From the Judge's Chambers: Obama speech suggests 'perfect systems' in an unfair world

By Judge William C. Whitbeck T.S. Eliot once wrote of those who dream of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good. President Obama's Osawatomie speech in early December of this year reminded me strongly of the thought behind Eliot's provocative turn of phrase. Channeling Theodore Roosevelt's 1910 "New Nationalism" speech in the same small Kansas town, President Obama dreamed aloud of a more perfect American system. Central to that dream was the iteration of the word "fair." We want a country, he said--and said and said--where everyone gets a fair shot, where everyone does (and pays) their fair share, where everyone engages in fair play. Against this, the President engaged in a nifty rhetorical device: the juxtaposition of opposites. According to him, those who oppose his approach to government--indeed, his approach to life--believe that "the market will take care of everything" and that we are "better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules." And who holds these Darwinist views? Not surprisingly, according to the President, congressional Republicans. One of the many examples in the President's chamber of horrors was the Wall Street versus Main Street conflict that has been a staple of populist rhetoric since the time of Andrew Jackson. President Obama excoriated the mortgage lenders and a financial sector "where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy." But the President never once mentioned Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, those paragons of governmentally-created crony capitalist entities who between them control over half the mortgages in this country and whose executives were up to their greedy little elbows in the very lending practices he now decries but who were encouraged every step of the way by congressional Democrats like Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd. Nor did he explain why his own Justice Department has been singularly inattentive to the most direct way to discourage the Wall Street criminals from stealing: swift and effective prosecution. But the underlying focus of the President's speech was "inequality." Not racial inequality or class inequality but income inequality. He pointed out that the typical American CEO earns about 110 times more than his or her workers. In a word, this kind of inequality is to him not "fair." Really? I can't see why. Setting simple, old-fashioned envy aside, I suspect that what matters to most working Americans is not what CEOs make--or, for that matter, what rock stars, professional athletes, movie celebrities, and hedge-fund managers make--but what they make. Income inequality may not be "fair" in the sense that the President uses the word. It certainly would not exist under an imagined perfect system in which, like the young in Lake Wobegone, everyone is well above average in education, talent, effort . . . and luck. The truth is, of course, that Lake Wobegone is a town that never existed and never will exist. The truth is that income inequality in this country does not result from the federal tax code nor will it be remedied by raising the federal tax rates of the wealthy, the concept the President is hawking. The truth is that "tax the rich" is a mindless bumper sticker slogan, not a serious fiscal policy. The truth is that if, in the pungent phraseology of Alexander Dumas, we cut the fat ones down to size, there is no guarantee that anyone other than governments and their employees will benefit. Thus, a European style cradle-to-grave welfare scheme may appear fair to some. But to others, particularly those across the income spectrum who work to pay for it, it is neither perfect nor even fair, Rather it is a utopian redistributionist system gone bad, grindingly grey in appearance and Kafkaesque in operation. This may describe President Obama's Washington D.C., but is it really the American dream?'' William C. Whitbeck was appointed to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 1997 and reelected to six-year terms in 1998, 2004, and 2010. His current judicial term expires January 1, 2017. Published: Thu, Dec 22, 2011