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Roger’s Rules

Everyone knows about Obama’s two bestselling memoirs, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. The tumult that has engulfed the President’s young administration–a 30 percent drop in the stock market since election day, for example, not to mention the cavalcade of embarrassments regarding senior appointments–has deflected public attention from the President’s new bestseller. Daniel Henninger, writing in The Wall Street Journal today, gives us a precis of its spine-tingling plot. It’s called A New Era of Responsibility: Renewing America’s Promise. The President’s Budget and Fiscal Preview (Government Printing Office, 141 pages, $26, free to download). The Presidents first two books were a species of Romance or Fantasy. In A New Era of Responsibility Obama has branched out and given readers something closer to a revenge tragedy.

As Mr. Henninger points out, this is no ordinary budget: it is a morality play in which “fairness” (note the scare quotes)is pitted against “wealth.” Like any federal budget, A New Era of Responsibility is full of charts and graphs. But “Figure 9,” a chart that appears on page 11 of the budget, is something special. It is, says Mr. Henninger, “the Rosetta Stone” of the entire potboiler.

Figure 9

“Top One Percent Have Been Increasing Their Share, the Greedy Bastards” (some copies omit the final clause). Mr. Henninger calls our attention to the source of Figure 9: “Piketty and Saez,” i.e., the French economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, who are “rock stars of the intellectual left.” This little chart, Mr. Henninger observes, is “the most politically potent squiggle along an axis since Arthur Laffer drew his famous curve on a napkin in the mid-1970s. Laffer’s was an economic argument for lowering tax rates for everyone. Piketty-Saez is a moral argument for raising taxes on the rich.”

The “findings,” or rather the tendentious inventions, Piketty-Saez have been exposed by the Cato Institute’s Alan Reynolds. But facts do not matter in a morality play. Emotions do. And a villain called “Mr. Greedy Richman” is far too satisfying to sacrifice for the sake of such a fungible thing as accuracy or truth. No, what we have here is less a budget than a rationale for the redistribution of wealth. Mr. Henninger calls our attention to some of the commentary accompanying the Piketty-Saez tableau (page 5 in your text, class):

“While middle-class families have been playing by the rules, living up to their responsibilities as neighbors and citizens, those at the commanding heights of our economy have not.”

“Prudent investments in education, clean energy, health care and infrastructure were sacrificed for huge tax cuts for the wealthy and well-connected.”

“There’s nothing wrong with making money, but there is something wrong when we allow the playing field to be tilted so far in the favor of so few. . . . It’s a legacy of irresponsibility, and it is our duty to change it.”

There you have it. Wealth is “a legacy of irresponsibility, and it is our duty to change it.”

So far, the Obama administration has been doing a pretty good job of that. How many trillions of dollars has the U.S. economy lost since election day?

Of course, anyone who was paying attention to the Obama dramaturgical troupe when its performance was still off-off-Broadway in previews knows that “A New Era of Responsibility” is running entirely according to script. Obama told us he was going to declare war on the affluent. Why are we surprised? Why are many Democrats and even such prominent supporters as Warren Buffett suddenly saying (in effect), “Hey, wait a minute, what do you guys think you’re doing?” As Mr. Henninger notes, as we approach the dénouement of this morality play, it is suddenly dawning on people that “something deeper is underway here than merely using higher taxes to fund his policy goals in health, education and energy.”

The “top 1%” isn’t just going to pay for these policies. Many of them would assent to that. The rancorous language used to describe these taxpayers makes it clear that as a matter of public policy they will be made to “pay for” the fact of their wealth — no matter how many of them worked honestly and honorably to produce it. No Democratic president in 60 years has been this explicit. . . .

The economy as most people understand it was a second-order concern of the stimulus strategy. The primary goal is a massive re-flowing of “wealth” from the top toward the bottom, to stop the moral failure they see in the budget’s “Top One Percent of Earners” chart.

Shortly before the election, I wrote in this space about Obama, selfishness, and liberal guilt. “What prodigies of expiation,” I asked back in those halcyon days, “might be accomplished were this young, charismatic, half-black apostle of egalitarian change elected President of the United States?” All you had to do was listen to his speeches to see what was coming. As I said just days before the election (just about the time Obama said he was only a few days away from “fundamentally transforming the United States of America”),

His comment to Joe the Plumber gave us some indication: he would set about trying to “spread the wealth around.” But redistributionist initiatives do not take place in a vacuum. They unfold in a context of moral expectation. And this brings me to what may be the most alarming thing Obama let slip in the course of his campaign. I mean his suggestion, uttered in the final few days of the race, that those who do not favor higher taxes are guilty of “selfishness.” (In criticizing his tax and welfare plan, Obama said, McCain and Palin “wanted to make a virtue out of selfishness.”) . . . .

Because he regards the American people as essentially selfish (a sentiment memorably reinforced by Michelle Obama when she described the America was “just downright mean“), Obama cannot help regarding success as a form of failure. That side of Obama’s program does not play well outside his inner circle, so he has been careful to overlay it with seductive talk about “tax cuts for 95 percent of taxpayers”–an absurdity on the face of it since 43 percent of those who file do not pay any income tax at all. (Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that those reporting the top 1 percent of adjusted gross income pay nearly 40 percent of all income taxes collected, while the top 5 percent pay more than 60 percent. To use another word Obama likes, is that “fair”? How much more does he want?)

Selfishness can be a vice. It can also be another name for that “well-ordered self-love” that Thomas Aquinas extolled as “right and natural.” (I have more to say about selfishness and altruism here.) But the important issue facing the American people at the moment is whether they wish to elect a commander-in-chief or a nanny-in-chief. Obama’s seductive rhetoric and and emollient promises have not been able to conceal his ambitions to become America’s protector and nanny-in-chief. He wants you to be happy–but on his terms. He wants to tell you what to drive, what temperature to keep your house, how much to eat. He wants to conscript your children in “voluntary” national service programs that are all-but-mandatory. He wants to determine how prosperous you will be allowed to be–and then to tax you back to a pre-determined level if you make too much.

So here we are then. Our prince has come. The dragon, Wealth, has been put to the sword, and everyone is gathered downstage to await the finale. It turns out, though, that many who bought tickets thought this entertainment was a species of Romance or Comedy that had a happy ending. Others of us knew that wasn’t what was advertized and said so. I suspect this particular drama is going to have a very limited run. As Daniel Henninger put it,

The White House says its goal is simple “fairness.” That may be, as they understand fairness. But Figure 9 makes it clear that for the top earners, there will be blood. This presidency is going to be an act of retribution. In the words of the third book from Mr. Obama, “it is our duty to change it.”

Here’s a prediction: more and more people are going to be waking up to that duty soon, and with a vengeance.

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