Brad Plumer’s Redistribution Blindspot

Brad Plumer had a post yesterday purporting to explain how Social Security redistributes money from people of color to whites. What’s interesting about the post is that Plumer proceeds on the topic as if there is some neutral and agreed-upon understanding of what constitutes redistribution. In so doing, he produces a post that has extremely contentious ideological assumptions packed into it, and provides a paradigmatic case of the limitations of so-called wonk blogging.

Why does Plumer say Social Security is redistributive from POCs to whites? Because “for every $100 that white beneficiaries pay in taxes, they receive $113 in benefits, blacks receive $89 and Hispanics receive $58.” Why is this redistributive you may ask? Plumer makes no effort at explaining, presumably believing that no explanation is needed. This is the suffocating power ideology has over the ostensibly non-ideological.

Imagine two worlds. In both worlds we have entirely identical economic institutions except for the following:

  1. In world one, we have a payroll tax and send checks to old people.
  2. In world two, we do not have a payroll tax and do not send checks to old people.

Suppose the facts in the above paragraph about how this difference works out distributively are true. Now tell me which of these worlds is redistributive. Go ahead. Sit there for a second and tell me which one of them redistributes money.

Without any argument, Brad Plumer claims that world one is redistributive from POC to whites. But why? No doubt because in world one, POC have less than they have in world two, and whites have more than they have in world two. So when Plumer says “redistribution,” he is assuming that world two is the baseline, and that all deviations from it are redistribution. But why not assume the reverse? If we assume that world one is the baseline, then we reach the exact opposite conclusion: Social Security redistributes from nobody, but ending it would redistribute from whites to POC.

So which is it? Does Social Security redistribute from POC to whites or does Not Social Security redistribute from whites to POC?

The problem here is extremely basic for anyone with any exposure to this debate. You can’t define redistribution without a baseline and there is no natural baseline. The choice of baseline is normative, i.e. it requires a moral, ethical, or political choice. People who casually talk about redistribution the way Plumer does have chosen a baseline, but they have done so blindly and without any reflection. Generally, the baseline they have chosen is just imported from the ideological assumptions of the dominant culture they live in.

Here, Plumer’s baseline, though he never details it, is clearly some kind of pre-tax market income. In absent-mindedly choosing this baseline, Plumer has fallen prey to what Murphy and Nagel call our culture’s “everyday libertarianism.” Why is pre-tax market income the baseline against which to measure redistribution? Why are taxes and transfers understood as redistributing income instead of determining it? There is no demanded-by-the-universe reason for utilizing the pre-tax market income baseline, and, in fact, that baseline is incoherent, as Murphy and Nagel aptly demonstrate.

In a reality not unconsciously infected with right-wing libertarian assumptions of what belongs to who, there is no such thing as redistribution. We have in front of us a huge variety of potential economic institutional sets that we must pick from. Each set of economic institutions generates its own unique distributive outcome. We are tasked with deciding what we think everybody should get and picking among the huge variety of economic institutional sets the one we think gets us the closest to that goal.

To say one particular institution (here Social Security) is redistributive is just nonsense. It is something that comes out of the mouth of a mind deeply captured by an ideology it does not even recognize it is imprisoned by.

None of this is to say that you can’t be upset that some people are not getting what they should get. That is basically all I write about. But that is not properly couched as concern about redistribution. It is a concern about distribution. If you think (as I do) that people of color are not receiving enough of the national product, then you certainly should contemplate institutional changes that might fix that problem. But you have to contemplate that in a broad social way, not by incoherently siloing one particular institution and deciding somehow that it is redistributive. Although I won't pursue it here, I am pretty sure a broad social contemplation of how best to direct more of the national product to people of color won't involve cutting the most successful anti-poverty program in history.