Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Killing Trees

Andrew Sullivan yesterday posted the Chart of the Day, showing the increasing complexity of the United States Tax Code.

Since I entered the work force officially in 1985, the amount of pages in the tax code has nearly tripled. At what point does this become absolutely unsustainable? What, say about 1945? Can this chart be any more indicative of a central government gone over the edge? And before you conservatives start laying blame for this crap at the foot of liberals, let's look closely at the data:
  • From 1984 to 1995, Republicans were in power for eight of those 11 years. There was an increase in pages of the Tax Code from 26,300 to 40,500, or 54%.
  • From 2000 to 2011, Republicans were in power for nine of those 11 years. There was an increase in pages of the Tax Code from 46,900 to 72,536, or 55%.
  • From 1995 to 2000, Democrats were in power. There was an increase in pages of the Tax Code from 40,500 to 46,900, or 16%.
This is not a perfect analysis of the data, as Democrats had control of Congress during much of the Reagan, George HW Bush, and George W Bush administrations, and Republicans dominated during the Clinton years. But the impetus for massive tax cuts and changes to the tax laws, which would add reams of pages to the Code, came from Republicans. Considering how this is the party which consistently mouths the words "limited government" during election cycles, it's pretty clear that they have no clue what they're really talking about (or doing).

Like Bruce Bartlett, I favor a complete overhaul of the tax code and actually envision a time when we have a VAT or a flat tax in this country. We have got to stop carving out niches for every single interest group in this country, to the point where it takes thousands and thousands of workers to sift through those dead trees (or, now, the increased bandwidth) and make sure that filed returns comply with the Code. I support a non-regressive version of a consumption tax, where everyone contributes an equal share of their consumption in the form of taxes, whether or not they own a home. There could be deductions for certain things that tend to foster inequality, like the cost of home ownership being higher than renting or spending money on green initiatives like solar power or hybrid/electric cars. And yes, I would also support job creation blitzes, which would give corporations and small businesses the ability to reduce their tax exposure during a window when job growth was vitally important (like it is now).

This sort of tax would serve two primary purposes: 1) it would be a cash cow for the government and bring down the national debt much faster and balance the budget much more easily, and 2) it would simplify the way the nation manages its money.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What's On My Pandora?

After I got my DroidX phone last June, I gave up renting my wife's iPod for my crazy workout music. Pandora Internet Radio solves the problem of having to update my music library with more and more music. This free app lets me listen to the artists I specify and without the expense of more downloads (though downloading is available). The only catch is that I have to listen to a 15-30 second ad a couple of times each hour. A few drawbacks of Pandora are that I can't rewind a song that has played and listen again, and I can only skip up to six songs per hour. Here now are my fave listens from my current Pandora setup:

  1. Gentle Giant -- anything from "Octopus," "Freehand" or "The Power and the Glory"

  2. Yes -- anything from "Going for the One" in particular

  3. Jethro Tull

  4. Dream Theater -- disgustingly brilliant guitar wizardry from John Petrucci

  5. Liquid Tension Experiment -- featuring members of Dream Theater, King Crimson, and the Dixie Dregs

  6. Frank Zappa

  7. Genesis -- anything from the Peter Gabriel era, particularly "Nursery Cryme" and "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway"

  8. King Crimson

  9. Emerson Lake and Palmer -- "Hoedown," "Fanfare for the Common Man," and "Tarkus"

  10. Pink Floyd -- post Syd Barrett

  11. The Who

  12. Allan Holdsworth

  13. Jeff Buckley

  14. The Beatles -- for the kids (and for me too!)

  15. Weather Report/Jaco Pastorius/Joe Zawinul/Wayne Shorter

The beauty of Pandora is that they play a lot of rare live cuts of the artists I like. Also, I get surprised by some choice cuts that seem to come out of nowhere: Al DiMeola, Jeff Beck, Chris Squire, and Roger Waters post-Floyd.

Back to our regularly scheduled madness.

Blog Post Layouts

When I write these posts on my computer, I see the paragraph breaks on my screen, but when I post them, the paragraphs run together into one long, stream-of-consciousness rant. I apologize for how it all looks in your emails and on your screens. I'm researching the matter and hope to have it resolved shortly.

I Should Be Surprised and Disturbed, But...

... reviewing the results of a recent PPP poll of Mississippi Republican voters does not raise an eyebrow for me. It does not surprise me that a significant plurality (46%) of this voting bloc of largely white, conservative Christians believes that inter-racial marriage should be illegal. It also doesn't surprise me that those voters have strong favorable ratings for Sarah Palin and less-favorable ratings for Mitt Romney. What surprises me is that, because 40% of those voters believed inter-racial marriage should be legal, there are 14% of these voters who are "unsure" of their opinion. When people answering poll questions answer, "I'm not sure" to a question like that, it generally means one of two things: either they are too scared to express their real opinion that they believe whites should only marry whites, or they truly haven't formed an opinion. Either way, there's a good chance that a clear majority of these voters believe it should be illegal for white people to marry anyone outside their own race. And Sarah Palin owns that bloc. The poll also shows that current Mississippi governor Haley Barbour has the highest favorable ratings (85%) among this bloc, and of those who have a favorable rating of him, nearly four-fifths believe inter-racial marriage should be illegal. This confirms for me that, in the south, racism still has a very strong hold among whites, that Jim Crow flows through their veins, and that people who call themselves Christians in that part of the country are oblivious to the distinctly un-Christian values they hold. As Sullivan is fond of saying about the Republicans, it's going to get much worse before it gets better. I'm still betting on a schism between religious nutjobs/Tea Partiers and secularists who are both fiscally conservative and socially moderate.

I See Your True Colors Shining Through

Mike Pence, Republican Congressman of Indiana, on a possible government shutdown:
Well, I don’t know if we’re checkmating. But we’re trying — we’re trying to score a victory for the Republican people, for — for the American — for the Republican people — trying to score a victory for the American people, not for the Republican Party. That victory is going to come in stages here.
It's so great when they stumble. It would have been a much less telling slip of tongue had he not said "Republican people" twice. Hat tip to Think Progress, who have a particular (and well-founded) disdain for Pence, the most un-intellectual Republican intellectual in Congress.

"A Political, and Not an Economic, Plan"

A Sullivan reader (have you seen his new website since he moved from The Atlantic to The Daily Beast?) takes Andrew to task for not seeing the more sinister scheme at play in Paul Ryan's budget "plan":
[I]t is the culmination of about a thirty year Republican strategy called "starve the beast," by which Republicans have worked to reduce taxes and increase the national deficit as large as possible - all to create the supposed "deficit crisis" that we now face and to use that crisis to eliminate programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and a slew of other programs (EPA, SEC, Planned Parenthood, collective bargaining, etc.) that the Republican class has never been able to eliminate through the democratic process.
Andrew's response, that he has acknowledged the political undertones in his objections to a budget plan with no revenue generation dimension, feels slippery to me. Indeed, the last bit has me worried about his slipping further to the right:
From Reagan to W, with the great exception of George HW Bush, Republicans have told us we can have our cake and eat it. That's not the tone of Ryan's austerity. And that alone is worth something.
No, the tone of Ryan's austerity is not some noble plan that suggests, "Hey, we Republicans are willing to take bold steps to right our listing federal ship." Ryan's austerity, timed to coincide with Obama's announcement of a re-election campaign and an impending federal government shutdown, suggests something more like, "It is the Democrats, especially President Obama, who have gotten us into this mess, and we Republicans are trying to do something to stop the damage they're causing." It's cynical, and it attempts to gloss over the truth that the fiscal irresponsibility of Republicans have created the mess we're in: from drastic tax cuts for wealthy Americans and corporations; to a multi-trillion dollar Medicare program that was unpaid for; to two unpaid-for, immoral, and unnecessarily long war efforts costing trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives (to say nothing of the millions of Iraqis and Afghans who have died); to unfettered deregulation of the financial sector which led to the most disgusting excesses in world history and the disappearance of trillions in middle class wealth (indeed, Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky seem petty in retrospect when seeing Enron, WorldCom, and Bernie Madoff). It is well-known to anyone with a functioning brain and an interest in domestic affairs that Republicans believe government to be the ultimate problem, and shutting it down by cutting off funds is their way to accomplish their decades-old agenda. On CNN this morning, Donald Trump himself said that Ryan's plan, and the Republicans who are standing behind it, are going out "way, way too far" (sorry, no link yet). He doesn't have a plan yet himself (and I agree with him that, since he's not a candidate yet, he shouldn't sound off at this point), but he's right that there is a serious lack of leadership, both in Congress and in the White House, to tackle the problem. I don't want to reverse my earlier position that Ryan's plan, such as it is, is at least a starting point, but let's be very careful not to call this a serious attempt to handle our budget problem. If it were serious, there would be a generous amount of revenue-generating ideas to balance out the drastic cost-cutting measures. Without any idea on how to raise revenue (other than the sure-fire failure of supply-side economics), the plan is a cruel attack on the middle class.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Danger of Taking Political Rhetoric Seriously

Andrew Sullivan is a brilliant thinker. He's principled, fair-minded, and honest, if a bit dramatic. Of course, I read his blog every day, several times a day, to keep current on the events and issues I care about, because he cares about them too. A few days ago, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan (WI) proposed a sweeping plan for financial reform that purports to reduce the national debt by $6 trillion over the next decade, and includes a serious look at cuts in the sacred cows of government programs, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Whether or not you agree with Ryan's plan -- and there are many things to dislike about it, like how it forces Medicare recipients to shoulder a greater burden and does not tax our wealthiest Americans and corporations one penny to raise revenue -- it's at least a "serious" attempt to start the dialogue. I'm certain Ryan doesn't expect his plan to be adopted by President Obama, but, politically speaking, it's an effective shot across Obama's bow just as he begins to gear up for re-election. So, today, Sullivan posts why he can't stand the Democrats, because they made a statement on the record that predicts Ryan's plan will hurt them in 2012. Sullivan writes, "This is the kind of politics Obama swore to avoid in the campaign." Well, let's be real: first, campaigning for election is a lot different than campaigning for re-election. Obama ran on the idea that the scorched-earth politics of the GOP that had dominated Washington for decades could be overcome, that the voters could be trusted with more information about what government is doing (and his website proves that he walks the walk), and that agreements can be reached between the two parties. Now, despite what gets reported in the right-wing corporate press, real cooperation between the right and left has occurred. One only needs to look at both the healthcare reform law and the financial reform law to see that there's enough meat in there for both parties (both to love and to hate, by the way). Regardless of what many would like to believe, Obama has absolutely changed our politics for the better. (That being said, I am terribly disappointed in some of his steps lately, particularly over Libya and civil liberties/Gitmo.) In a re-election campaign an incumbent must call attention to the differences, whether subtle or stark, between the two parties vying for the White House. Given the increase in birtherism among the GOP hopefuls, Obama doesn't have to work all that hard to distinguish himself in a positive fashion. Still, it works sometimes to sling a bit of mud when it's appropriate. Sullivan, unfortunately, wants everyone to believe that Ryan's plan marks the end of the GOP fiscal dishonesty, but he and most other smart people know better. Second, what the Democratic strategist said which set Sullivan off was not untrue. Ryan's plan exposes the GOP to some real political danger among large segments of the voting population. Medicare/Medicaid recipients and the middle class get shafted with a greater burden for this reform package because the GOP cannot, under any circumstances, justify new taxes, or upset the very large industrial and corporate interests that line their wallets. Calling attention to that fact at this stage is a savvy move, particularly when there are so many GOP hopefuls trying to garner attention. Obama needs to come up with a cogent and detailed response to Ryan, and will of course risk his own political fallout, but that's how the game is played. As much of a hopeful figure Obama cut during the 2008 campaign, as an incumbent, hope must give way to realism. And he has a great deal of real accomplishments on which to hang his hat. We all want our politicians to govern more and politicize less, but Sullivan, who has regularly recapped with great zeal all that Obama has accomplished, is stuck in a tape loop of "What Have You Done for Me Lately?"