Monday, December 11, 2017

One More Comment on the Tax Plan

At least we got a tax cut
Some people have noticed an interesting trait  in the Republican tax bill.  "Pass-through" income, i.e., income earned in a closely held corporation or partnership that passes directly to the members, is taxed as a lower rate than wages and salaries.  People doing identical work at identical pay may be taxed at very different rates depending on whether they are employees or independent contractors.  One commentator is quoted as saying that wage earners are being "substantially penalized."

This should not come as a surprise.  While Republicans in general, donors and voters alike, agree that government assistance is the worst kind of income (with some disagreement whether Social Security counts), the Republican donor class generally sees wages and salaries as the second-least worthy form of income.  Indications of this type were everywhere during the Obama Presidency, when reverence for business owners went hand-in-hand with contempt for their employees.  Underlying it all is the basic assumption that wealth is only created at the top, and only by investors, while the work force is simply a raw material applied by business owners to make things.  Often during the Obama Presidency Republicans would talk about business owners as if all or at least most Americans fit in that category.  If pressed, presumably Republicans would agree that most people at any given time were not business owners, but they tended to assume that everyone should at least aspire to own a business, and that anyone who did not was a loser and failure who probably didn't deserve to be taken into account.

This attitude reached its ultimate expression during the auto industry bailouts, when writers at the National Review and Wall Street Journal were outraged that banks and hedge funds were asked to take a loss while union members saved health insurance and pensions.  Bankers and hedge funds pours their life blood into the auto companies (the believe that wealth comes only from investors applies to passive investors as well as ones who actually run companies), while the auto workers never invested anything in the company (thirty years of work, repetitive stress injuries, etc. don't count as "investment" in the eyes of Republican donors) and were simply parasites draining it of resources and never giving anything in return.  The National Review and the Wall Street Journal  definitely wanted auto workers thrown out on the streets without their insurance or pensions as suitable punishment.  Neither went quite so far as to say that the loss of our auto industry was a small price to pay for ending the vile scourge of good-paying blue collar jobs, the the implication was never far below the surface.

This is not an attitude one would expect to be conducive toward a working class party.*  I don't think it too much of a stretch to believe that this attitude hurt Republicans with the white working class during the Romney campaign.  One of Trump's major advantages over the rest of the field was that he moved past that.  His talk about jobs and good paying jobs signaled loud and clear that he recognized most Americans would never operate a business, that many if not most did not want to operate a business, that millions are content to let someone else sign their paycheck and that that is fine.  Hell, he even played the class warrior denouncing Wall Street.

But this tax bills should show once and for all that the Republican donors are still in the driver's seat, and that their contempt for people who let someone else sign their paycheck hasn't gone away.  Now let's get the message out on that.

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*I don't mean to suggest that the working class should treat employers as an enemy and the failure to do so is false consciousness, but here was have employers treating their workforce as an enemy or, at best, as a sort of raw material to be used an discarded, and worker rights as something no less absurd that giving "rights" to raw materials.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Now What?

At least we got a tax cut
OK, so apparently the Senate tax bill will have to be worked out in conference with the House bill instead of simply passed unchanged by the House.  The Senate Republicans apparently made a little mistake on corporate taxes. 

When Trump calls the U.S. the highest taxed nation in the world, he is clearly wrong, but he does have one point.  Our corporate tax rate of 35% really is high.  Of course, corporations take advantage of enough deductions that the actual rate they pay is less than that.  In order to prevent corporations from getting out of taxes altogether, our current tax code has a corporate Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) of 20%, so that if a corporation has enough deductions to pay less than a 20% tax, it pays 20% instead.  A major part of the tax bill was to lower the corporate tax rate to 20%.  The plan was also to eliminate the corporate AMT as well.  However, arcane Senate rules that I still don't understand limit how much revenue the Senate bill can cost and still pass by a simple majority.  In order to slip in under the ceiling, the Senate put the AMT back in the bill.  In their haste, however, they forgot to lower the rate below 20%, so that they accidentally enacted a 20% corporate flat tax.  Oops!

So now the conference committee is trying to come up with something that can pass the House, where the Freedom Caucus is a firm believer in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good (or bad, as your opinion may be), and the Senate where arcane rules limit what can by passed with a simple majority and three defections can sink the bill. 

I am of mixed feelings about the outcome.

On the one hand, there is no doubt to my mind that if this monstrosity passes it can cause serious and untold harm.

On the other hand, the only way in the end that we are going to harm Republicans' political fortunes is to allow them to harm their followers.  If only we could prevent collateral damage.

But in the end, the question is what long-lasting legacy this bill will have.  It looks to me very much like an attempt to starve the beast, i.e., to cause enough damage to the government's finances to ensure that when Democrats are next in power they won't be able to achieve anything. 

Attempts to strip 20 to 30 million people of their health insurance with the repeal of Obamacare will certainly be unpopular and will lead to major Republican electoral losses.  But stripping 20 to 30  million people of their health insurance will also create a big enough mess to have at least three big advantages for Republicans:

  1. Wrecking things is much easier than building them.  Because stripping 20 to 30 million people of their health insurance is easier than creating a system to insure them, Republicans can be confident that they will have raised the number of uninsured for a very long time.
  2. Democrats' inability to clean up the mess fast enough will be great fodder for a campaign against them and will return Republicans to power.
  3. Democrats are now on warning.  If by some miracle they actually do succeed in building a new system for insuring millions, Republicans will just blow it up as soon as they are back in power.  That should act as a significant deterrent.
And that was just Obamacare.  This starve-the-beast tax cut looks like an attempt to do the same hting on a much larger scale.  Which is more than enough to convince me to oppose it.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Don't Blame This One on Trump

At least we got a tax cut
Look, I know some people are blaming Jeff Flake and other Republican moderates for being hypocrites because they say they oppose Trump and then vote for this monstrous Republican tax bill, but I think this is one it Trump is simply a generic Republican.  They all want a huge tax cut to reward their donors and starve the beast to force future spending cuts (especially to Medicaid/Medicare/ Social Security).  Grover Norquist famously said that his qualifications in a Republican President were a working set of digits to sign whatever legislation the Republican Congress could pass.  Well, anyone looking at Trump's tweets can see it meets that standard.  It would be the same with any other Republican President with a working set of digits.

The is the Republicans core central mission since Ronald Reagan, who said, "[I]f you've got a kid that's extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker."  Admittedly both Reagan and Bush, Senior flinched when they ran into a groundswell of opposition to cutting Social Security.  Bush Junior forgot about it altogether.  But under Obama, Republican donors and the politicians they owned convinced themselves that the only reason Bush, Junior's popularity fell was that he didn't seriously take an ax to the New Deal and resolved not to make the same mistake twice.  From the safety of controlling only the House (2011-2012), they kept voting not only to repeal Obamacare, but to privatize Medicare as well.  In the 2012 election, Democrats didn't run against their plans for a simple reason.  Focus groups revealed that no on believed it.  Ending Medicaid and phasing out Medicare to make room for a big tax cut for their donors was so extravagantly unpopular that no one believed a political party would commit suicide by doing it.  Donald Trump ran in 2016 specifically on a promise not to undermine Social Security or Medicare (despite favoring even bigger tax cuts than anyone else).

Well, now they are at it again, giving donors major tax breaks in order to get funding for their campaigns and starve the beast.  How do we know it?  Because Republicans have actually said so.  In the Senate, Lindsey Graham has warned that if the Republicans don't pass this, "the financial contributions will stop."  In the House, Chris Collins says. My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.”  Marco Rubio has openly come out in favor of using the resulting deficits as an excuse to cut Social Security and Medicare, as have others.

They would be doing the same thing if a Republican other than Trump were in office.  Suppose instead of Trump we had a President Marco Rubio.  What would be different?  Well, he wouldn't be distracting us with outrageous tweets.*  There would not be any need to investigate him for possible collusion with Russia.  Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon and Steve Miller would be obscure consultants.  So there would be some advantages.  His appointees would be just as committed to destroying their departments, but they would not be so nakedly offensive in their behavior as to do things like fly a private jet at taxpayer expense to see the eclipse.  We might very well be just as close to war with North Korea and/or Iran and closer to war with Russia, but in a more seemly manner.  The President would take an actual interest in the content of the tax bill and not just having a signing ceremony.  He would push for some pet projects and tell less blatant lies about it.  But the payoffs to donors and the starve the beast strategy would be exactly the same.

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*I don't mean by this that the tweets are a deliberate distraction ploy, just that they are having that practical effect.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Saluting George Washington on Veteran's Day

And, on the subject of Veteran's Day and the role the military does and does not have in maintaining freedom, let us consider George Washington and his Continental Army, and how we honor them.

We do not honor Washington and his Continental Army in the way that we honor Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant.  We don't marvel at his military genius, as we do for Lee or Grant, or thrill to the battles that he won.  While we have Civil War reenactments that recreate the battles in every detail except for the killing.  The Revolutionary War just doesn't inspire that sort of devotion.  Part of it, I assume, is that no one wants the play the British.  But the other reason is that it would be embarrassing.  Washington's Continental Army lost most of the battles it fought.  Yes, granted, it won the Battle of Trenton and inspired the famous patriotic painting above.  But the Battle of Trenton is not exactly one that bears reenacting.  Instead of facing off in a fair fight, Washington's army sneaked up on the Hessians while they were holding a Christmas party, which seems like rather dirty pool.  He contributed much of he planning to the turning point Battle of Saratoga, but was not present to command.  And although he was, of course, present for the decisive (for some reason) Battle of Yorktown, but the French played a major role in that.

So what do we honor Washington and his Continental Army for?  The place name most people think of when it comes to Washington and his army is Valley Forge, which was not a battle at all, but a winter encampment.  We remember and honor Washington and his army for enduring cold, hunger and disease and sticking together.  It is entirely appropriate that we should honor them in that way.  In every war before the 20th Century, more soldiers died of disease from squalid conditions than were killed in battle.  And besides, battle takes up only a small part of any army's time.  Procuring food and shelter are much more of their ongoing existence.  And, although there were many desertions, for an army to be barefoot in the winter and not know where its next meal was coming from, but not to desert en masse, or to mutiny, or take to uncontrollable looting really is an important achievement.

But we honor George Washington not just for holding together a starving and freezing army.  We honor him having an army often unpaid and desperate for supplies and an incompetent government seemingly incapable of providing them and still respected civilian control of the military.  He never marched his army against the Continental Congress to oust these blunderers and get things done.  And when his army, angry over still not being paid, finally did mutiny, Washington sympathized with their grievances, but talked them down anyhow. 

And, of course, he was honored not only in the U.S., but throughout Europe for not using the prestige that accompanied him as military hero to become a military dictator, but retired to Mount Vernon and returned to politics only as an elective civilian rule, and only for two terms.  George III is quoted as saying, "If that is true, he's the greatest man of our age."  Reading over the notes from the Constitutional Convention and the ratification debates, it has become clear to me that, contrary to what I was taught in school, no one at the time was the least bit worried about a hereditary monarchy.  What they feared was a military dictatorship.  One need look no further than France just a few years later to see that such fears were well justified.

So yes, by all means, let's honor our veterans.  But let's not turn honor into idolatry.  And let's remember that in the end, our army can protect freedom only by deferring to civilian leadership, however unworthy it may seem.

A Very Politically Incorrect Comment this Veteran's Day

I have been wanting to do this post since the NFL protests, with one side saying that football players kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner insults our troops overseas and the other saying that our troops overseas are fighting for the players' right to protest.

It also harkens back to a song my school sang on the Bicentennial, "Freedom is a word often heard today/But if you want to keep it there's a price to pay/Each generation has to win anew/Cause it's not something handed down to you.  Freedom isn't free."  In fact, it is inspired by every time I hear that "freedom isn't free," taken to imply that the more wars we fight, the freer we are.

It is also inspired by a poem I saw long ago in the Washington Times generally denigrating democratic (small-d) politicians ("who would betray a fellow man") as self-seeking, squalid and sordid compared to soldiers who are models of pure, unselfish patriotism.  "It's not the politicians with their compromising ploys/That have given us the freedom that our country now enjoys."

But what finally inspired me to write it today (on Veterans Day) was a tweet on Twitter:
It’s the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of press
It’s the soldier, not the speaker, who has given us freedom of speech
It‘s the soldier, not the organizer, who gave us freedom to assemble
We can‘t thank them enough, but we must try.
And this counter-tweet, "please PLEASE stop vomiting this nonsense all over social media every May and November."

So let's talk about how we achieved our freedom.  I do think it fair to say, by fighting against un-freedom.  But there are many kinds of un-freedom, some that soldiers can protect us against, and many they cannot.

The most obvious kind of un-freedom is foreign conquest.  If there is one definition of freedom recognized the world over and throughout all history, it is freedom from foreign conquest.  Our military does protect us from that kind of un-freedom, and for that we should be grateful.

Another kind of un-freedom is the un-freedom that is inevitable when a country lives under the shadow of constant menace.  Freedom and security are often spoken of as being opposed, but without a certain minimum of security, we cannot be free.  Our military protects us from any foreign menace that might force us to live in fear, or as an armed camp.  So, again, let us be grateful for that.*

But the military can only protect a country from external menaces and give the country the scope to create its own domestic institutions.  Whether the institutions that a country creates at home are free institutions or not is not something the military can control.  Or rather, when the military controls a country's domestic institutions, then that country by definition is not free.  It is a military dictatorship.  Once the military gives a country the scope to create its own institutions and agrees to step aside to allow civilians to create those institutions, it is the civilians who decide whether those institutions will be free or not. 

It isn't always easy.  In the countries that have free domestic institutions today, there are many heroic stories of how it was won, but the military plays a supporting role at most.  In other countries, it was the story of the majority rising up against a ruling elite.  In the U.S., the story has been one more of dissenting minorities standing up to the tyranny of the majority.  Freedom of the press was won, in many cases, as a struggle to resist wartime restrictions placed on what could be expressed.  It has its heroes, its villains, and even a few martyrs.  But it was not fought by soldiers on the battlefield, it could not be won on the battlefield, and it is most unlikely to be lost on the battlefield.  The same can be recounted any number of times, with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and countless others.**

Nor are our soldiers overseas fighting for our domestic freedom at home.  Looking at the numerous wars we are fighting overseas, can anyone point to a single shred of evidence that we are any freer for fighting them, or that we would be any less free without them?  Or that fighting any more wars overseas would make us any freer at home?  Some may object that even if our wars abroad do not make us freer at home, they bring freedom to other people and therefore make our world more secure and allow liberty a better opportunity to flourish at home.  And it is true that we freed Europe from the Nazis and safeguarded them from the Communists and thereby allowed freedom and friendship to flourish.  It is also true that we freed Europe from the Kaiser, too, but Europe ultimately gave up its freedom between the wars and became a series of dictatorships. 

Korea is an even better example.  Our army saved South Korea from the Communists.  If we had not saved South Korea from the Communists, it would be just like North Korea today -- one of the least free countries the world over.  To this day our army (together with the South Korean army; must give credit where it is do) continues to protect South Korea from North Korea. But saving South Korea from the Communists did not, by itself, make South Korea free.  It merely made it possible for South Korea to be free.  For a long time, that country continued to be an unfree military dictatorship. 

And in the US today, the military contributes to our freedom somewhat by safeguarding it in places far from home, but mostly by staying out of domestic politics altogether and leaving it to the democratic process.  Our free government rests with politicians who concede defeat when they lose, or who win and make the sordid, squalid compromises that are necessary to get things done, instead of calling in the army to crush their opponents by brute force.  It rests with the whole brigade of volunteers and professionals who campaign for politicians but stay within proper bounds.  It rests with journalists who expose abuses by the powerful, and tipsters who give them leads.  It rests with lawyers who stand up for the little guy and judges who give them their day in court.  It rests with protesters who speak their minds and counter-protesters who speak theirs, and police who keep them apart.  It rests with the countless organizations, some political, some not, that make up a free society.  It rests with a public that understands the rules of democratic fair play, that accepts defeat when they lose and accepts that no win is final and absolute.

And the reason our democracy is starting to look imperiled today is not just that people are losing faith in our institutions.  It is because people are losing faith most of all in democratic institutions like Congress or their state legislature, and keeping most faith in the most authoritarian institutions, like the military.  Because democracy is government of the people, and if the people don't want it, it cannot endure. 

So let's give our honor to our veterans for defending national sovereignty.  And to the figures of the past who squeezed open old doors to give us the free institutions we have today.  And to the politicians, journalists and countless others who make the system work today.  And We, the People, who the whole system rests upon.  Because know that in the end, whether our freedom survives depends above all on us, and whether we maintain the habits and discipline that freedom and democracy require.

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*Of course, there may be other factors at work here, too.  Like the wide oceans that lie between us and either Europe r Asia, and our being so much more powerful than either Canada or Mexico that neither could possibly threaten us.  And, yes, our military might is at least partly responsible for this fortunate situation.  But so is the attractiveness of this country that brought over enough people that made our population so vastly larger than our neighbors'.  So is their energy that much us so much wealthier than our neighbors. So is the wisdom of our political leadership that managed to pursue friendly relations with our neighbors instead of making them enemies.
**The obvious exception is slavery, which was defeated on the battlefield.  But if there is one thing that the failure of the Reconstruction should make clear, it is that freedom cannot be imposed at gunpoint on an unwilling population.  The Army could end slavery; it could not create freedom.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

If Trump Shot Someone in the Middle of Fifth Avenue, Continued

OK, the latest development show that I have missed part of what would most likely happen if Trump shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. 

I still believe that he would begin by denying it, insist that the tape of him doing it was "fake news," the witness were paid Hillary shills, and that the forensic evidence linking the bullets to his gun were a violation of the Second Amendment. Once the evidence got too strong to deny, he would lock himself in the bathroom and send out whiny, petulant tweets explaining that it wasn't his fault the other guy stepped in front of the bullet and besides, the Secret Service saw him point the gun, so why didn't the wrest it away from him.  Not to mention than any elitist who hangs out on Fifth Avenue deserves to die anyhow.

But somewhere along the line people with who are more disciplined than Trump would figure out that Trump's tweets just wouldn't quite cut it.  So the whole right wing media complex, the Fox News/Breitbart/talk radio/Murdoch axis would come out with a new argument.  Actually the guy Trump shot fired at him first, so Trump shot him in self defense.  Although Trump would be surrounded by the Secret Service and the victim's failure to hit anyone or anything on a crowded street might be a bit much even for the Right Wing Noise Machine, so they might have to settle on saying that he was pointing a gun and about to shoot. 

A minimum of research would no doubt soon reveal that the victim was a registered Democrat and probably donated to the Clinton campaign or at least wrote something favorable to her.  This would put the alternative facts machine into high gear that they would start spinning out all sorts of conspiracy theories about how this assassination attempt was actually engineers by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.  (If right wing commentators were smart, or at least had smart lawyers, they would drop the subject of the victim as quickly as possible for fear of libel suits and instead focus on the imagined conspiracy, whose members would all be either public figures or figments of their imaginations).  The absence of a gun or any other evidence whatever to support this theory would simply be taken as proof of how well planned the conspiracy was, that the members were able to conceal all evidence of its existence.

At least we got a tax cut
Trump would learn about the whole thing from watching Fox and Friends and tweet out that he just learned that the guy he shot was was about to shoot him on behalf of the Democrats and call for an investigation.  House Republicans would say that they didn't think Trump shooting someone was important enough to call for an investigation, but would throw their energies into looking into the Democrat's dastardly plot to kill the President.  Eventually, toward the end of Trump's term, they would acknowledge that there was nothing to be found, but by then the effect would have been made and a sizable portion of the population would believe that Democrats attempted to assassinate Trump and only his sharp reflexes thwarted the plot.

And if anyone thinks this is an exaggeration, just look at what is happening now.

Monday, October 30, 2017

A Liberal's Difficulty Telling Conservatives from Authoritarians

At least we got a tax cut
Here is where a liberal like me has trouble telling conservatives from authoritarians.  Recall my definitions.  A liberal favors breadth in moral and social commitments, even if it leads to a loss of depth.  A conservative favors depth in moral and social commitments, even if it leads to a loss of breadth.  An authoritarian sees social commitment largely in terms of solidarity in opposition to outside threats.  A liberal seeks to engage outsiders, though the engagement is usually superficial, and the superficiality is repugnant to conservatives.  A conservative focuses on deepening commitments at home and is indifferent to outsiders in a way that strikes liberals as bigoted.  An authoritarian is actively hostile and punitive toward outsiders.

So, Donald Trump has been desultory in his response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico.  And he is gearing up for possible war on North Korea, a conflict that would have disastrous consequences for South Korea and possibly Japan.  And his supporters are fine with both of these.  Many of them did not know that Puerto Rico was part of the United States and that Puerto Ricans are US citizens.  They have somewhat softened upon learning this, but basically oppose expending government resources on Puerto Rico.  And they want to see any North Korean nuclear threat to us destroyed and don’t much care what happens to South Korea or Japan as a result.

I would go one step further and say that Trump supporters see it as immoral to expend resources on Puerto Rico, or to care what happens to South Korea or Japan as a result of our actions because any concern for Puerto Rico, South Korea, or Japan shows an insufficient commitment to our own.

So the question is, is such an attitude compatible with conservatism, or is it purely authoritarian?  I don’t know. 

While I have suggested that a conservative is indifferent to outsiders and an authoritarian hostile, I don’t mean by this that authoritarians seek out outsiders to be hostile toward.  Authoritarians are hostile toward outsiders only to the extent that they somehow intrude on us.  Indeed, everyone reacts with hostility toward intrusion; some people’s activation level is merely higher than others.  Authoritarians’ level is extremely low.

Presumably authoritarians are hostile toward Puerto Ricans anyhow because they move here, speak Spanish, and immediately qualify for citizenship.  Wanting the U.S. government to help out and spend taxpayer resources on them is another such intrusion.  And it seems safe to assume that following the hurricane a whole lot more Puerto Ricans will be moving here and amp up authoritarian hostility to them even more.

On the other hand, I doubt very much that even the most aggressive authoritarians have anything against Japan or South Korea.  Yes, there have been trade dispute in the past, but those are mostly forgotten, giving way to disputes with China or Mexico.  And yes, Trump is trying to ramp up trade disputes and hostility toward both countries, but both seem fairly how down on the authoritarian list of people to hate.

On the other hand, South Korea and Japan are now being asked to be included in our moral calculations.  They are asking us to take into account just how devastating the consequences will be to them if we start a war with North Korea.  And that in itself may be enough of an intrusion to activate authoritarian hostility toward them.  At the very least, Trump supporters (a) don’t care if Seoul or Tokyo is destroyed in a war with North Korea, and (b) consider it immoral for the President to care because it would mean insufficient resolve to protect the US.

So fair question.  I think conservatives consider charity beginning at home versus charity ending at home to be a distinction without a difference because it is the depth, not the breadth, of charity that matters, and there is always room for deeper charity among one’s own.  Conservatives also tend to oppose broadening of moral and social commitment for fear of undermining depth, and this liberals do often have trouble telling this from bigotry.  Conservatives do not go out of their way to help outsiders, but neither do they have any desire to harm outsiders.


So speaking as a liberal, I really need to understand.  Are conservatives equally indifferent to harm to outsiders when it is the result of our own activity?  Do they consider it immoral to care about the harm we inadvertently cause to people who have never done anything to us?