“Tax” Is Not A Four-Letter Word

As Congress takes up consideration of what the President and GOP have labeled “tax reform,” and what impartial observers describe as tax cuts mostly for the wealthy, it’s time for a re-run of my rant on the subject of taxation.

I’ve been particularly incensed by the appearance in Indiana of a TV spot aimed at Senator Joe Donnelly. Donnelly is a Democrat (moderate, of the Hoosier variety) considered vulnerable in 2018. The spot features a lovely young woman talking about the importance of tax reform–no specifics, no definitions, just a plea to Donnelly to support “fair” taxation.

I’m all for fair taxation, and I’m willing to bet everyone reading this is, too. I’m also willing to bet that definitions of a “fair” tax system vary widely (the devil, as we all know, being in the details). The one thing we should all recognize, however–whatever our personal opinions about “fairness”–is the difference between tax reform and tax cuts. 

As Jared Bernstein recently wrote in an article in the American Prospect,

In D.C. tax-debate parlance, “tax reform” means something specific: cutting tax rates and broadening the tax base. Rate reductions lose revenue, but you make it up by closing loopholes, exemptions, and favorable treatments of one type of income over another, thus broadening the income upon which taxes are levied.

As Bernstein points out (and we all know), most loopholes are the result of lobbying by special interests, not some disinterested analysis of their utility, making them very hard to eliminate. Even more pernicious is the belief–an article of faith in the GOP–that lower rates will generate more economic activity and thus more tax revenue. There is absolutely no evidence supporting this theory, and considerable evidence rebutting it, but it refuses to die.

In the current tax debate—no surprise—the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are predicting that their tax cuts will return large growth effects. They claim their plan—and to be clear, there is, as of yet, no plan—will increase the real GDP growth rate by at least half, from around 2 percent to 3 percent or 4 percent, and that this increase will offset much of the costs of the cuts.

This was the same story told by Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, and in every case the results belied the claims. The most recent example, from the state of Kansas, is particularly germane to this discussion, because it reveals flaws in the same ideas being bandied about by the current Congress.

Tax policy experts estimate that the measures being discussed would cost government $6.5 trillion in revenues over ten years, and dramatically increase the deficit the GOP pretends to care about.

The vast majority of the benefits of these measures accrue to the wealthiest households: Almost 50 percent of the cuts go to the top 1 percent, while 6 percent go to the middle fifth. About 27 percent of the gains go to the 120,000 families in the top tenth of the top 1 percent, whose average pretax income is $11 million.

If anything remotely like this package passes, it will exacerbate levels of inequality that already exceed those of the Gilded Age.

According to the Brookings Institute,

this tax reform plan gives a lift to growing inequality, and signals that the GOP is okay with persistent poverty and with the inability of one-third of us to feed our kids. It’s time to ask ourselves, how do we craft tax reform for the long term—reform that tackles American poverty and inequality and creates the conditions for inclusive economic growth?

I would suggest that genuine tax reform begins with the recognition that “tax” is not a four-letter word. Taxes are the dues we pay for social peace and stability, for the myriad of services that modern societies require and their citizens demand, and from which we all benefit.

We currently have a system that incentivizes the “haves” to evade their responsibility to pay a fair share, or even to discuss what a fair share would look like. Until we have that conversation, we may see tax cuts–mostly for the already privileged– but we won’t see anything resembling genuine tax reform.

 

 

Tyranny Of The Minority

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post revisited what has become an interminable discussion: why, when poll after poll shows a majority of Americans in favor of stricter gun laws, has Congress not responded? When it comes to guns, why are our Representatives so unrepresentative?

The authors–E.J. Dionne,— acknowledge the outsized influence of the NRA, but then they make a crucial point about American governance today.

But something else is at work here. As we argue in our book, “One Nation After Trump,” the United States is now a non-majoritarian democracy. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, that’s because it is. Claims that our republic is democratic are undermined by a system that vastly overrepresents the interests of rural areas and small states. This leaves the large share of Americans in metropolitan areas with limited influence over national policy. Nowhere is the imbalance more dramatic or destructive than on the issue of gun control.

Michelle Goldberg made much the same point in a recent column for the New York Times, titled “Tyranny of the Minority.”

The Republican Party has essentially become a majority party through minority rule. Accounts of the growing resistance to Trump often ignore the ways in which Republicans have shaped the rules of the game in their favor (you could almost called it “rigged,” to use one of the president’s favorite words). The authors write: “Our system is now biased against the American majority because of partisan redistricting (which distorts the outcome of legislative elections), the nature of representation in the United States Senate (which vastly underrepresents residents of larger states), the growing role of money in politics (which empowers a very small economic elite), the workings of the Electoral College (which is increasingly out of sync with the distribution of our population) and the ability of legislatures to use a variety of measures, from voter ID laws to the disenfranchisement of former felons, to obstruct the path of millions of Americans to the ballot box.”

The vast over-representation of rural areas and small states would be less troubling if there were not a substantial and growing divide between the political preferences and social attitudes of rural and urban Americans. That divide–illustrated by political maps showing blue cities in red states–means that the over-representation of rural Americans gives Republicans an unwarranted and unearned electoral advantage.

There’s a famous anecdote (probably apocryphal) in which a woman asks Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the founders had created, and Franklin responds “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

America’s founders were (rightly) concerned with the tyranny of the majority; they worried about the effect of “popular passions” on the exercise of individual rights. Those concerns were– and remain–valid. What they failed to foresee was the situation accurately described by these and other writers, a time when–thanks to urbanization, technology and rabid partisanship– the United States would be neither a democracy nor a republic.

American Exceptionalism

“American Exceptionalism” has meant different things at different times. Usually, however, the meanings ascribed to that phrase have been positive. Over at The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor, however, “El Jefe” has described a far less rosy aspect of our exceptionalism.

As a country, the US is 4.4% of the world’s population, yet we own 42% of the world’s guns.  Let that sink in.  Our homicide rate in the US is over 300% that of the average of the rest of the OECD.

As he also points out, there are many ways in which the population of the U.S. is not exceptional.

  1. Do we have mental health problems?  Of course, but so does every other country.
  2. Do we sell violent video games?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  3. Do we have violent television shows and movies?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  4. Do we have a breakdown in the family unit?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  5. How about churches?  Are our churches shrinking?  Yes, but they are doing the same in other countries.

What we have that other countries don’t have–or at least, don’t have as much of–is guns. Lots and lots of guns.

After the Las Vegas mass shooting, Americans engaged in what has now become a ritual of hand-wringing and mutual recriminations. Critics of our lax gun regulations pointed out that large majorities of Americans (including a majority of NRA members) want to tighten those restrictions; defenders of the armament status-quo insisted that widespread gun ownership equals “freedom.”

Although most of the commentary rehashed arguments we hear after every mass shooting–and we have a lot of mass shootings–I did learn something new, and it was both terrifying and encouraging. Half of the 265 million guns in the U.S. are owned by 3% of the population–and only 22% of us own any firearms.

It’s encouraging to know that my non-armed household is in the majority; the news–and the high number of gun deaths– sometimes make it seem as if every American old enough to lift a gun owns one.

What’s terrifying is the likelihood that  (with the possible exception of people who may be collecting historic muskets and powder-horns) the 3% who possess vast arsenals are scary dudes.

We don’t know nearly enough about gun owners or gun violence, because Congress refuses to allow the CDC or other agencies to fund research on the subject. But USA Today recently reported on a privately-financed survey of gun ownership.

Researchers found that the top reason people owned guns was for protection from other people, even though the rate of violent crime has dropped significantly the past two decades, said Deborah Azrael, director of research at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and one of the study’s authors.

Azrael said the study tried to update numbers and trends that hadn’t been reviewed in two decades. Separate reports on background checks and gun storage, based on the same survey, are scheduled to be released later this year.

“In a country where 35,000 people a year die by firearms, we haven’t been able to come out with a survey on gun violence for 20 years,” she said. “That’s a real failure of public health and public policy.”

The study also found that gun owners tend to be white, male, conservative, and residents of rural areas. Presumably–hopefully–that means that most of them are hunters, not crazed militia-men. On the other hand, a lot of America’s guns are handguns: the study found 111 million handguns nationwide, a 71% increase from the 65 million handguns in 1994.

So long as we have Trump in the White House and a Congress wholly-owned by the NRA and the gun manufacturers, we are unlikely to impose the sorts of reasonable restrictions that other countries have found effective, and we’re equally unlikely to get the kind of research we need.

I’d really like to know more about that 3%……

Under The Radar

The Trump administration’s daily assaults to American laws and norms have produced a sort of outrage fatigue in many of us. That can be dangerous.

As we hold our collective breath and cross our fingers–hoping that Muller’s investigation will provide enough evidence of criminality and/or treason to make impeachment imperative, or for the Democrats to regain control of Congress in 2018, or (even less likely) for Republicans in the Senate to put the national interest above partisanship– we have difficulty keeping up with the multiple ways this administration is undermining the rule of law and weakening democratic norms.

The Resistance needs a strategy that distinguishes between horrific decisions that can be reversed if and when sanity returns to the Oval Office (or Republicans in Congress grow a pair), and those that will have profound and long-lasting negative effects on our constitutional system. We can afford to bide our time on the first category–although a lot of people will be hurt in the meantime –but we have to be absolutely ferocious in resisting measures that will damage the country in the longer term.

The media has highlighted Trump’s failure to fill hundreds of second-and-third level positions in his administration. That failure is further evidence of the ineptitude of the current White House, but it is also a blessing in disguise. (Case in point: the current nominee for Chief Scientist at the Department of Agriculture is not a scientist; he’s a right-wing talk show host. Better vacancies than filling an administration with such people. ).  An administration that cannot function properly cannot do as much damage as one that efficiently pursues counterproductive policies.

At the same time, the media has been insufficiently alert to Trump’s alacrity in filling judicial vacancies. A recent report from Huffington Post began:

Thursday was a good day for Amy Coney Barrett. A Senate committee voted to advance her nomination to be a federal judge.

It wasn’t a pretty vote. Every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee opposed her nomination. They scrutinized her past writings on abortion, which include her questioning the precedent of Roe v. Wade and condemning the birth control benefit under the Affordable Care Act as “a grave infringement on religious liberty.” One Democrat, Al Franken (Minn.), called her out for taking a speaking fee from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit that’s defended forced sterilization for transgender people and has been dubbed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But Republicans don’t need Democrats’ votes, and now Barrett, a 45-year-old law professor at the University of Notre Dame, is all but certain to be confirmed to a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit — a court one level below the Supreme Court.

Barrett isn’t the only Trump nominee who is likely to upend settled Constitutional principles.

Consider John Bush. The Senate confirmed him in July, on a party-line vote, to a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Bush, 52, has compared abortion to slavery and referred to them as “the two greatest tragedies in our country.” He has also said he strongly disagrees with same-sex marriage, mocked climate change and proclaimed “the witch is dead” when he thought the Affordable Care Act might not be enacted.

The Senate also confirmed Kevin Newsom, 44, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in August. He wrote a 2000 law review article equating the rationale of Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 decision upholding slavery. He also argued in a 2005 article for the Federalist Society, a right-wing legal organization, that Title IX does not protect people who face retaliation for reporting gender discrimination. The Supreme Court later rejected that position.

Ralph Erickson, 58, was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in September. As a district judge in 2016, he was one of two judges in the country who ordered the federal government not to enforce health care nondiscrimination protections for transgender people.

Judicial nominees yet to be confirmed have supported discrimination against LGBTQ people, the “personhood” of fetuses, and a state’s right to criminalize “consensual sodomy.”

If Trump has been dilatory in filling administrative posts, he’s been an Energizer Bunny when it comes to the courts.  He has already nominated 17 circuit court judges and 39 district court judges, far more than his predecessors.

He’s also got more court seats to fill, having inherited 108 court vacancies ― double the number of vacancies Obama inherited when he took office. (That’s largely thanks to Republicans’ despicable years-long strategy of denying votes to Obama’s court picks to keep those seats empty for a future GOP president to fill–a strategy that prioritized partisan advantage over justice by overburdening federal courts and causing lengthy delays for litigants.)

Federal judges have lifetime appointments. Usually, the country benefits from the fact that these jurists are insulated against the threat of arbitrary dismissal; federal courts are currently demonstrating the great value of an independent judiciary as checks on Trump’s most autocratic tendencies.

If the administration is able to fill the federal bench with Roy Moore clones, however, we can say goodby to checks and balances and the rule of law as we have understood it.