All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776)

In this week’s Sift:

  • How to Speak Conservative: Class Warfare. When Republicans charged that repealing the Bush tax cuts would be “class warfare”, they seemed to believe they were packing a lot into those two words. They were.
  • Is Health Reform Unconstitutional? One federal judge thinks so. Two others don’t. The issues are simple but fundamental, and only the Supreme Court can decide them.
  • Short Notes. DADT is gone and soon to be forgotten. A Patriot takes up retail to sell his own jersey. How Newt Gingrich raises money. When great athletes shared in public sacrifices. The 2012 primaries are shaping up to be wild. Cheaper food doesn’t necessarily raise quality of life. Another damning Fox News leak. And how to wrap a cat for Christmas.

How to Speak Conservative: Class Warfare

Tuesday, as Congress debated the (now passed) tax compromise, Politico’s chief political correspondent Roger Simon wrote a piece called Class Warfare is not the Ticket in which he claimed:

Congressional Democrats want us to hate the rich for being rich.

Class warfare is one of those phrases in American politics that a dictionary will not help you decipher. Like appeasement, quagmire, political correctness, and a handful of other loaded terms, its meaning comes not from a definition, but from a long history of usage. Such terms evoke not just concepts, but entire stories with settings and plots and characters.

If you don’t happen to be part of the subculture that uses the phrases and tells the stories, you can easily get lost: What are these people talking about? How do they get from A to M to Z without mentioning any of the letters in between?

Simon, for example, quotes no congressional Democrats saying anything hateful about the rich. It’s just not necessary. (It’s also probably not possible. I didn’t hear a lot of tycoon-and-debutante-bashing during the tax debate. The main thing Senator Bernie Sanders was saying during his filibuster was that cutting rich people’s taxes doesn’t help the economy.) It’s not necessary because hatred of the rich is a long-standing part of the story of class warfare. Once an issue has been identified as class warfare, it goes without saying that one side hates the rich.

The same process is at work in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, where Peter Wehner writes:

One cannot help but conclude that even if lower tax rates for the wealthy led to strong economic growth, more jobs, and a higher standard of living for everyone, it wouldn’t matter. Punishing “the rich” would remain a top priority.

What started Wehner down the road from which “one cannot help but” reach this remarkable conclusion? He quotes Senator Mary Landrieu saying that her opposition to the tax deal “is about justice and doing what’s right.” Apparently Wehner can imagine no other meaning for these words than that Landrieu wants to punish the rich — even if it hurts everybody else too.

History and mythology. So what is the class-warfare story and what does it have to do with the Bush tax cuts? Class warfare is one translation of the German klassenkämpfen used by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto of 1848:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. … [O]ppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

Lenin and Stalin turned Marxism into Soviet Communism, which often did result in “the common ruin of the contending classes.” (The killing fields of Cambodia is one outstanding example.) As a result, in American politics the term class warfare is now used only on the Right, as a way of identifying the Left with ruinously destructive policies.

As it is used on the Right, class warfare refers to poor and middle-class people who are so overwhelmed by their envy of the rich that tearing the rich down is an end in itself. Identifying a policy as class warfare implies that envy of the rich is its real motivation, and so invokes a morality tale in which a desire to harm others rebounds against the person who harbors the desire. Rand Paul, for example, said:

You can’t punish rich people. You end up punishing the people who work for them, or you punish the people who they buy things from. It makes no sense

Hating the rich doesn’t hurt them, the class-warfare story claims, it just hurts the haters and their communities. But the haters are so far gone that they don’t care; they’ll destroy themselves and everyone around them in their effort to destroy the rich.

(Liberals sometimes try to turn the phrase back on conservatives, arguing that conservative policies that hurt the poor are class warfare. We can see now why this response never hits home: Obviously the rich aren’t spiteful about the poor. They’d happily forget about the poor.)

If you want to understand the emotional essence of the class-warfare myth, you need to read some of the classic right-wing novels, like Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. In Rand’s world, we’re not even really talking about the rich any more, we’re talking about the Best People — the talented, motivated visionaries. Just by being better than everybody else, they become targets of spite and envy.

The Fountainhead‘s hero, for example, is Howard Roark, a visionary architect who lives simply and (due to his own uncompromising idealism combined with persecution by people like the wannabee-great-architect Peter Keating) never gets rich. Atlas Shrugged‘s hero John Galt is an inventor who could have gotten rich, but decides instead to lead a strike of the world’s productive geniuses, leaving the envious wannabees to flounder in a failing world economy. (The productive geniuses follow Galt because they don’t really care about money either. They just want the freedom to produce ingeniously.)

So the full class-warfare myth goes like this: Some people are better than the rest of us. They are smarter, more insightful, more driven, and more talented in a thousand different ways. Because American society is free, these people rise to the top and achieve the success they so richly deserve. But in doing so they draw the attention of spiteful people who lack the virtues that make the best people successful. These envious wannabees will try to tear the best people down to their level — even if they have to tear down the rest of society to do it. And they will have to tear down the rest of society, because the success of everybody depends on that small number of productive visionaries.

The unpopularity of class warfare. Naturally, when you lay it out that way, more people identify with the productive geniuses than with the no-talent haters. This is Roger Simon’s point:

Some Democrats hate the rich. Most Americans, on the other hand, would like to become the rich. … Which is why class warfare doesn’t work in America and why congressional Democrats are being stupid. In America, the class structure is fluid. You don’t have to stay in the economic class into which you were born. People don’t really hate the rich, and we don’t really want to confiscate their wealth.

I imagine he’s completely correct. If we had a referendum asking “Should the government confiscate the wealth of anyone with more than X dollars?” I’m sure it would fail, no matter how big X was.

Envy is not a big motive for most Americans, and to the extent it is, we feel guilty about it. We certainly don’t want to march in the streets for envy and build a political movement around spite. If we feel like we’re getting a fair shake, and that people in general are getting fair shake, then the fact that somewhere there are 400-foot yachts where people drink 200-year-old wine served by supermodels in bikinis — we don’t care. If they’re not hurting anybody to do it, we even like the idea that somebody is keeping that fantasy alive.


Needed revenue. That’s where the whole class-warfare myth breaks down. What if we don’t feel like we’re getting a fair shake or that people in general are getting a fair shake? What if people are dying of curable diseases because there is no money to pay for their treatment? What if people who want jobs can’t find them? What if teachers are getting laid off, equipment is breaking, and class sizes are growing because there’s no money in the school budget? What if houses are burning down while firemen watch, because of money? What if college is out of reach, even for families that have worked and saved? What if libraries are closing? What if we can’t afford to train special-needs students to be productive citizens in decades to come? What if our bridges are in danger of collapsing and our stadium roofs are falling in? What if we don’t know where our energy is going to come from, and the energy we’re using is pushing us closer to disaster?

An essential piece of the class-warfare interpretation of tax increases is that we don’t actually need the revenue. Government is just a big black hole into which we pitch our taxes.

So take that, rich people. I’m going to flush your money down the tax hole. Nyah, nyah, nyah.

But if important things are going undone for lack of revenue, or if we can only do them by writing IOUs that future generations will have to make good, then raising taxes on those who can afford to pay is just good sense. What’s childish is describing it as “punishment”.

Productivity. Another essential piece of the myth is that the rich are uniquely productive. But in fact it’s very difficult to find a John Galt type, who invents something miraculous that otherwise wouldn’t exist for decades. It’s obviously ridiculous to talk about the Walton heirs that way. We could argue about the impact Sam Walton had on the economy (for good and ill alike), but his children add nothing to American productivity.

Some of the rich — the financiers who brought down our economic system and then profited from the government bailout, for example — are just parasites. Getting them out of the picture would make America more productive, not less.

Bill Gates is often seen as the exemplar of the productive rich, but does anybody really think there wouldn’t be personal computers or office-productivity software without him? He out-maneuvered other would-be moguls and captured $66 billion of the wealth created by the computer industry, but did he produce $66 billion of value personally? Don’t be silly.

Similarly, H. L. Hunt didn’t put that oil under Texas; he just found a lot of it. Somebody would have, sooner or later.

So Rand’s image of the rich as Atlas — lonely figures holding up the sky for the rest of us — is just nutty. The vast majority of human wealth comes from some combination of the fecundity of nature, the natural resources of the Earth, the knowledge base handed down from past generations, and the way society is organized — not the heroic individual struggles of the rich.

Capitalism and taxes. The capitalist system works by encouraging people to compete and then rewarding the winners. That’s fine, and history shows that it works better than a Soviet-style command economy. But history also shows that you can levy substantial taxes on those rewards without mucking things up. In the better-dead-than-red 1950s (under that radical Marxist Dwight David Eisenhower) the top tax rate was over 90% (compared to 35% now and 39.6% under Bill Clinton). American capitalism flourished, and the rich, I am told, survived their punishment.

What people like Roger Simon don’t get is that the American acceptance of inequality is really an acceptance of the system that produces it. If that system is working well overall, if it gives ordinary people an acceptable chance to achieve an acceptable life, then OK. If it also grants undeserved good fortune to a handful at the top, so what?

But as wealth continues to concentrate and the benefits of progress go to fewer and fewer people, that acceptance is breaking down. More and more Americans are seeing that for lack of money and lack of opportunity, they can’t take care of their loved ones or give their children a fighting chance at success.

And once you come to that conclusion, those 400-foot yachts look very different.

An obvious question is: What do you do when someone you know starts throwing around loaded terms like class warfare? In general, I think this stuff works well as mythology and less well the closer you get to reality. So I recommend making your friends and relatives and co-workers say out loud the outrageous stuff that the class-warfare myth just implies. Rather than counter-attack, draw them out. Make them apply the stereotypes to you and to specific people you both know. If they’re not too far gone, they’ll be embarrassed.

Even if you don’t usually chase the links in Sift articles (many of them are like the endnotes in a book — they’re just here to prove that I’m not making this stuff up), check out this one: The New Yorker’s John Cassidy asks: What good is Wall Street?

Is Health Reform Unconstitutional?

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on last week’s Sift, federal district court Judge Henry Hudson ruled that the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional.

As I’ve described in the past, the ACA isn’t just a menu of unrelated provisions. It all fits together, and you can’t get rid of the unpopular parts without making the popular parts unworkable. In particular, if insurance companies can’t discriminate against pre-existing conditions (the most popular provision in the ACA), then the clever thing to do is to wait until you get sick before you buy insurance. If enough people do that, they undermine the assumptions insurance is based on. The individual mandate (charging uninsured people extra on their income tax) is a way to prevent that.

Just about every state with a Republican attorney general is claiming that the mandate is unconstitutional, hoping that a conservative activist judge will scrap the whole health reform plan. Two of these suits have already been rejected at the district court level, but Virginia’s found Hudson to be a friendly judge. (Maybe that’s because he has a substantial conflict of interest.)

The constitutional basis for the ACA rests on three clauses in Article I, Section 8: the commerce clause (which authorizes Congress to regulate interstate commerce), the elastic clause (which authorizes Congress to do whatever is “necessary and proper” to carry out its other duties), and possibly the taxing clause (“Congress shall have the power to lay and collect Taxes”).

In the past, courts have interpreted these clauses expansively. Even people growing wheat or marijuana for their own use have been found to be participating in interstate commerce, simply because there are interstate markets in wheat and marijuana, and those markets are affected by people who grow for their own use.

One key issue is whether the mandate is a tax on uninsured people or a penalty levied against people for not buying insurance. (That sounds like hair-splitting, but the taxing clause is very open-ended, so if the mandate is a tax, it’s clearly constitutional.) Both sides have been hypocritical about this. During the debate in Congress, Republicans charged that the mandate was a new tax, and Democrats denied it. Now that judges and not voters are the audience, the parties have traded positions.

Hudson ruled that the mandate is a penalty, and that the commerce clause only allows Congress to regulate activity, not inactivity. Failure to buy health insurance is inactivity, so it is beyond Congress’ power to regulate or penalize.

Two other district judges have ruled on similar lawsuits, and both have found the ACA constitutional. Judge George Steeh commented on the “inactivity” argument:

The plaintiffs have not opted out of the health care services market because, as living, breathing beings, who do not oppose medical services on religious grounds, they cannot opt out of this market. As inseparable and integral members of the health care services market, plaintiffs have made a choice regarding the method of payment for the services they expect to receive.

The cases are headed for several different appellate courts, and ultimately to the Supremes, who will rule in about two years.

The private insurance mandate was originally a conservative idea, launched as an alternative to single-payer health-care proposals. It is currently part of the Massachusetts health-care system signed into law by Mitt Romney.

Kevin Drum notes that a mandate is also part of many conservative proposals to privatize Social Security. In that setting, its constitutionality does not seem to bother anyone.

Short Notes

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is history. Prediction: In ten years, no one will remember defending it. Does anyone remember defending racial segregation? Did anyone’s ancestors own slaves?

That ordinary-looking guy at Modell’s trying to sell you the Danny Woodhead Patriots jersey — he might be Danny Woodhead.

TPMMuckracker looks at Newt Gingrich’s issue-advocacy group “American Solutions for Winning the Future”, and it’s not pretty. ASfWtF pulled in $14.5 million in contributions last year. $9.2 million came through the telephone-fund-raising group InfoCision, which kept $7.9 million for expenses and profit. Another $1.5 million went to a jet-chartering company to fly Newt around in style. So at most 1/3 of the money contributed — and probably a lot less — went towards advocating actual issues.

Where did most of the $5.3 million in non-telemarketing contributions come from? Polluters. Oil, coal, and electric companies, mostly. If there’s a Gingrich administration, I’m sure their investment in “winning the future” will be amply rewarded.

The death of baseball great Bob Feller gets TPM’s David Kurtz reflecting on how war was different in that generation:

Like many athletes of his era, Feller lost several years of his prime to World War II, when he was a chief petty officer aboard the USS Alabama. Our reporter Eric Lach, a big baseball fan, just remarked to me: “Sometimes I imagine how’d we’d feel about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan if LeBron and Derek Jeter were riding Humvees.”

One more sign that the Republican 2012 primaries will be a circus: John Bolton is thinking about running.

Republican primary attack ads will have lots of material, because many of the candidates used to concern themselves with reality before pledging themselves to conservative ideology instead. So, for example, Mike Huckabee used to believe in controlling carbon emissions, even though he denies it now. (Governor, we’ve got the tape.)

Grist’s Tom Philpott examines the food-industry’s point that unregulated agribusiness leads to cheaper food which raises Americans’ quality of life. Well, we do spend a smaller percentage of our income on food, but we also have more a lot more obesity, diabetes, and death from heart attack and stroke than France, Spain, or Germany. So the truth is more nuanced: We have cheap but unhealthy food, with corresponding positive and negative effects on our quality of life.

Obama to a group of 20 CEOs: “When you do well, America does well.” Has he looked around lately? CEOs are doing great, ordinary Americans not so hot.

Somebody leaked another Fox News memo instructing its “journalists” to slant the news.

In case you were planning to give somebody a cat for Christmas, here’s how you wrap one.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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  • DavidW in SF  On December 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    For today's example of the “class warfare” trope, look no further than Kathleen Parker's column today (whose title seems to vary by newspaper. Our paper titled it “Wordplay can further stoke the class warfare”. Her WaPo perch titles it more innocuously.)

    After excoriating the Republicans for their refusal to allow certain words in the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report in the first half of her column, she proceeds with the Village-required portion, “Democrats are equally guilty”, wherein Democrats are stoking class warfare. (“demonizes the doers who create jobs for others”, “blaming the rich for Washington's problems”, etc.)

  • Mike  On December 21, 2010 at 1:19 am

    Al Franken offered a response to cries of “class warfare” from the right in “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”:

    “Any time that a liberal points out that the wealthy are disproportionately benefiting from Bush's tax policies, Republicans shout, 'class warfare!'

    “In her book 'A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century,' Barbara Tuchman writes about a peasant revolt in 1358 that began in the village of St. Leu and spread throughout the Oise Valley. At one estate, the serfs sacked the manor house, killed the knight, and roasted him on a spit in front of his wife and kids. Then, after ten or twelve peasants violated the lady, with the children still watching, they forced her to eat the roasted flesh of her dead husband and then killed her.

    “That is class warfare.

    “Arguing over the optimum marginal tax rate for the top one percent is not.”

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