Unequal unfairness

Maryland has passed a law aimed specifically at corporations with more than 10,000 employees that fail to provide health benefits to fiscally significant portions of their workforce (and thus burden the state's real welfare system). Not surprisingly, of the four corporations that fall under the new law, only Wal-Mart falls short. According to the *Washington Post*:

Wal-Mart says that more than three-quarters of its sales associates have health insurance but acknowledged that some of its low-wage workers are on Medicaid, the state insurance program for the poor. Wal-Mart's not providing even the 21st Century version of benefits (that is to say, extremely reduced) to some of its workforce, constitutes, according to the Maryland legislature, a kind of corporate welfare; they are receiving a benefit but doing nothing to earn it. The state has to pick up the cost of Wal-Mart doing business (or figure out some other way of paying for the healthcare of those of Wal-Mart's workers and their children). Under the new law, passed over a veto, they have asked that Wal-Mart pick up the slack.

Maybe it's wrong to treat some corporate monoliths less equally than others, as George Will today writes, but the frothy eagerness with which he presses his case makes that argument hard to assess. He responds to the Maryland legislature by claiming that Wal-Mart's benefits are substantial and generous: a fact he had already denied–it's not a welfare state (i.e., a corporation that pays out benefits)–and not even Wal-Mart is willing to assert. Rather than dwell on the generosity of the benefits, or the principled view that low wage workers do not deserve benefits, Will opts for the ridiculous libertarian classic: the slippery slope:

Maryland's new law is, The Post says, "a legislative mugging masquerading as an act of benevolent social engineering." And the mugging of profitable businesses may be just beginning. The threshold of 10,000 employees can be lowered by knocking off a zero. Then two. The 8 percent requirement can be raised. It might be raised in Maryland if, as is possible, Wal-Mart's current policies almost reach it.

The dumb thing about this argument is that it's just one tweak away from being cogent. Rather than alleging that any law aimed at a corporate monolith could one day be aimed at the small businessman, Will could argue that as a matter of fairness, other employers ought to be required to bear healthcare costs.

Even dumber, however, is the claim that such a taxing of a corporate giant is somehow on par with actual illegal corruption:

 Meanwhile, people who are disgusted — and properly so — about corruption inside the Beltway should ask themselves this: Is it really worse than the kind of rent-seeking, and theft tarted up as compassion, just witnessed 20 miles east of the Beltway, in Annapolis?

No. It is not worse. The behavior of an elected body even in the perhaps imprudent exercise of its power to tax is quite unlike the demonstrably corrupt and illegal behavior of leading Republican politicians and lobbyists. Quite unlike it indeed.


The fallacy of *Ignoratio elenchi* is so named because the arguer shows a manifest ignorance of the direction of the argument. Usually his evidence suggests a mild conclusion, but he opts instead for something more radical. Here’s a good example:

>The way to reduce rent-seeking is to reduce the government’s role in the allocation of wealth and opportunity. People serious about reducing the role of money in politics should be serious about reducing the role of politics in distributing money. But those most eager to do the former — liberals, generally — are the least eager to do the latter.

It’s obvious by the mention of “liberals” that this is our dear friend George Will. In light of this observation, he offers two suggestions: congressional term limits or “the philosophical renewal of conservativism.” Congressional term limits will, he argues (and he’s probably right) never take place; the philosophical renewal of conservatism, by which he means something like the Grover Norquist drown the federal government in a bathtub variety, appears to be the only other option.

This obviously false dichotomy ignores the less extreme (and therefore more probable) solution: elect and hold accountable representatives who do not prostitute themselves or otherwise cluelessly (even if good-heartedly) waste taxpayer money. Maybe our readers might suggest some names. But I’m certain that such public servants exist in great numbers.

Even though Will correctly asserts that lobbying is a constitutionally protected activity, no one is thereby forced to listen to a lobbyist.

Stupid Tax

The stupid tax is what you pay when you fail to put money in a parking meter. I think it ought to be extended to people who publish dumb arguments, such as the one we find today in *The Washington Post* from our favorite author, George Will. At issue is the explicit moralizing of the tax code–taxing or otherwise excluding from tax benefits industries that promote certain vices–gambling, hot-tubbing, among other things. The absurd reality of the selective tax-code moralizing probably even turns out to be dumber (and more inconsistent) than Will suggests.

But that’s not really the point. Will argues that the problem with such silly moralizing consists in government’s engaging in, of all things, speech:

>But do we really want to march down this road paved with moral pronouncements? When government uses subsidies to moralize, as with tax preferences for bonds that can be used to finance this but not that, government is speaking. It is expressing opinions about what is and is not wholesome. And once government starts venting such opinions, how does it stop?

If you’re wondering what “government” means, you’re not alone. As far as we know, the government responsible for the tax code is that government so frequently re-elected by the people. Theoretically, people of every party elect them to represent them–often they are even called “representatives.” Part of this representation involves the crafting of laws to reflect, or to represent the will of the interests that elect them. Some of these interests are “moral” ones. And so they engage in all sorts of moralizing with laws (don’t do this or that, or you’ll be fined or otherwise punished). The tax code is a subset of this explicit moralizing. Taxes are one (often unfortunate) means of doing this.

As for the slippery slope problem Will alleges to abide in such behavior: such moralizing stops when the moralizers violate constitutional protections or, as is more likely to be the case, don’t get re-elected (or perhaps get indicted).

Deposuit potentes

Part of the trouble with op-eding is the failure to distinguish “analysis” from “advocacy.” This is even worse when the analyzer has a strongly ideological bent, such as, for instance, another of liberal NPR’s underrpresented conservative think-tankers, Joseph Loconte. In today’s *New York Times* Loconte argues that the Democrats are mistaken to adopt the Republican strategy of reaching out to Christians.

What stands for argument here, however, are some cherry-picked newsy tidbits that try to establish an equivalence between the Republicans’ taliban-style theocrats (Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, among others) and the Democrats’ “progressive” or “liberal” Christians, such as James Wallis. Here is the crux of the argument for equivalence:

>”We affirm God’s vision of a good society offered to us by the prophet Isaiah,” he writes. Yet Isaiah, an agent of divine judgment living in a theocratic state, conveniently affirms every spending scheme of the Democratic Party. This is no different than the fundamentalist impulse to cite the book of Leviticus to justify laws against homosexuality.

No different! Loconte offers no argument for this other than the flimsy claim that because Isaiah lived in a theocratic state, this must mean that Wallis wants to as well. Much more indeed would be needed in any case to establish the logical equivalence of Wallis’s view with that of the Republican party. For the sake of brevity, I’ll mention two obvious ones. The reader can certainly add many more.

First, Wallis would have to make the foundational claim that Christianity grounds the American state in an exclusive way (e.g., this is a Christian country and a Christian party). One might remember a leading Republican once called Jesus his favorite *political philosopher*.

Second, Wallis should not be willing or able to support non-Christian arguments for his position. The position he affirms, or so one can even gather from Loconte’s thinly sourced piece, is that Wallis thinks people of Christian faith should not consider themselves *ipso facto* Republicans. The Democratic position, according to Wallis, is *also* Christian, perhaps even very Christian (and by the way, we gather Wallis has a more serious argument than Loconte’s uncharitable portrayal suggests), but it’s not exclusively Christian.

So just because one group of ideologically fundamentalist Christians pollutes our democracy with their theocratic intolerance, it doesn’t follow that any religiously motivated partisan politics shares the same narrow vision simply by virtue of being religious.