Vague Republican Promise are Worse Than Vague

Tax AmnestyThis morning Ezra Klein wrote, The Reality of Tax Reform: Less Charity, Smaller Homes, Higher State Taxes. It gets to the heart of politics, but most especially Republican politics. It’s all about vagueness of proposals.

The reason I associate it with Republicans is that their policy prescriptions are generally unpopular. So rather than say “cut popular deductions” they say, “Let’s broaden the tax base.” That sounds great, right? Broaden the tax base! It sounds like getting other people involved in paying taxes. What it means is making you pay more in taxes.

Klein quote Peter Orszag, who notes that 90% of all deductions (or “base broadening,” if you prefer) is in the form of three deductions: home interest, charitable giving, and state and local taxes. The home interest deduction was put in place to encourage home ownership. In general, I’m not in favor of it. Home ownership tends to tie workers down and make them more compliant. In fact, I think this was the main purpose of it; the government doesn’t really give a rat’s ass about who owns property; someone will own it who will pay taxes.

I also don’t think much about the charitable giving tax deduction. I tend to think that people give to charities because they want to. The fact that they get a deduction is just icing on the cake. The state and local taxes deduction, on the other hand, is very important. These taxes tend to be regressive or at least not progressive. Providing a federal tax deduction limits some of the harm that these taxes cause.

The main thing to notice about these tax deductions is how much they would affect the middle class. This gets back to the Tax Policy Center’s analysis of Mitt Romney’s budget proposal. The problem was that there just weren’t enough upper class deductions to pay for the upper class tax cuts. Of course, Romney knew that. He just didn’t think that anyone else would notice.

And so the Republican Party continues on with their vague plans to “broaden the tax base.” This is because they know that “screw the middle class” would not be very easy to sell. But that’s what it is. If someone will not give you details, it is because it is a bad deal. In this case, it is a bad deal.

Update (30 November 2012 10:23 pm)

I just saw Ezra Klein hosting The Last Word. He noted that people making over $200,000 per year give 20% of the nation’s total charitable giving. This represents about the top 2.5% of income earners. But let’s look at the top 1%, because I have data on them. They earn 24% of the total yearly earnings. They own 40% of all the wealth in the country. My point here is that the rich apparently don’t give to charities at as high a level as their income and wealth would indicate. As usual: fuck the rich. They are a bunch of selfish assholes. Ezra Klein needs to stop pointing out the large absolute value of their giving and put it into perspective.

Reasonable Republicans = New Democrat

Mike MurphyRichard Barry over at The Reaction writes, How the Republican Party Could Save Itself. In it, he discusses a Time magazine article by Mike Murphy, Can This Party Be Saved? Barry, like most liberals, holds out some hope that we might some day get a reasonable opposition party. And Murphy’s idea does sound good. But I think it is meaningless.

There are two kinds of non-crazy Republicans in America.[1] The first kind is exemplified by David Cay Johnson, who aligns with Republican ideals but doesn’t seem to agree with them on any actual policy and rarely votes for them. Then there are the others. Many of these people seem reasonable, but like David Frum, they still managed to convince themselves that Mitt Romney would make a better president than Barack Obama. Simply: anyone still voting Republican is either evil or just not paying attention.

Murphy tells us there are two competing definitions of conservatism:

One offers steadfast opposition to emerging social trends like multiculturalism and secularization. The alternative is a more secular and modernizing conservatism that eschews most social issues to focus on creating a wide-open opportunity society that promises greater economic freedom and the reform of government institutions like schools that are vital to upward social mobility.

The problem here is that he’s just described the Republican and Democratic parties. And this is the problem with “moderate” Republicans: they are always calling for a party that already exists. The fact that they could solve all their problems by switching parties means one of two things. Either they are too partisan to see the truth or they secretly like what the Republicans are doing but want to be more discrete. I’m sure there is some of the former. Thomas Friedman certainly seems to fall in this category, and I don’t think he is even a Republican. But most people fall in the latter category: they just want to talk nice about vile policy.

I’m with Richard Barry: I’d like to see Republicans turn into a more reasonable party. But I have little hope of this. It all comes down to the very definition of conservatism. The movement is bound by the idea that the way things are is the way that things should be. Any change to the status quo would be bad. The same people who once argued that slavery was all part of God’s plan now argue that teenage motherhood, the nobility of the rich, and religious wars are all part of God’s plan.

Contra what all conservatives believe in their souls: we have not reached the end of history. There is so much that we could do to create a more egalitarian world that does a far better job of maximizing happiness. But for all the talk of people like Murphy, they only want progress that keeps things as they are. And it is the oxymoronic quality of this thinking that will stop the Republican Party from ever becoming reasonable.


[1] There are two kinds of people in the world:

Republican Foolishness on Negotiations

Fiscal CliffI tend to think that Republicans are more evil than stupid. But sometimes I wonder. Take today: Republican operatives have leaked Obama’s initial offer to deal with the “austerity bomb” (which is a much more accurate term than “fiscal cliff”). That’s fine, but their reason for doing it is foolish. They think they can attack the president as not taking the negotiations seriously. No one other than Fox News is going to accept that narrative.

Instead, most people are reacting like Ezra Klein, who wrote this evening, Obama to GOP: I’m Done Negotiating With Myself. In fact, Klein even says that he agrees that the offer isn’t serious. But I don’t see this at all. Thus far, the only thing the GOP has said is that they wouldn’t accept increases in tax rates at all. And this is coming from the party that has no real leverage. If no deal is reached, taxes go up by $500 billion dollars per year—most of that on high income earners.

Not all liberals are happy. Robert Reich thinks that Obama has already given away too much. He thinks there should have been no signaling of a willingness to raise the top tax bracket to some level less than the Clinton rate and that cuts to Medicare should have been completely off the table. I agree with him on the first point. On the second, the administration claims that these savings will not come from reduced benefits, so I will go along with them.

Overall, I’m pleased that the offer looks as good as it does. (Even Digby seems moderately pleased, and these days that’s saying something!) As may others, I am glad to see that that the president is not pre-negotiating. What’s more, let’s not lose sight of the most important thing here: the Republicans screwed themselves. Over the last two years, they’ve been unwilling to make extremely lopsided deals with the president, thinking that he would not win re-election. Well, now that he’s won re-election, they should know what the situation is. Those earlier deals were insurance and they decided to go on without it. Those are the breaks.

But it is wonderful to watch the Republicans running around so obviously desperate and making total fools of themselves. They are reaping what they sowed. And it is soooo richly deserved.

Cliches for David Petraeus

David PetraeusFor much of the media, the David Petraeus story never gets old. In fact, it seems that some of them are still hoping that they can convince the country that he has been unfairly victimized. There have even been calls to put him back in charge of the CIA. You see: he’s blackmail proof. (Did you know that the only things people are ever blackmailed over are affairs? And that Petraeus could never have another affair? Neither did I.)

Let’s take the basic facts of the Petraeus affair and see how we can turn it into the most cliched story imaginable. The story itself is really very simple and a cliche in its own right: an old married man has an affair with a younger woman. Now let’s expand this into five all new cliches:

  1. He ended the affair because it was the right thing to do.
  2. He’s a great guy—really.
  3. The wife is standing by her man just like the great gal he married.
  4. He was never a skirt chaser—this is an anomaly.
  5. It wasn’t his fault—he just fell for the younger woman’s charm.

This is the story we get from New York Post writer Chuck Bennett in his article, David Petraeus Says He ‘Screwed Up Royally’ in Letter to Old Army Buddy. It doesn’t get better than this!

In addition to being a laundry list extramarital affair cliches, it tends toward the hagiographic. Even after the mighty hero’s fall, the mainstream media just can’t let go. We are still greeted with pieces saying nothing other than, “Petraeus is great and what he did was minor.” I agree about his affair being minor. He has committed far worse sins in public view to applauding media. But since we will never get this kind of discussion, we can at least hope that reporters will shut the fuck up about the man.

Petraeus has retired. It is time for the press to let him go.

H/T Reed Richardson

Update (29 November 2012 9:46 pm)

Michael Stickings at The Reaction where I blog has a slightly different take on this news, Petraeus: “I screwed up royally.”

Daily Nerd Humor

BenderI just watched Futurama, episode “Hell is Other Robots.” It has one bit that really made me laugh. After Bender finds religion, he takes the crew out to dinner. But he insists upon saying grace, stopping everyone from eating. I think this is something that religious people don’t see: just how narcissistic are their ostentatious displays of religiosity.

Anyway, Bender says, “To quote the prophet Jerematic, ‘one-zero-zero-zero-one-zero-one-zero-one-zero-one-zero-one…” And then there is a dissolve to apparently much later, “Zero-zero-one-zero-one-one-zero-zero-one-two. Amen.”

A little before the meal, Bender is baptized in “high viscosity baptismal oil.” In the background is a religious sign:

Robot Hell

For the record, this is old fashioned BASIC. Nerd humor.

Why Conservatives Accept Discredited Ideas

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman wrote a blog post this morning, Varieties of Error. In it, he highlights two kinds of predictive failures: those that indicate the fundamental thinking (or “model”) is wrong and those that just show that predictions are predictions. Think of football, for example. The Texans is a much better team than the Chiefs. In general, the Texans will beat the Chiefs. But if the Texans commits a number of turnovers, the Chiefs will win. The prediction was wrong, but the basic idea is correct: the Texans is a better team than the Chiefs. On the other hand, if your model was that the Chiefs is better than the Texans, there is something wrong with the model. What’s more there is something wrong with you if, after 10 match-ups between the Texans and the Chiefs in which the Texans won 9 times, you still claim that the Chiefs is the superior team.

We see this a lot in politics and economics. Conservatives have been screaming for years that hyper-inflation is just around the corner. Every time someone writes a column about budget hysteria, there are always loads of comments reading, “But Greece!” We have explained for years why Greece is not the same as the United States. (We have our own currency!) I think that the United States could continue to not become Greece for another 100 years and this would still be a common conservative retort.

What I find fascinating is the divide between the certainty of liberals versus conservatives. This brings to mind Nate Silver. Even when his model was predicting a 90% likelihood of Obama winning, he was still cautious. He always pointed out that his model was basically just a poll aggregator and that the polls might be wrong. Contrast this to the conservative loons who were just certain that they were right.

For years, Krugman has been saying that we would not see inflation so long as the economy was depressed. But during that time, he has always added caveats. In particular, he’s noted that there may have been some kind of economic mechanism that he’s missing. Contrast this with, say, Niall Ferguson. For years, he would brook no doubt: inflation was on its way. (Eventually, he had to admit that he was wrong. Since then, he’s just become a general purpose conservative hack.)

This divide is not due to the humble characters of people like Nate Silver and Paul Krugman. As far as I can tell, both these men are as (rightly) filled with themselves as anyone. I think the divide comes from the acceptance of facts and the rejection of authority. The modern Republican Party is an authoritarian group. The truth is whatever their leaders say it is. Democrats still expect proof. And this gets to the heart of what it is to be a member of either group. Liberals could not live with themselves if they didn’t think that what they believed was in some fundamental sense true. Conservatives depend upon group identification. This is why Fox News exists: people want to be told that belonging to their group is right and true. Their position in the hierarchy is what matters.

As a result of this, we should not be surprised that conservatives continue to hold long discredited ideas. As long as the party accepts it, all is good. On the other hand, if the party suddenly believes something different, the members will change on a dime. This will eventually happen to the Republican Party on the issue of global warming. Of course, by then, it will be too late. In fact, it already is.

Afterword

I’m generalizing here a bit. !rtists and scientists are liberal. Those who aren’t tend to be libertarians, rather than the more vile forms of conservatism. It is hard to be a creative thinker when you feel obliged to groupthink.

Present “Fixes” for Future Problems

Matt YglesiasI first really took notice of Robert Reich many years ago when he said he was no longer for a balanced federal budget. He had been Labor Secretary under President Clinton, and he had seen how it was to work with Republicans. The way he saw it (I think this was in 2003), what was the point of Democrats accepting cuts in programs they believed in for the sake of balancing the budget? Once the Republicans got into office, they would unbalance the budget with tax cuts for the rich and unnecessary wars. When I heard that, I knew I had found someone who could cut through all the bullshit that covers political reporting.

I would go further, however. As you probably haven’t heard (except maybe here), Obama has greatly cut the federal deficit over the last three years. And yet, what did we hear throughout the campaign with almost no push back: Obama has exploded the debt! And Republicans will always run on this kind of stuff. It doesn’t matter how much they have to distort what’s actually going on. It is like a lot of other issues. The Democrats will never get the NRA endorsement, regardless of how nutty pro-gun they become. So what is the point of pandering?

Yesterday, Matt Yglesias made pretty much the same argument about the desire for a “grand bargain.” He isn’t making a partisan argument (as are Reich and me). There can be no “grand bargain” because current legislatures cannot bind the hands of future legislatures:

The only grand bargain that would work would be an abolition of democracy. How much the government should spend, and on what, and where the money should come from is the essence of politics. Corporate leaders’ hazy desire for long-term “certainty” is understandable to a point, but it’s completely impractical.

This is serious stuff. All this talk of a “grand bargain” is hurting our country now and could be much worse later. But what I find most interesting is how no one in the mainstream call out the hypocrsy of the austerity crowd. Pete Peterson has long been for a “grand bargain” to “fix the debt.” Yet when a situation comes along that quickly gets the debt on a much firmer footing, he’s against it. Why? Because that’s not how he wants to do it.

Peterson and all the people like him are just conservatives. Like Paul Ryan, they want something other than they claim. In Peterson’s case, he clearly doesn’t like Social Security and Medicare. Yglesias discussed this earlier in a different article:

What [Fix The Debt] believe in, instead, is the overwhelmingly importance of rate-cutting tax reform and reduced spending on retirement programs. Which is fine. Tax reform and the appropriate level of spending on bolstering the living standards of retired people are legitimate topics for debate. But if you saw a bunch of Quakers running around in a panic about the national debt pushing a plan to reduce the debt by cutting military spending, and then loudly objecting to all debt-reduction plans that don’t slash military spending you’d rapidly reach the conclusion that the Quakers don’t actually care about the national debt. They’re just pacifists. And good for them! But it would be extremely frustrating for them to run around pretending to be accountants.

Now, all these people are trying to use the crisis that they had a large hand in creating to justify fixing the (actually minor) problem by enacting policies they want for other reasons. It’s too bad we can’t try these people for treason.

The Plutocrats

Chrystia FreelandI think the way it works—and I think Romney’s comments were very telling in this regard—there are two differences in the mind of this class. First, they’re absolutely convinced that they’re not asking for special privileges for themselves. They’re convinced that it just so happens that their self-interest coincides perfectly with the collective interest. That’s where you get this idea of the “job creators.” The view is that to seek a low tax environment or less regulation, that’s not special pleading for yourself, it’s not transactional politics. It’s that this set of rules is the most conducive to economic growth for everybody. It will grow the pie. Now, it also happens to be an incredibly convenient way of thinking. If you’ve developed an ideology that what’s good for you personally also happens to be good for everyone else, that’s quite wonderful because there’s no moral tension.

—Chrystia Freeland, author of The Plutocrats
Interview with Ezra Klein

Global Thinker Paul Ryan

Paul RyanAlec MacGillis at The New Republic has now written about, Paul Ryan, Global Thinker? In the article, he alerts us to a new list from Foreign Policy, 100 Top Global Thinkers. Such exercises are always stupid. Earlier this year, I wrote about The Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, Pathetic Rock Journalism at Rolling Stone. In that article, I was particularly upset that George Harrison was listed at number 11. But I have to give The Rolling Stone credit: George Harrison was, in fact, a guitarist. I don’t think that Paul Ryan qualifies as a global thinker.

The article starts by listing Ryan’s bona fides as a budget guy: cut Medicaid by a third—check; privatize Medicare—check; savage all remaining programs other than the military—check! According to Foreign Policy these are “bold” ideas that Ryan gradually got the Republican Party to embrace.

Wait, wait, wait! Just hold the fuck on there! Stop!

We haven’t even gotten to the foreign policy part of the argument and the magazine has already piled the bullshit so high I can’t see. What they fail to mention is that the first step in Ryan’s budget balancing plan is to cut income tax rates. So let’s look at this plan. It lowers taxes (especially on the rich) and cuts spending on programs for the poor and middle class. This is what Republicans always want. This is not a budget; this is a Republican wish list. So Foreign Policy magazine gets a very slow start by not understanding anything about Paul Ryan’s domestic agenda.

Half way through their argument, the editors finally get to Paul Ryan’s global thinking. They do this by lying, “In the 2012 presidential election, contender Mitt Romney didn’t just champion Ryan’s ideas—he tapped the 42-year-old libertarian-leaning lawmaker as his running mate, catapulting the debate over the size and scope of the U.S. government to the top of the political agenda.” This one isn’t even close. MacGillis responds, “Well, not exactly—Romney tapped Ryan and didn’t champion his ideas.”

But Foreign Policy isn’t done yet:

“The choice is whether to put hard limits on economic growth or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government,” Ryan declared during his speech at the Republican National Convention, where organizers prominently displayed a humming national debt clock.

You see it, don’t you? Ryan gave a speech—at the RNC. And it was in front of a big debt clock! Q-E-Fucking-D!

There is even more though. And this is great because you can tell this was written before the election by someone who thought that Romney would win.

“Letting budgetary concerns drive national-security strategy means choosing decline,” Ryan declared in his budget, proposing cuts that would effectively slash funding to entities such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department—but not the military—by nearly $5 billion. We may not see Ryan’s dramatic ideas enacted now that his ticket has lost the election. But they might very well prove prescient.

There are a couple of things here. First, the quote from Ryan’s “budget”: I’m sure this is what the Soviet leaders were saying as they watched their infrastructure crumble—”Mustn’t cut the military!” You would think that the editors of Foreign Policy would have noticed the parallels. Second, those last two sentences! I’m sure they originally read, “And now that Romney will be president, those ideas will lead the country going forward.” Instead, they “might” “very well” prove “prescient.” Three weasels in one short sentence! At least Foreign Policy has something it can be proud of.

Metaphorical Fellatio

Matt TaibbiMatt Taibbi took one for the team; he read All In, Paula Broadwell’s biography of General Petraeus. He referred to the book as “slobberific”—a new word worth repeating.

The point of his article—One Interesting Thing About Paula Broadwell’s Petraeus Biography—is that it is perfectly in keeping with authorized biographies generally. And that is a big problem. He even quotes Glenn Greenwald’s well known observation about media bias in modern America, “The overwhelming, driving bias of the US media is subservience to power, whoever happens to be wielding it.”

Of course, Taibbi has his own way of getting his point across:

If you read All In carefully, the book’s tone will remind you of pretty much any other authorized bio of any major figure in business or politics (particularly in business), and it will most particularly remind you of almost any Time or Newsweek famous-statesperson profile.

Which means: it’s impossible to tell the difference between the tone of a reporter who we now know was literally sucking the dick of her subject and the tone of just about any other modern American reporter who is given access to a powerful person for a biography or feature-length profile.

The real scandal in the Petraeus episode isn’t that a would-be journalist was sleeping with her subject, it’s that lots and lots of other journalists are doing the same thing—metaphorically, anyway.

He ends the piece with a contrast between journalists of today and those of not that long ago. It is just sad:

Decades ago, when people like Sy Hersh were the go-to-profilers of influential people, journalists reflexively distrusted power, and any reporter, male or female, who wrote a blowjob profile (that’s what we call them) of a politician or tycoon was looked down upon as a hack and a traitor. But these days, you can’t tell the difference between your average profile of a Senator or CEO or a four-star general and an ESPN feature about a day in the life of Lebron James. We’re supposed to make heroes out of sports stars, but what’s everyone else’s excuse? At least Broadwell did it for love. Well, maybe it wasn’t even that…

What’s happened to us?

Warren Buffett Still an Asshole

Warren BuffettWe have very low expectations of the rich. If they aren’t complete assholes, we heap praise on them like they were curing lepers in Calcutta. Take Warren Buffett, for instance. Liberals just love him because he thinks maybe he shouldn’t pay less income tax on his billions than his secretary pays. How fucking magnanimous! I’m sure if he had a beard and wore linen, people would form a religion around him. Certainly, if he were Catholic, they would have beatified him by now.

There are a couple of other things that Buffett has said that make him not a complete dick. He has at least some humility about his position, having noted that he’s been lucky to live in a place that allows him to make a lot of money at the one thing he seems to be good at. He is also in favor of the Estate Tax. But other than this, there isn’t much else to love about the man. For example, he isn’t in favor of a wealth tax that might chip away at this $50 billion net worth. And he is ultra-critical of inflation. In fact, moderate inflation is a good thing and is especially helpful to the young and in debt. It is only people who own for a living—people that are mostly bad for the economy—who hate inflation.

Then there is the issue of Warren Buffett’s secretary. He has noted that he should pay a higher tax rate than she does, because she only makes $60,000 per year. I find this salary offensive. Buffett’s secretary must have a very hard job. And Buffett could certainly afford to pay more. But he doesn’t, because he doesn’t have to. This reminds me of a doorman who was interviewed in Park Avenue. He said that he figured when he first started working at the building that he would get great holiday tips because the people who lived there had so much money. But the tips were exactly the same as they were at less affluent buildings because these rich fucktards knew what the going rate was and that was all they were going to pay. Ditto with Buffett.

The reason that Warren Buffett is on my mind today is that on Monday, Charlie Rose asked him if he thought that replacing Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon would send a bad message. Buffett didn’t even seem to understand the question. He just started gushing about the evil Mr. Dimon, “I think he’d be terrific… If we did run into problems in markets, I think he’d actually be the best person you could have in the job.” Yeah, that’s just what we need, more foxes in charge of the hen house so they can keep handing out greater and greater numbers of hens to foxes milling around outside.

What do you give the man who has everything? You give him effusive praise—you tell that he isn’t just rich and powerful, he is also good. But not being as bad as other evil people doesn’t not make a man good. And Warren Buffett is not good. He’s just a little less vile than most of the men in his circle.