Ballot Box

The Proletarian Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

John Edwards calls Bush a crook-coddling pinko.

A few days ago, John Edwards delivered the most audacious speech of the 2004 presidential season. Just my luck, I missed it. Fortunately, the Edwards campaign has put the text on its Web site. The argument is so clever and ambitious that for now I’m just going to try to outline it. We’ll have time to revisit it as the campaign goes on.

1) I’m pro-capitalism and anti-big government. Edwards repeatedly praised “our great free enterprise system.” He argued, “American’s small businesses create jobs better than any government program. Our markets allocate capital more efficiently than any bureaucrat.” He repudiated “the notion among some in my party that we could spend our way out of every problem.” He embraced (without crediting Bill Clinton) a philosophy that “trusts people to make the most of their own lives and gives them the chance to do so.” He pledged to use savings from the partial repeal of Bush’s tax cuts “not for new programs, but to restore fiscal discipline and to give tax cuts to middle-class Americans.”

2) Capitalism isn’t greed; it has values and rules. Key sentence: “Yet our free enterprise system also depends on values: innovation, integrity, hard work, and great rewards for honest success.” One rule is that teammates go up or down together: “The captains of industry who create jobs and wealth deserve to be rewarded richly, but it’s wrong when they walk away with staggering bonuses while regular workers’ pensions are cut.” Another rule is that ownership should be widespread, because it promotes good citizenship. “I want to make sure everybody has the chance to be an owner,” said Edwards. “Under my plan, every American will have the chance to be an owner—to buy a home, save for college, invest in America.” He offered buyers “a $5,000 tax credit toward the down payment on their first home,” since there’s “nothing better than home ownership to give citizens a stake in fighting crime, keeping the neighborhood clean, and building stronger schools.”

3) Corporate cheaters are subverting those values and rules. The “free enterprise system … has been betrayed by a handful of swindlers,” said Edwards. “Our economy, our people, and our nation have been undermined by the crony capitalists who believe that success is all about working the angles, working the phones, and rigging the game, instead of hard work, innovation and frugality.”

4) Bush is a cheater, too. Edwards repeatedly drew parallels between sneaky corporate governance and sneaky Republican government: “Our great free enterprise system has been rocked by some at the top who put their own fortunes ahead of their company’s future and their employees’ hard work. Our democracy has been wounded by some at the top who put favors for the few ahead of what’s right for the whole nation.” Referring to the game-rigging ethic of stock manipulators, Edwards charged, “These manipulators find comfort in an Administration which, through its own example, seems to embrace that ethic.” He noted that “some of our most powerful leaders stand accused of letting big campaign contributors write special favors into law.”

5) Bush’s overt policies also flout capitalist values. Edwards accused Bush of taxing “work” more heavily than “wealth.” Here’s the math: “Middle-class families pay income tax on their earnings at a rate of up to 25%, plus another 7.65% in payroll tax. Yet under the law President Bush just signed, a CEO who pays himself whatever he wants can sell millions of dollars in stock and pay tax at a total rate of 15%.” To strip the CEO’s investment gains of moral value, Edwards described them as “unearned income.”

Edwards discussed the tax burden in relative rather than absolute terms, thereby making any tax cut for the rich look like a tax increase for the middle class. Republicans “are determined to cut taxes on that wealth, year after year, and heap more and more of the burden on people who work,” he said. “They have driven up the share of the tax burden for most working people.” Edwards also attacked Bush for cutting the estate tax. “People who inherit massive estates ought to pay taxes too,” he argued. Implicitly distinguishing himself from Bush, Edwards concluded, “A country where the sweat and toil of mill workers can give a boy the chance to one day run for president is a far different place than a country that says how you’re born, not how hard your work, is all that matters.”

6) Bush is raising taxes. “As a direct result of this president’s policies, all across this country people are seeing their property taxes, their sales taxes, their state and local income taxes, and their college tuition bills go up,” said Edwards. “I’m going to tell America the whole story: This president is the reason your taxes are going up. I’m going to cut them.”

7) Bush is soft on crime. “The way to create new wealth is by rewarding work and responsibility, not coddling the privileged and going soft on executives, accountants, and analysts who squander other people’s money,” said Edwards.

8) Bush is as bad as a socialist. Key paragraph: “This is the most radical and dangerous economic theory to hit our shores since socialism a century ago. Like socialism, it corrupts the very nature of our democracy and our free enterprise tradition. It is not a plan to grow the American economy. It is a plan to corrupt the American economy.”

9) Bush is unpatriotic. Bush “turned around and signed a bill that lets people shelter dividends from companies that don’t pay taxes at all, including companies that evade taxes by setting up headquarters in Bermuda,” said Edwards. Worse yet, Republicans “refused to cut taxes for the children of 250,000 American soldiers who are risking their lives for us in Iraq, so they could cut dividend and capital gains taxes for millionaires who were selling stocks short until the war was over.”

In a nutshell, Edwards is trying to turn the traditional politics of left and right upside down. It may be too crazy to pull off, but it’s easily the most interesting thing anybody in this race has said so far.