Politics & Policy

The Bakshish Primary

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to reporters during a campaign stop at Keene State College in Keene, N.H., April 23, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The Democrats are trying to bribe the voters with the voters’ own money.

One of the strange tasks of conservative journalism is taking left-wing policy fantasies seriously — more seriously, in many cases, than do the Democrats and their allied party mix of salty nuts.

In many cases, you’ll get more substantive policy specifics in conservative critiques of progressive proposals than in the progressive proposals themselves. The Democrats took the so-called Green New Deal so lightly that they didn’t even bother to proofread their marketing material and nix the cow-fart jokes before sending it out to the great wide world, and then were so embarrassed that they felt compelled to lie about it.

You ever hear Ramesh Ponnuru make a cow-fart joke? I didn’t think so.

If you want there to be a genuine, productive political discourse, then generally you should avoid things like imputing bad faith to the other side and accepting intellectual dishonesty from your own side. And that means sometimes kind of glossing over the actual bad-faith stuff when it’s festering stinkily right there under our noses, i.e. taking seriously Senator Kamala Harris’s $315 billion teacher-raise proposal as an economic and education-policy idea rather than treating it as the opening bid in a vote-buying scheme, which is what it transparently is.

In South Asian and Middle Eastern usage, there is a very useful word of Persian origin: bakshish, the meaning of which is wonderfully plastic: It can refer to alms given to beggars (Mark Twain mentions an “infernal chorus” of “bucksheesh” in The Innocents Abroad), customary tips paid to service providers, or bribery and extortion involving petty bureaucrats. The alloy of condescending philanthropy, customary patronage, and apple-stealing political corruption expressed by bakshish is better fitted to the current attitude of the 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants than the connotations of any ordinary political term I can think of.

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s student-debt proposal is pretty poor policy and possibly the dopiest thing she’s put her name on since those self-help books (The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan!) all those years ago: It’s a handout to the people in our society who are least in need of one (those who have gone to college, who pay on average only about 4 percent of their income in student-loan payments) combined with a handout for those who are going to be least in need of one (those who are going to college). The people who are in generally dire economic condition and who have the fewest resources and opportunities are not college graduates who have received loans at a subsidized rate, but people who never were on the verge of going to college, who in many instances never finished high school. Down the street from where the Democrats are holding their 2020 convention in Milwaukee sits North Division High School, where a third of the students fail to show up on any given day, where two-thirds fail to graduate in four years, where 7.5 percent achieve mere “proficiency” on standardized tests and 0.0 percent achieve math proficiency. The price of a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Haverford College is not what these kids are worried about in life.

But those kids are not an important political constituency. Resentful underachievers with degrees in cretin studies are.

Likewise Senator Harris and her teachers’ bonanza. We are accustomed to hearing otherwise, but teachers are a relatively high-income group. They like to preach the poor-mouth, but the typical teacher as an individual earns more than the typical household does, and, since we’re on the subject of Milwaukee, it is worth noting that the average public-school teacher there takes home more than $100,000 a year in salary and benefits. Let’s repeat that: Milwaukee public-school teachers get more than $100,000 a year on average in salary and other benefits.

We hear a lot about how Big Oil and the NRA throw money around to buy politicians, but in truth, they are minor spenders on politics: In the 2016 cycle, the American Petroleum Institute was No. 262 on the list of big political spenders, and the NRA was down there at No. 500. At the top of the list? Teachers. With a combined spend of $63 million, the two major teachers’ unions (the AFT and the NEA) spent more than any political donor in 2016 save Fahr LLC. (Fahr, which donated exclusively to left-wing and Democratic causes, made an unusual gift of $89 million to NextGen Climate Action in 2016, which put it at the top of the list.) That’s not a one-time thing: The teachers’ unions and their allied public-sector unions are reliably among the biggest spenders in politics, and they support Democrats overwhelmingly. When the Democrats propose to dump a few hundred billion dollars into the pockets of those unions’ members, they are in effect appropriating money to themselves.

Senator Warren’s proposed wealth tax has been tried out in other countries — and found wanting. As recently as the 1990s, a dozen or more European countries had wealth taxes of the kind she proposes, and almost all of them have abandoned them — most recently, France gave up its attempt to tax financial assets in 2017. The reasons are obvious enough: If the tax is applied to relatively modest sums, it constitutes a heavy tax on the savings of the middle class; if it targets billionaires, it produces capital flight and distorts other economic behavior. In either case, the difficulty of administration (the value of financial assets changes by the millisecond) and the relatively modest revenue yields have shown these taxes to be of limited effectiveness as economic measures. But as psychological measures, they have much to recommend them — if you think that class-warfare shenanigans are the way to get nominated in 2020. Which may be the case.

There is good reason to continue treating the Democrats’ 2020 proposals as though they were genuine policy ideas and not cynical vote-buying schemes: Some people, somewhere, probably take these ideas seriously, and that makes articulating serious objections to them necessary. But at the same time, let’s not kid ourselves about what’s going on here: This is bakshish on a grand scale, with a twist: It’s trying to bribe us with our own money.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this story cited BLS wage data that exclude employer-paid benefits as a point of comparison with teacher-compensation data that included both salary and benefits, and hence are not an apples-to-apples comparison.  It has been corrected.

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