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What's Fair is Fair
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Kevin Drum's not gonna be siree.

The Social Security plan that President Bush unveiled last week keeps benefits unchanged for the poor but cuts them substantially over time for the working and middle classes. As a result, benefits for the poor will eventually be more nearly equal to the benefits of the rich than they are now, which would make Social Security a more progressive program than it is today.

Conservatives are gleeful at the potential that this piece of political jiu jitsu has to unnerve liberals. After all, we liberals like progressive programs, don't we? But we don't like George Bush. What a dilemma! New York Times columnist John Tierney condensed the conservative conventional wisdom on this perfectly last Saturday when he crowed, "Someone has finally called their bluff."

Sorry, but no. The fact that liberals support progressivity doesn't mean that we support only progressivity, and only maximal progressivity at that. What we support are intuitive ideas of fairness, and most Americans think that a certain amount of progressivity is intuitively fair: the poor need help more than the rich and the rich can afford to give help more than the poor. That's common sense.

But that's not all there is to fairness. Most Americans also intuitively accept the idea that tax rates become unfair if they get too high, no matter how rich you are. They also think it's unfair to pay taxes and get nothing back. A common sense notion of fairness suggests that Social Security should be progressive but not flat. If you pay more in, you get more out.


So: no one's bluff has been called. Sorry. Sensible liberals believe in combining the notion of moderate progressivity with the notion that people who pay more in should get more out.

Uh, this is a fundamental principle of the liberals? That people who pay more should get more out?

So setting Social Security aside, a guy who makes a million dollars a year and pays something like $200,000 a year in taxes should get more than a fellow citizen who pays a tenth of that in taxes? More what, exactly?

He's paying for the police, for roads, for schools, for libraries, for national defense and all that other good stuff. But he's paying a lot more. So if we were appealing to this overwhelming sense of fairness deeply ingrained in the liberal psyche, then he should be getting more bang for his buck, right?

Maybe preferential treatment when he calls 911? A special lane for rich people on the freeway? A lower student/teacher ratio specifically for his kids? A private room at the library, reserved in his name?

Well? Wouldn't that be fair?

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