Obama: 'Theoretically' OK for Courts to Redistribute Wealth

In a 2001 interview, the Democratic nominee mused about using the legal system to spread the wealth.

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Back in 2001, Barack Obama gave an interview to a Chicago public radio station in which he talked about using the Supreme Court, the most undemocratic of the three branches of government (nonelected, lifetime terms), to "spread the wealth." Some rough excerpts:

If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to invest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples so that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at a lunch counter and order, and as long as I could pay for it, I'd be OK. But the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and the more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society, and to that extent , as radical as, I think, people try to characterize the Warren c ourt, it wasn't that radical ; it didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution.... One of the, I think, tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think, there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways, we still suffer from that. You can craft theoretical justification for it legally, and any three of us sitting here could come up with a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts.

Me: This should be a Saturday Night Live sketch. Use the court to redistribute wealth? Really? The Warren court was not radical? Really? Anyone could craft a theoretical justification to use the court to spread the wealth? Really? This all strikes me as highly weird.

Well, at least no one can say this election isn't about anything. Clearly, what it's about is two different philosophies concerning the best way to structure an economy. (And more and more, I think the financial markets realize this.) Keep in mind, now, that every Obama economic adviser I can think of—Warren Buffett, Austan Goolsbee, Jason Furman, Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Jared Bernstein—thinks that we need higher income and investment taxes to deal with income inequality and that tax rates would pretty much have to double before they would hurt the economy. So Obama's comments reflect a core belief system that he's apparently held for years and continues to hold.