How to Tell the Makers from the Takers

Well, Steven Taylor really stepped in it yesterday at Outside the Beltway. It all began with an op-ed by Glenn Reynolds at Washington Examiner, “It’s takers versus makers and these days the takers are winning”.

Glenn’s op-ed starts with a hat tip to a book by Charles Sykes, A Nation Of Moochers, contrasts “takers”, those who receive government subsidies with “makers”, presumably those who don’t, and continues with specific and generalized complaints about the state of Uncle Sugar. Here’s a pretty representative sample:

With federal borrowing at unsustainable levels, with the bailed-out auto companies and banks not looking particularly healthy, and with the steady drip-drip of financial scandals moving toward the point that even an Obama-friendly media will have to cover them, we appear to be approaching a crisis point.

and Glenn then gave his op-ed a bit of publicity at his popular blog, Instapundit. That’s when the fun began. My colleague at OTB, Steven Taylor, responded with what I thought was a pretty mild and temperate critique of the op-ed:

A fatal flaw in the maker/taker dichotomy (and which renders it useless) is that we do not have a situation in which Group A is made up those who only “take” and Group B is those who only “make.” Even if we start off with the example that Reynolds uses to launch his column (farm subsidies), the bottom line is that this does not fit the maker/taker categories. If we consult a list of the top recipients of farm subsidies we get a list of corporations (see here). So, on the one hand they are “takers” of government subsidies, and yet on the other it is nonsensical to not also call them “makers.” Of course, the fact that Reynolds’ evidence of this particular problem are lyrics from a country song, perhaps I am expecting too much nuance.

Dr. Taylor concludes:

It is ideology, not analysis. It certainly eschews the realities of policymaking. This is a failing I assume from politicians on the stump. It is not one that I expect from law professors.

I didn’t see this as a slur but, rather, hortatory, a call for greater rigor. Glenn saw it differently and said so on his blog:

APPARENTLY, MY “MAKERS AND TAKERS” COLUMN SUCKS, and I should kill myself or something.

at which point Glenn’s fans descended into the comments thread of Steven’s post, dinging other comments with which they disagreed and making comments of their own, some substantive, some not.

To be honest I think there are far too many takers and far too few makers. As Elbert Hubbard (an early 20th century writer, not the guy who invented Scientology) put it “When 51% of the people want to give rather than get, I’ll be a socialist”. At the top of the list of takers I’d put most of the members of Congress, far too many of whom enter the Congress virtually as paupers and emerge after 30 years as millionaires, lobbyists (I would amend the Constitution in ways that would render the modern practice of lobbying impractical), and technocrats and apparatchiks of all stripes. I have a little list.

However, here’s my question: how do you tell the makers from the takers? Like Steven I don’t think there’s a bright line. Let me give a few case studies.

My mom spent her career as a public school teacher, deliberately seeking out the toughest, poorest schools in St. Louis. When she retired she collected a small pension, received no healthcare benefits, and received a small payment from the Social Security payment (a result of my dad’s contributions). The Medicare system probably paid out less on her behalf throughout her life than she had paid in. She avoided doctors, took almost no medications, elected for palliative care only in her final days, and never had any of the expensive, acute care that runs up massive medical bills.

Maker or taker?

I have never attended a public school, never had a child who attended a public school, never worked for the government, and have paid into Social Security and Medicare for most of the last 50 years. I collect no payments of any kind from the federal government. I have had a few government contracts over the years from the city, state, and federal governments, I worked darned hard to fulfill them, and I was paid reasonably for my efforts. I am defended by the American military, the air I breathe is clearer due to federal laws and enforcement, Lake Michigan is a lot cleaner than it was forty years ago due to federal laws and enforcement, and I drive on public roads (since this is Illinois I frequently pay tolls, most of which go to pay the pensions of retired highway system employees).

I plan to follow my mom’s example on healthcare and although it’s mathematically possible for me to recoup what I’ve paid into the Social Security system, it’s unlikely.

Maker or taker?

IMO a little more introspection is called for by all and sundry. Nearly all of us are takers at some point in our lives. Some of us, through the grace of God, are makers.

Update

James Joyner weighs in with a typically reasonable, temperate analysis of the issue and the discussion:

First, Glenn’s summary on Steven’s post–”and I should kill myself or something”–is great for driving traffic (thanks, again!) but an unfair reading, to put it mildly. Rather, Steven found the core argument of the column simplistic and expected more nuance from someone of Glenn’s stature. Yes, Glenn is most famous as a pundit–an insta-pundit, no less–but he’s an enormously accomplished legal thinker, not a talk radio host.

He continues with four more considered, substantive points.

83 comments… add one

  • Icepick

    AS for your situation with your relatives, Drew, what makes you think you are unique in having these kinds of problems? I’ve gone through a lot of this in the last five years in my family, and without anything to fall back on. Hell, I know four people that have died in the last five months, three of them relatives. Two other good friends have come close to dying in that time, one of whom ultimately lost a leg. YOU DO NOT HAVE A MONOPOLY ON SUFFERING.

    Furthermore, in supporting family, you are only doing what is expected of family – nothing more.

  • Drew

    Michael

    First, I’m not lucky. I worked to get in this position. If I were to follow your philosophy I’d say Michael Jordan couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, he’s just lucky. Tiger Woods is lucky he’s not shanking every shot……..he’s lucky. It’s absurd. They worked damned hard.

    I finance the buyouts of guys and gals that have built businesses through great effort, risk taking, innovation and hard work. In your world they are “lucky.”. No they aren’t. They made it happen. And if you strip people of the incentive to make it happen it won’t happen. You are t he one who needs to get a clue. Look at that bastion (snicker) of innovation and economic success: the former Soviet Union. I guess no one was “lucky” there. Right?

    People are what they are. Many things drive them. But economic success is one of those things. And for certain participants in that class there is the possibility for job creation and general economic growth. Destroy that, and you have doomed those who depend on the creators to the unemployment or govt dole line.

    That, in my view, is a miserable really philosophy.

    Finally, are you really telling me that, say, you contracted a rare disease, that you would want to place your life in the hands of government decision makers, govt hospitals vs say, UCLA or Northwestern or Sloan?

    You think I hate you. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from Dave I admire your brains and thought provoking views more than anyone here. But really, dude. The philosophy you cite is just docile and just this side of a roulette wheel. We can provide, as a society, for the downtrodden without destroying the economic engine that is the USA……and coming to the conclusion that the drunk on the street is the same as the hard working entrepreneur/professional etc and that Forrest Gump is really going to provide a meaningful contribution to employment, the cure for diabetes or educating the populace.

  • Drew

    Ice pick

    Get back to me when you are rational.

  • I think my view on luck is that of Ecclesiastes 9:11:

    I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

    I don’t interpret that as saying that speed, strength, wisdom, understanding, and skill aren’t important but that, ultimately, time and chance can overwhelm all of those things.

    I’ve worked hard in my life and I’m getting by. But I was also blessed with a brain more agile than many, relatively good health, parents who gave me, besides food and shelter, freedom to explore and encouraged me to question. I didn’t earn any of those things. I was just lucky. Or blessed.

  • Icepick

    Drew, how are you being rational when you claim I am an Obama supporter? How are you being rational when you claim I am for soaking the rich? How are you being rational when you claim that tthere is no manipulation of the tax code by the rich and powerful for their own benefit?

  • Icepick

    And Drew, UCLA _IS_ the government.

  • Icepick

    Ah, my favorite passage from the Bible (the practical joker’s Bible). That incapsulates it nicely, and I know from prior go-arounds that it pretty much captures Reynold’s views on the matter. Funny that Drew admires Einstein so much, since he is stuck with a Newtonian’s deterministic view of the Universe….

  • michael reynolds

    I hate it when I realize something I thought was original brilliance on my part was figured out 2300 years ago by some random Hebrew. They didn’t even have internet.

    Fortunately I still have my orignal notion that the central question in life is whether we should be, or not be.

  • Icepick

    An example of tax codes being manipulated for the benefit of the wealthy can be found here. If you’ve got a subscription to the WSJ you can see the original stories. Note to that the company is managing to halve the amount it is paying its workers in the process. Although in this case the jobs are being taken from Canadians and made available to Americans, so I guess that’s a WIN!

  • Drew

    I’m not a religious man, but I have a friend who is..very so. Back to that.

    I find the references interesting, but not persuasive. This is the Forrest Gump will-o- the wisp philosophy. Perhaps it’s a lifetime of sports activity that makes me say phooey on these notions. I know that the more I practiced, the luckier I got. The more I was able to deek my opponent and get off a shot. The killer fadeaway jumper. The flop shot recovery from the rough. The ability to hit driver on the tight hole and have wedge in, vs having to hit 3 wood seven iron. The statistics on that will kill your opponent. Ask tiger woods.

    I know so many people in my career path who took less risky options. Didn’t want to work as hard. Almost to a man or woman, their economic success is lesser. I think this notion that it’s all just chance and luck is bizarre.

    Is there chance and luck? Of course. Tiger blew his drive way left the other day and hit a rock…….back into the fairway. Good luck basing a career pursuit or a productive society on that.

    Back to religion, and then ive got to go. Obama recently invoked the biblical ” from those with much is expected much etc”

    Of course, the guy didn’t bother to note that the biblical reference was not to taxes or wealth, but to his disciples understanding of his teaching, and that those who had understanding would be required to impart that in a disproportionate amount to those who didn’t.

    Maybe you guys are right. Obama is lucky that people are so fucking stupid that he can get away with a completely bogus reference for cheap personal political gain. That would be consistent with his history.

  • sam

    Drew: “We do not need to subsidize the greens, the ags, the financiers and other crazies and rent seekers”

    And he wonders why we think he doesn’t get it. The guy is impervious to irony.

    He replies:
    If you can make a coherent argument, Sam, please do.

    He is impervious to irony, so I guess this needs to be spelled out. You enjoy the tax rate, the thoroughly bogus carried interest tax rate, you do because some well-heeled rent-seeker bent the Congress to give it to you. As for its bogosity, consider Greg Mankiew:

    Deferred compensation, even risky compensation, is still compensation, and it should be taxed as such. Paul Krugman hit the nail on the head with this question:

    why does Henry Kravis pay a lower tax rate on his management fees than I pay on my book royalties?

    The analogy is a good one. In both cases, a person (investment manager, author) is putting in effort today for a risky return at some point in the future. The tax treatment should be the same in the two cases.

    Now, you can argue that Mankiew is wrong, but you can’t argue that some rent-seeking jiggery of the tax system yielded that result.
    So when you say, “We do not need to subsidize the greens, the ags, the financiers and other crazies and rent seekers” — I say you’re impervious to irony.

  • steve

    Forbes richest people list. Lot of them inherited their money. Bunch of them made a lot in banking and real estate, which needs to be suspect given the recent bubble.

    http://www.forbes.com/forbes-400/#p_5_s_arank_All%20industries_All%20states_All%20categories_

    My best guess is that most of the really wealthy did work awfully hard. I think an awful lot of them also had family and friend connections that made it more likely that work would pay off. I think the blessing part lies in the combination of native intelligence, empathy, stamina and other gifts we are born with. Take charisma for example. It seems pretty clear to me that some people have that natural combination of looks and presence that draws people to them.

    That aside, taxing the rich more seems as much a math issue as a moral one. Maybe more so.

    Steve

  • Andy

    Wow, go away for a day and the thread explodes.

    Drew,

    The problem I have with the sams and ice picks of the world is that as hard as they try to mask their envy of wealth they inevitably give themselves away. Comments that are basically “cry me a river rich guy; you have enough so give it away”.

    And

    You guys need to stop this intellectually light stuff.

    I’d just like to point out that your perception that your critics are motivated by envy or whatever is about as intellectually light an argument as one can make. One might also suggest that it’s a bit arrogant to lecture others about what motivates their views, as if you are a scryer who can read minds, not to mention that doing so is the classic ad hominem fallacy.

    First, I’m not lucky. I worked to get in this position. If I were to follow your philosophy I’d say Michael Jordan couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, he’s just lucky. Tiger Woods is lucky he’s not shanking every shot……..he’s lucky. It’s absurd. They worked damned hard.

    Secondly, you seem unable to comprehend that your experience isn’t everyone elses, especially with regard to the value of hard work. You do realize that hard work, even combined with intelligence and ability, is not a guarantee of success? Maybe in your case it really is all about you and your ability and hard work that got you where you are, but if that is the case then you are atypical.

    You aren’t fully appreciating what people mean by “luck.” You’ve brought up the Tiger Woods example many times. Have you actually read about his background? The example of Tiger Woods paints a different picture than what you’re suggesting. Sure he worked very hard and yes, he has innate talent (the product of a bit of “luck” itself – not everyone is a prodigy), but I think the fact that his Dad loved golf and was pretty good at it was a big factor as well. Tiger was introduced to golf while still in diapers and his Dad pushed him throughout his childhood to practice and excel. Do you think Tiger would be where he is today if his Dad loved Scrabble instead of golf? Was it preordained that he would be introduced to golf at such a young age, recognized as a prodigy, and carefully mentored by a father to exploit that talent?

    Tiger is an example where a happy confluence of events came together to produce an exceptional player. There’s no doubt that Tiger’s hard work and talent were critically important to his success, but he would not have succeeded without a lot of other factors, many of which were beyond his control, not least of which was the opportunity to try golf in the first place. It’s therefore a tad simplistic to overstate the effects of “great effort, risk taking, innovation and hard work” and assume that everyone rises or falls on those factors alone.

    Oh, and a society that views itself as a community with obligations to others in that community is a society that also promotes “risk taking.” After all, one of the great things about this country is that the price for failure is comparatively low. People aren’t apt to take risks if failure will result in living in a dumpster eating scraps.

  • michael reynolds

    I know that the more I practiced, the luckier I got.

    The other day my sister unearthed the earliest example of my writing. I was 7 1/2. A smart, observent reader familiar with my published work would recognize that 90% of what I do now, I did then. The rhythm, the tics, the short choppy sentences that may or may not have a verb. I already had what we call a “voice.”

    Seven and a half, by which point I had worked hard all the way through what, the first semester of second grade?

    DNA, Drew. Without the gift of DNA I’d be tending bar. DNA, environment, free will and random chance, all interlocking and interacting to a degree that makes it impossible to clearly differentiate.

    The “I worked hard” theory of life is horse shit, unless you suppose that people working a double shift at In-N-Out for 10 bucks an hour are being lazy. You simply cannot demonstrate that “hard work” equals financial success.

    Arrange the following individuals by wealth and degree of hard work: Kim Kardashian, Drew, random burger flipper, random soldier humping a 60 pound pack in Afghanistan, Seth Rogan. Using those examples, explain the way hard work yields big money.

  • Arrange the following individuals by wealth and degree of hard work: Kim Kardashian, Drew, random burger flipper, random soldier humping a 60 pound pack in Afghanistan, Seth Rogan. Using those examples, explain the way hard work yields big money.

    I think you also need to consider risk as well. For example working as a burger flipper probably does not entail all that much risk. At the same time the soldier both works hard and faces considerably risk. What are all the benefits he gets? I don’t know. I Know the pay is pretty cruddy, but many of his needs are provided for…total compensation? Again, I don’t know as we’d also have to factor in other things like various college benefits.

    As for Kim Kardashian I’m pretty sure that figuring out how to turn her car on every morning is an enormous amount of work for her.

  • sam

    I watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians, once. Being Kim Kardashian seems pretty risky to me.

  • I’m certain I couldn’t walk a mile in her shoes.

  • Icepick

    It’s therefore a tad simplistic to overstate the effects of “great effort, risk taking, innovation and hard work” and assume that everyone rises or falls on those factors alone.

    Drew would have been just as successful no matter what – even if he had been born in the old Soviet Union. We all know how well entrepenuerial spirits did under that regime.

  • I imagine he would have, Icepick. He strikes me as a natural competitor with a taste for finer things. He would have had a dacha in the woods, and espoused a different line of philosophy, because that’s what it would have taken to meet his definition of success in a different culture.

    Likely all of us would.

  • As for Kim Kardashian I’m pretty sure that figuring out how to turn her car on every morning is an enormous amount of work for her.

    Kim Kardashian is not my cup of tea (not to mention not meeting the minimum age requirement). That having been said beauty is some weird combination of genes, brains, and hard work. Don’t underestimate the amount of upkeep.

    It’s either that or it takes a syndicate. That’s how the studios could turn out screen beauties the way Ford does automobiles. They started with girls who had basic good looks, sent them to starlet school, and then had their makeup done by Wally Westmore and their clothes designed by Edith Head. And I mean their everyday street makeup and their ordinary clothes.

    BTW, Michael, while we’re on the subject of the melancholy Dane, here’s another nice quote: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends rough-hew them how we will”.

    And, Janis, I don’t think anybody could walk a mile in her shoes. Have you looked at them?

  • Did your mother ever try, Dave? She had the look.

  • She spent age zero to six on stage, Janis. Literally born in a trunk. After that she’d had enough. Although IIRC she did audition for TV once when I was about ten or twelve (she didn’t get the part).

    I’ve got her first clippings, her first contract, and the first dollar she ever earned. I’ve posted some pictures of her during that period but I just realized I’ve never posted one of her in costume. 80 years later she could still do her routines and the last time I saw her before her final decline she taught me some of her dad’s routines (I already knew most of them). She was a bit disappointed that none of her grandkids had the stage savvy to pick them up.

  • Oh, yes, I’ve looked at Kardashian’s shoes . It was a joke. I’m not sure I could even get up on them without a barre.

  • Drew

    Back in Chicago.

    So I see the 67 comments. Who else can I piss off and generate 15 more?

    I see the thread commenters have decided to gang up and castigate me about ability and hard work vs luck. Simply DNA as Sir Reynolds puts it. OK. I think that’s complete and total bullshit. But in the spirit of debate, really, people, how many of you can come up with concrete examples of people who have made it basically on a roulette wheel? (please, spare me the one in a million Paris Hilton crappola).

    I traffic in the world of successful people. Are there members of the lucky sperm club? Of course. Are there people at the right place and the right time? Of course. But the vast, and I mean vast, majority of the successfull people I run into are talented, but more importantly, risk takers who have experienced near (entreprenuerial) death experiences. They forged on.

    I’m a bit flummoxed by the general retort to my position on this blog. It’s as if the commenters, as a general proposition, only believe in luck and chance. My experience, with empirical verification, says bullshit.

    Do you all buy lottery tickets as your pathway to success? That’s where you sit philosophically.

  • Drew

    Andy

    I don’t think you know it, but you made my point.

  • michael reynolds

    I’m a bit flummoxed by the general retort to my position on this blog. It’s as if the commenters, as a general proposition, only believe in luck and chance. My experience, with empirical verification, says bullshit.

    You aren’t exactly addressing the issues, Drew. But I know you just got off a flight and as a person who has often flown in and out of ORD, I can’t find it in my heart to castigate you.

  • Andy

    Drew,

    Talent comes at least partly if not mostly from DNA. Yes, you work with talented people – that’s the nature of your job, right? It not like you fund the hard-working but talentless?

    Secondly, no one is saying that “only” luck and chance matter. I am simply disputing your assertion that talent and hard work are everything that success flows from. They account for a lot, but luck and opportunity matter a lot more than you seem to think. Maybe in the VC bubble you live in that is the case, though I doubt it. In the rest of the world, luck matters a lot.

  • Andy

    Drew,

    If I’m making your point, then I missed something along the way.

  • Drew

    Michael

    I’m sufficiently plane tolerant to take castigation. Seriously, what issue have I not addressed?

    Andy

    At some point one simply has to drop the argumentation and look at results. If you insist that it’s primarily (note I said primarily) luck then you live and die by that philosophy. I know a lot of people with that world view. None successfull, all bitter. You pays your money and takes yer chances.

    I’ll take the worker/optimist vs the fatalist any day.

  • Icepick

    Drew, you ignorant slut.

    I traffic in the world of successful people.

    You are dealing with a self-selected sample of people that ONLY meet your criteria. So OF COURSE THEY ALL MEET YOUR SELF-SELECTED CRITERIA! Goddamn, have you forgotten ALL of your mathematical training, or just the stuff that would inconveniently crush your world-view?

    How many entrepeneurial types have been hard-working risk-takers with talent that have failed? A goddamned lot of them have. How many times did Ford go broke before he figured it out? What if that last time had failed, or if he hadn’t been able to get any more backing after a string of failures? Or decided that it was too much stress on his family and went back to work for Edison? You have selected ALL of those people out of your life BY THE NATURE OF YOUR JOB. And yet you cannot see how skewed that makes the sample upon which you base your judgement.

    Reynold’s says he knows writers more talented than he is that can’t sell in voulme like he does. You tell him he’s full of shit, even though you acknowledge that he knows HIS BUSINESS better than you do. What you are doing is choosing your sample to reinforce your own prejudices.

    How many golfers are there that have had talent and worked their asses off but they just can’t get their Tour card, or keep it for more than a season? Someone that is the 200th best golfer in the USA is essentially a nobody scrambling for work. That does NOT mean that he isn’t working his ass off, or lacks talent. It does mean that for whatever variety of factors he just ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH. That is tough luck for him.

    Since you love talking about the people at the top, let’s look at some of them. What was the biggest failing of John Stockton? He didn’t win a title. His tough luck was being born into a generation of basketball talent whose careers over-lapped those of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Guys like him and Charles Barkley, what were their great failings? Didn’t they work hard enough? Have enough talent? Perhaps the competition was just a little better. Doesn’t luck play some factor there?

    And this process is iterative in such an environment. For all the guys like Stockton and Barkley, there are even more guys that couldn’t meet their levels. And so on and so forth, to the guys that are career twelfth men (Incidentally, Greg Kite has more NBA Championship rings Barkley, Stockton, Malone and Patrick Ewing combined. I guess that makes him more talented and hard-working than all those other guys combined. And Trent Dilfer is a better quarterback than Dan Marino and Dan Fouts combined.), all the way down to those that just can’t make it in the league. It isn’t all just about luck, but don’t tell me it doesn’t make a difference.

    And while we’re talking about basketball, explain how Allen Iverson (“Practice? We’re talking about practice“) fits into your hard-work theory for successful people?

    And tell Greg Cook that luck has nothing to do with it. Greatest QB who never was, all because of one bad hit in his rookie season and being unlucky enough to be in the business about 20 years before MRIs were in common use.

    Let’s look at the world of business. How did Microsoft get so big? How did they go from a struggling software company going nowhere to GOLIATH? Because they got the contract to provide IBM with operating software. Software that they didn’t develop, but bought it from someone else who hadn’t been fortunate enough to be contacted by IBM. And even at that, Microsoft wasn’t even the first choice of IBM, but the guys who WERE the first choice pissed on their chance because they apparently didn’t like IBM. Yeah, Gates ONLY made it because of his hard work and talent.

    Yeah, luck has nothing to do with anything….

  • Icepick

    Drew, in your world view, anyone that isn’t at least as rich and successful as you are is an abject failure with poor character, low intelligence and contemptible work habits. This is what you are implying. How is it you are so stupid you don’t (a) see that is what you are doing, (b) realize that is going to piss off everyone whose ego doesn’t get a fluff job from it, and (c) that the “poor little me” crap you throw on top it is just repugnant?

  • steve

    Drew- As I said, I believe that most wealthy, successful people really have worked very hard. Many took risks. However, I just dont see the wealthy as a monolithic group. many did inherit their money. Many had family connections. Many (think financial sector) made their money taking risks with other people’s money, knowing their downsides were covered. Some are just pure rent seekers. I suspect that you hang out with those who are less likely to engage in these behaviors, so your direct observations will have a skew.

    That aside, we enacted measures that let the upper income group retain more of what it earned (lower cap gains and dividend taxes) under the assumption that it would be a net benefit to the US as a whole. I see no evidence that has happened. If anything, what I see is that very upper income group engaged in very high risk, high return strategies that cost the rest of the country an awful lot. Also, if we extrapolate out from trends of the last 30 years, with all wealth and income increases going to the top, how do we avoid their having to bear more of the tax burden? I know you are a numbers guy, so make this work for me.

    Steve

  • …with all wealth and income increases going to the top…

    I’ll take you seriously when you stop writing stupid pablum.

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