Reasonable people can disagree about whether and how much the government should redistribute income. And, to be sure, the looming budget deficits require hard choices about spending and taxes. But don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that when the government taxes the rich, only the rich bear the burden.Did you catch it?
Redistribute income. This is, to me, more slippery than the various phony accounting and questionable assertions about incentives that everyone has been attacking.
The thing is, very little of government spending is really about redistributing income. It does, I suppose, depend on how one counts Social Security and Medicare, which account for very large amounts of spending (but not spending from the taxes that Mankiw is worried about). I wouldn't count those programs as redistribution, but I could, I suppose, see the argument for it. At any rate, as I said, that doesn't have anything to do with income, capital gains, or inheritance taxes.
What government does spend a lot of money on (outside of SS and Medicare) are things that we all benefit from, rich and poor. The big ticket item, of course, is the military, but it also includes everything from NASA to highway construction to national parks to running the courts. I'm not sure whether most people would consider things like student loans and farm support to be "redistribution." Actual stuff which I would say is clearly redistributive in nature, such as Medicaid, CHIP, and safety net programs, are around one fifth of total federal spending. Include Social Security and Medicare (which, again, are not exactly redistributive and which have their own revenue streams that Mankiw isn't talking about), and you get to about 50%, but no more. Want a primer on this stuff? You want the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The point, in case I'm not being clear, isn't that Mankiw should support more federal spending or higher taxes; that's his call. The point is that when we pay taxes, especially income taxes, most of it is for the government to spend it on our behalf for things that, collectively, we want. That doesn't mean it's well spend, or what Mankiw would individually want, or that he values the last dollar of national defense higher than he'd value whatever he would do with that dollar if he wasn't taxed...but it does mean that the government isn't taking his money and sending it to poor people. And therefore referring to federal spending as "redistribution" is, in my view, pretty slimy.
*Yellowing, kids, because old newsprint turned yellow. Not a reference to yellow journalism.