“I do think that a system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, N.Y. Times, February 10, 2019
When dealing with statements by Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, the maxim coined by journalist Salena Zito about President Trump is equally applicable: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, it tends to be Republicans who take her literally but not seriously. The press and her supporters (the two often overlap) take her seriously, but not literally.
Taking her literally, the statement makes no sense. Ringworm is a common skin disease, similar to athlete’s foot or jock itch. It’s easily treated by over-the-counter antifungal ointments, and incidence of the problem has little or nothing to do with access to health care.
Apprised of this, Ocasio-Cortez clarified her statement, tweeting: “For what it’s worth, I meant to say hookworm.”
For what it’s worth, hookworm, a gastrointestinal parasite, is a serious problem, unlike ringworm. But contrary to a report in a leftist English publication claiming that the diseases is “rampant” in the American South — a report she apparently relied upon — the Alabama Department of Public Health released a later study showing “no evidence of an increased incidence” of the disease.
So it’s best to weigh her statement by taking her seriously, but not literally. Read that way, her message is: “A system that allows billionaires to exist while there is extreme poverty is wrong.”
Ocasio-Cortez assumes that the individuals become billionaires because they are “allowed” to, not because they have a right to own some of the wealth they have created. Who “allows” them to become billionaires? The government. That’s why she aims to change the rules which the government imposes on income and wealth accumulation. So it will to stop allowing these billionaires to exist.
Ocasio-Cortez also assumes a correlation between the existence of billionaires and the existence of extreme poverty. Her statement implies that if billionaires were not allowed to exist, then there would be less poverty.
There are reportedly 540 billionaires in the United States. Each has his or her own story. To test Ocasio-Cortez’s assumptions, consider one: Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan (for any readers lately arrived from Mars) was a professional basketball player who performed with such skill and grace that people willingly paid substantial sums to watch him compete. That willingness enabled Jordan, in turn, to command huge compensation from the owners of his team. And it enabled him to command even larger sums from companies selling sneakers and tee shirts and other items which he endorsed. Today, in fact, Michael Jordan earns far more from endorsements then he earned as a player.
Michael Jordan became a billionaire because he provided the public with things they wanted: the spectacle of stellar performance, and a sense of association with his glory.
Did Michael Jordan become a billionaire because the government “allowed” him to, as implied by Ocasio-Cortez? He did not. One may debate whether his extraordinary talent was the product of hard work, favorable genetics, luck, or some combination. But it was certainly not a gift of the government.
Did Michael Jordan’s billionaire status contribute to extreme poverty? Again, it did not. Jordan’s wealth came from spectators, shoe-buyers, and others who chose to spend their money watching him and wearing his brand. In accumulating that wealth, Jordan did not contribute to the spread of ringworm or hookworm or any other supposed symptom of poverty. In fact, it’s far more likely that Jordan’s phenomenal marketability lifted people – particularly third world factory workers — out of poverty than condemned them to that condition.
Ocasio-Cortez’s statement does not stand alone. It is part of a burgeoning bundle of resolutions and policy proposals from the Democratic Party, all aimed at moving the country to the Left. They include raising the income tax to 70% on incomes over $10 million, imposing a 2% “wealth tax” on fortunes over $50 million, making Medicare available to all, and — again from Ocasio-Cortez — adopting the so-called “Green New Deal.” Some see these proposals as evidence that her Party is leaning socialist. A Gallup poll taken last August did, in fact, show that Democrats are more positive about socialism than capitalism. In his state of the union address, President Trump drew what he hopes will be a battle line in the 2020 campaign, when he declared: “Tonight, we resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
But is Ocasio-Cortez’s statement beckoning listeners toward socialism?
People argue over the meaning of the term, but in its simplest sense, socialism is a doctrine that calls for government ownership of the means of production, capital, and agricultural land. Socialism differs fundamentally from capitalism – which calls for private ownership of those assets. But the two share one important attribute. They both believe in growth; specifically, in the capacity of the economy, rightly managed, to expand wealth. When Nikita Khrushchev visited America at the height of the Cold War and declared “We will bury you,” he did not mean that his country would militarily annihilate the West. He meant that socialism would out-produce and out-grow the capitalist West, leaving it buried beneath the abundance generated by the Soviet system. History proved him 180 degrees wrong. But his premise was that wealth can and should be expanded.
Ocasio-Cortez’s statement – taken seriously, but not literally – incorporates a different premise. In her world, wealth is static. If some people have billions, then others must be suffering from ringworm, or hookworm, or some such malady, as a consequence. Conversely, if one could only prevent people from becoming billionaires, then there would be more for others. Since wealth is static, one exists at the expense of the other. To her, the notion that some people becoming extremely rich might actually improve the lives of the poor is impossible.
Her views, when taken seriously, are deeply wrong. But they are not really socialist. They are not that advanced. Instead they embody a more archaic economic system, one that also viewed wealth as static, something to be fought over and seized — but not something to be expanded. That economic system is feudalism.
2 responses to “TAKING ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ SERIOUSLY”
Richard Epstein demolishes AOC’s policy prescriptions and offers a theory about how we arrived at this point – https://www.hoover.org/research/libertarian-green-new-deal “Miss Ocasio has one comparative advantage, and that’s tending bar.”
We may ridicule her, but in today’s Wall St Journal (“Ocasio-Cortez Heralds a New Political Era”), Fred Barnes offers some frightening poll numbers – a solid majority favors Warren’s wealth tax, and “A survey by the Yale Program on Climate Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that 92% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans back the Green New Deal.” If the Democrats take the Senate in 2020 (22 R and 12 D seats in play) and the presidency, we could see frightening changes very soon.
We can argue forever about what “socialism” means. The theoretical definition is of limited utility. Clearly OAC was not talking about government ownership of the means of production. Sweden, Norway, Denmark have been variously described as embracing socialism, but private ownership of business continues to thrive there.
I tend to be in the camp that government’r role in capitalism is to ensure that the playing field is level. Insider trading is prohibited. Ripping off consumers by selling ineffective or dangerous drugs is outlawed. Monopolies are outlawed. Medicare for the elderly exists. At various times all of these proposals were labeled socialism. Socialism is replacing communism as the pejorative label of choice. If you don’t like something, don’t debate its merits just call it socialism. Of course if you are of a different political persuasion don’t debate the merits of a proposal, label it fascism. These labels don’t advance the debate, they limit it.
I agree the fact that we have billionaires is not the cause of poverty. In many cases they are billionaires not because the hoard the pie but because they made the pie bigger. But those with great wealth have great power. As the cliche goes, “money talks”. The great concentration of wealth provides the holders great tools to pursue any policy agenda they choose, be it benign or malevolent. That in and of itself is a reason to limit the concentration of wealth. There are many ways to do that, but I have not studied them all or am even aware of them all. Inheritance taxes accomplished that in the past, but I thought the thresholds were too low. But I am convinced that the concentration of wealth, i.e, and ultimately power, in a few is not healthy for our democracy.