1960s wasn’t simply about civil rights but demanded jobs as well. Now the issue is again coming to the front, but he wished the issue was on the Democratic agenda not just on [Pat] Buchanan’s.

One of the themes that has emerged in Barack Obama’s campaign is “what does it take to create productive communities”, not just consumptive communities. It is an issue that joins some of the best instincts of the conservatives with the better instincts of the left. He felt the state government has three constructive roles to play.

The first is “human capital development”. By this he meant public education, welfare reform, and a “workforce preparation strategy”. Public education requires equality in funding. It’s not that money is the only solution to public education’s problems but it’s a start toward a solution. The current proposals for welfare reform are intended to eliminate welfare but it’s also true that the status quo is not tenable. A true welfare system would provide for medical care, child care and job training. While Barack Obama did not use this term, it sounded very much like the “social wage” approach used by many social democratic labor parties. By “workforce preparation strategy”, Barack Obama simply meant a coordinated, purposeful program of job training instead of the ad hoc, fragmented approach used by the State of Illinois today.

The state government can also play a role in redistribution, the allocation of wages and jobs. As Barack Obama noted, when someone gets paid $10 million to eliminate 4,000 jobs, the voters in his district know this is an issue of power not economics. The government can use as tools labor law reform, public works and contracts.

Obama won the endorsement of the CDSA in 1996, and from this report, it’s not difficult to see why.  As I wrote earlier, Obama offered them the flabby European model of Christian-Democrat socialism lite, and they leapt to support it.  The CDSA amusingly notes that Obama ran unopposed in this race because “[h]is opponents have all dropped out or were ruled off the ballot.”  They never mention that Obama’s own campaign forced them off the ballot, an action of which the socialists undoubtedly approved.

Obama, version 1996 and 2001, had no problem talking about government action to effect redistribution of wealth in communities.  He showed a tendency to see economics as a power display rather than as a legitimate maximization of capital and profit.  Look at Obama’s analysis of a cutback; according to Obama, the only reason companies lay people off is to demonstrate power, not to make more efficient use of funds (or to pay ever-more exorbitant tax costs).  That sounds as though it comes from an outlook more couched in Karl Marx rather than Milton Friedman.  And the Socialists in Chicago ate it up.

What else did the CDSA panel that day suggest?  Another speaker, UC professor Julius Wilson, demanded a new WPA program to employ millions, which echoes Joe Biden’s repeated suggestions this election cycle.  Jobs would be available to all Americans, “even Donald Trump, if he chose to do some useful work for a change”.  Wilson never quite gets around to discussing who would pay for a program that employed all Americans, but it’s clear that he’s very, very comfortable with the socialists.

As was Obama.