That Tape From 2001

I spent part of last night trying to find a way to actually listen to the audio of Obama’s interview with Chicago Public Radio. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it to work. So, unfortunately, I’m going to have to base my comments on Fox News’ transcript, which is the most complete version I could find. It’s plainly not a very good transcript — it seems quite rushed (e.g., it’s full of uncorrected spelling mistakes, abbreviations that it seems unlikely that the speakers actually used, etc.) I would normally listen to the audio to check its reliability, but as I said, it was not to be. So take what follows with the appropriate caveats.

I honestly don’t see what all the fuss is about. Some of Obama’s points have been made more often by conservatives than by liberals. For instance:

“i think one of the tragedies of the civil rights movement was that 41:01 the civil rights movement becaem so court focused i think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and organizing activities 41:12 on the ground that are able to bring about the coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change 41:20 and in some ways we still suffer from that”

It’s just disingenuous to interpret Obama, in this passage, as saying that it’s a tragedy that the Court did not pursue redistribution of wealth. The “tragedy”, according to Obama, is that the civil rights movement focussed too exclusively on the courts, rather than on organizing. Conservatives have said for ages that liberals have too often tried to use the courts to bring about changes that ought more properly to be made through legislation. In this passage, Obama is agreeing with them.

As for this passage:

“but the supreme court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of basic issues of political and economic justice in this society and to that extent as radical as people try to characterize the warren court it wasnt that radical”

I agree with noted hard-left socialist Orin Kerr:

“Based on the audio posted, however, I find it hard to identify Obama’s normative take. When Obama says that he’s “not optimistic” about using the courts for major economic reform, and when he points out the practical and institutional problems of doing so, it’s not entirely clear whether he is (a) gently telling the caller why the courts won’t and shouldn’t do such things; (b) noting the difficulties of using the courts to engage in economic reform but not intending to express a normative view; or (c) suggesting that he would have wanted the Warren Court to have tried to take on such a project.

My best sense is that Obama was intending (a), as his point seems to be that the 60s reformers were too court-focused. But at the very least, it’s not at all clear that Obama had (c) in mind.”

Moreover, if you read the transcript, the “redistribution” Obama is talking about does not seem to involve expropriating wealth from some people and giving it to others. The specific examples of redistribution under discussion are: first, ensuring that welfare recipients have hearings before they are denied benefits, and second, trying to achieve equal funding for different school districts. The point of the second is explicitly supposed to be not equal wealth, but equal opportunity:

“a classic example would be something like public education where after brown v board a major issue ends up being redistribtion how do we get more money into the schools 34:51 and how do we actually create equal schools and equal educational opportunity well the court in a case called san antonio v rodriguez in the early 70s 35:01basically slaps those kinds fo claims down and says you know what we as a court have no power to examine issues of redistribution and wealth inequalities 35:11with respect to schools thats not a race issue thats a wealth issue and something and we cant get into those”

Unequal funding for school districts has always been a huge problem for people who care about equal opportunity. Suppose you think that ideally, every kid ought to have an equal shot at success, and that while it’s fine if some kids do better than others because they are more talented, willing to work harder, etc., we should try to minimize the extent to which kids are deprived of opportunity just because they were born to poor parents. (Note: minimize does not mean eliminate completely. That would be impossible. It just means doing your best to create a level playing field, when this can be done legally, and without interfering with some other important value, like the right of parents to decide how to raise their kids.) And suppose you think that while money is not by any stretch of the imagination all you need to make your school system good, not having nearly enough money can prevent you from having anything like the school system your kids deserve.

If you thought this, you’d think that the fact that we fund education locally presents us with a problem. Some cities and towns are richer than others. Those cities and towns will be able to provide much better schools for their kids. And this means that kids from poor towns will be likely to have many fewer opportunities than kids from rich towns. If you care about equality of opportunity, you’ll probably think that this is a problem. One natural solution would be for states and the federal government help to fund education: in this way, funding levels for different school districts could be made more equal. But this involves, horror of horrors, redistribution: money from taxpayers who live in richer communities is being given to school districts in poorer communities.

The thing is: that’s what Obama is talking about. He’s not talking about cutting checks for the poor; he’s talking about trying to equalize funding across school districts. And his reason for doing this is specifically to “create equal schools and equal educational opportunity”, not to equalize wealth.


Personally, I can’t wait for this election to be over. I’m tired of writing about disingenuous arguments in which people note that Obama used a word like “redistribution”, pay absolutely no attention to what he actually seems to have been talking about, and infer that appearances to the contrary, he’s a socialist (or a Black nationalist, or a Muslim, or whatever.) I don’t expect that this sort of thing will vanish once the election is over, but I do hold out some tiny hope that there will be less of it.