"Any government implies redistribution - that's hardly Marxism or socialism," said Richardson Dilworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Drexel University, chuckling at the newest kerfuffle between the two presidential candidates. "It just means a government that taxes."
That said, the Romney campaign - eager to change the subject from the now-infamous "47 percent" secret videotape and a recent dip in the polls - and conservative media have pounded on the 14-year-old comment that Obama, then a first-term Illinois state senator, made at a conference at Chicago's Loyola University. GOP aides said the comment means the president believes in "a government-centered society" exerting too much control over people's lives.
Really? Let's dig deeper.
Q. Most important, what exactly did he say?
A. Here's a longer snippet: "This is one of the few areas where I think there have to be technical issues that have to be dealt with as opposed to just political issues. How do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution? Because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot. How do we pool resources at the same time as we decentralize delivery systems in ways that both foster competition, can work in the marketplace and can foster innovation at the local level and can be tailored to particular communities."
Q. OK, what the heck was he talking about?
A. In the entire sound bite, he's telling his audience that neither the Chicago public schools nor its public-housing authority were efficient in getting services to the students or residents who needed them most - which is usually something that liberals and conservatives agree on. That's the "redistribution" Obama is seeking.
Q. Wait, that last part where he talks about "competition" and the "marketplace" - that doesn't sound very socialist at all.
A. No, it doesn't, does it? The Washington Post noted Thursday that Team Romney cut out that last sentence from its version of the video and awarded the campaign its worst dishonesty rating, "Four Pinocchios," for the truncation.
Q. But isn't "redistribution" essentially the same thing as Marxism or communism.
A. No major American political figure advocates a Soviet-style system in which businesses are state-run and salaries are leveled. But both U.S. political parties have long supported the progressive income tax, which imposes a higher levy on higher levels of income. The earned-
income -tax credit, or EITC, which allows many low-wage families to avoid paying federal income tax, sprung from Ronald Reagan's presidency. And neither campaign wants to do away with Medicare or Social Security, which move money toward senior citizens.
Q. Aren't we living in an era of extreme redistribution?
A. It depends on which of many measures you look at? If it's income inequality, a new study out this week from professors at Harvard found that the wealth disparity in the United States is worse now than it was in 1774 - even when slavery is accounted for. Conversely, many economists note that the so-called Great Compression of the 1940s, '50s and '60s - when marginal income-tax rates topped out at 91 percent for a couple of years - was the heyday of a strong blue-collar middle class and American global economic might.
Q. So, you're saying that "redistribution" is not an issue?
A. No, it's an issue - not "whether," but "how much" and "to whom." Romney says he wants to lower marginal tax rates by 20 percent across the board and eliminate inheritance taxes, which would disproportionately benefit the wealthy. Obama wants to raise taxes on the highest bracket from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, where they were in the 1990s. Those differences may - and should - be central to the November vote.
Q. But didn't Obama also say, "You can't change Washington from inside, only from the outside?"
A. That's tomorrow's kerfuffle - don't get ahead of us!
Contact Will Bunch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-2957. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Bunch. Read his blog at Attytood.com.