Re: Teaching Political Economy
Source Michael Pollak
Date 03/01/11/11:04

On Thu, 19 Dec 2002 Ellen Frank wrote:

> Look, my students are mostly liberal-democrats in their political
> sympathies and mostly middle to lower-middle class in socio-economic
> status. And when I ask them to do a debate on progressive taxation they
> cannot defend it. The anti-side always wins, hands down. [What is the
> best way to make this case in terms an American can understand and
> accept without having to entirely remake their frame of reference]?

I've been thinking about in the back of my mind for a few weeks and I
think today I accidentally hit on the answer in the midst with a
libertarian friend: you have to tell that the presumption that society and
the economy could themselves without a government is nonsense. They are
all indispensable and inseparable parts of one system. Abolish the
American government, and you get a big Somalia -- in which, among other
things, none of us would be anywhere near as rich.

So the argument is:

- Modern civilization, for all its flaws is something worth paying for.

- It is worth more to the rich than to the rest of us, because they
profit more from it.

- Naturally it is only just that they should contribute more to its
upkeep because they get more out of it. They have more of the fruits
from this society from which to contribute, and they have lose for
should it be taken away. They should be grateful than the rest of us
for the privilege of living here.

In other contexts, for example on this list, we usually dwell on how
relatively uncivilized the US government is and how rich people don't pay
nearly enough (with which I fully agree). But those take off points are
only possible because we already agree with each other on a whole host of
other heterodox points. The whole goal of Ellen's argumentational quest
is too reach a bedrock that holds true for an average American who doesn't
buy or understand any of those other points yet. And I'm putting forth
that that bedrock is: it's a lot better to live in America as it is than
it is to live in Somalia -- Somalia being rhetorical synechdoche for in a
war of all against all. I think that's something an average orthodox
American would have a hard time denying.

In that context, it is becomes absurd for a Ken Lay to say the system that
made his earnings possible is worth nothing to him, a pure dead loss.
Like we should abolish government because he'd make just as much in a big

In short, what all of us make in the private sector is an indirect benefit
from the government that makes that private sector possible, without which
it could not exist.

If they still disagree, tell them to find you a country in the world where
there is no government and where everything is peachy. Or alternatively,
a modern country where they could become more rich more easily and more
safely than in the US and pay less for the privilege. There ain't.
(Furthermore, we could charge them twice as much, and that'd still be
true. Voila: a market clearing argument for raising taxes on the rich :o)

The nice thing about this approach is that it not only establishes the
case for progressive taxation, but also that the market isn't possible
without the government, both in gross and en detail -- that advanced,
productive markets aren't possible without modern extensive states.
Which is both a deep point and a useful starting point for many other
aspects of teaching political economy.

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