How does Wonkblog use “redistribution”?

I wrote a post today about Brad Plumer’s redistribution blindspot. The basic point is that Plumer uses the word “redistribution” in an ideological way that privileges an “everyday libertarian” baseline, deviations from which are considered redistribution.

This set off the twitters, with primarily Dylan Matthews arguing back. I never did figure out what Plumer thought about “redistribution”, but Dylan pushed back, saying that by redistribution he means any change in the distribution, not deviations from the Everyday Libertarian baseline. I know Dylan somewhat, and I am pretty sure this is entirely true for him. He knows the literature that demonstrates all other uses of the word are incoherent.

To cut this intro short, my question here is how are people using the word “redistribution” on wonkblog. I claimed that the thing is generally used to mean deviations from the Everyday Libertarian baseline not simply Every Change. I claimed that this is a consequence of ideological seepage that folks are unaware of.

To demonstrate the difference between the two meanings, consider the following. Suppose at time one we distribute things a certain way. Then at time two we increase taxes and increase food stamps. Then at time three we decrease taxes and decrease food stamps. So at time four we are back at the distribution in time one.

If redistribution means deviations from the Everyday Libertarian baseline, then you will say time two was redistribution, but time three was not. Time three was unwinding redistribution. It was unredistribution.

If redistribution means Every Change, then you would say time two was redistribution and time three was redistribution. Both changed the distribution. So both were redistribution.

Now I read Wonkblog regularly and I pay attention to this kind of thing. So I claimed that on Wonkblog and in Plumer’s posts, I only see “redistribution” used to refer to changes that deviate from the Everyday Libertarian baseline. I feel like I am an honest guy that doesn’t have a track record of manufacturing nonsense, but Matthews was not convinced that this was the case and said I had no evidence. So, I went through the Wonkblog posts I could find where “redistribution” was used by the author to see what it was about.

In a reasonable amount of time, I was able to pull up 17 posts that used the word, 12 of which were not just quoting others saying it (though even the quotes used Everyday Libertarianism meanings). I made this spreadsheet categorizing them. I did not find a single post where the word “redistribution” was used to describe something that changed the distribution of income in a way that would be consistent with the Every Change definition, but would be inconsistent with the Everyday Libertarian definition. So for instance (from what my search turned up), cutting food stamps was never called redistribution. Cutting unemployment insurance was never called redistribution. Adopting a Chained-CPI for Social Security was never called redistribution.

The only thing that was called redistribution was those policies which would deviate from an Everyday Libertarian baseline. So, for instance, raising taxes to fund benefit spending would be called redistribution. But cutting benefit spending to fund cutting taxes would not be. And you can’t say that this is the case because there just has not been an opportunity to call things like this redistribution. We have seen all sorts of cuts and proposed cuts, all of which are redistributive under the Every Change definition, but none of which (that I could find) were actually called that. It seems “redistribution” is curiously reserved for posts where there are deviations from Everyday Libertarianism.

Ezra Klein
For most of the wonkbloggers, you could just say that there is a coincidence here. Just because they only call certain changes (not all changes) redistribution and just because that has lined up with Everyday Libertarian notion of the word, that doesn’t definitively tell you anything. And sure, that doesn’t definitively tell you anything, though it does point in the direction of what they might think about the concept, or at least when it occurs to them to mention it, which is also a function of ideology.

Ezra Klein is the exception. His posts leave little doubt that he is operating under the Everyday Libertarian definition of redistribution. He is not using the word in some neutral Every Change way that Matthews supports.

Here are the two most blatant (here is a third that’s also pretty bad) posts.

  1. Ezra has a whole post about whether Obama or Romney would redistribute more. He answers that we can’t know for sure because “Romney hasn’t named sufficient spending cuts for us to say whether he would actually cut total government spending, and so we can’t say whose presidency would lead to more total government spending, and thus more total redistribution.” So redistribution is a function of how much total government spending there is? So a cut in government spending reduces redistribution? Hmm.
  2. Ezra has a post describing Romney’s tax policy. Nodding to Glenn Hubbard, he notes “Under a Romney presidency, there will be a massive redistribution — or perhaps it should be called a re-redistribution — from low-income people who depend on government programs such as Medicaid to higher-income folks who pay taxes.”

A re-redistribution? What on earth might that refer to? It certainly appears that Ezra Klein is operating off an unstated totally-ideological understanding of redistribution. Under this understanding, deviations that bring you further from the Everyday Libertarian baseline are redistribution. And deviations that bring you closer to the Everyday Libertarian baseline are re-redistribution! Hmm.