The Tax Myth

It is said that no one escapes death and taxes, and certainly neither are popular.  In the current political climate there is much gnashing of teeth over taxes.  Mostly because we’ve pretty much exhausted our collective political angst over death during the healthcare debate.

The prevailing wisdom is that taxes are too high and we must reduce them to provide relief for families and to provide for investment in small businesses and other economic growth factors.  But that “wisdom” defies the facts at hand.  Granted, no one like paying taxes, but tax rates are currently lower than at any time since World War II.  Under Obama, the first tax bracket has been reduced to 10%.  Even the second bracket of 15% is essentially the same or lower than the first bracket has been in 50 years (excepting a brief dip under Reagan).  Meanwhile, the top bracket is ridiculously lower than at almost any time since 1942.

Tax RatesBut the pain is real.  Families struggle to make ends meet, and this was true even before the most recent recession and the large unemployment numbers.  Why can’t middle class America, at least the ones with jobs, comfortably make ends meet?

While taxes are a convenient demon, as we see from the data, they’re a false one.  Taxes aren’t hurting us.  However, there has been a very real erosion in purchasing power in the average American home.  If you compound the Consumer Price Index from 1990 to 2008, your income would need to have risen by 75% over that 18 year span just to be able to live at the same level now you did back then.  But average household income across that same period only rose 60%.  And that doesn’t even take into account the increase in the number of two-income households over that same period.  In many cases there are multiple people or people holding down multiple jobs just to get up to that 60% mark.

So yes, there is a definite reality to the feeling that you are working for less.  But it’s not Uncle Sam that’s killing you.  At least not the IRS part.

Tea & Caucus

BachmannThis morning, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is to be announced as the leader of the House’s Tea Party Caucus.  Columnist Derek Wallbank wonders who will have the big brass ones to stand up with her in this alliance?  Apparently about 10 fellow legislators have signed on, but many Republicans are wary of aligning too closely with the Tea Party.

The GOP is in a tough spot here.  The Tea Party increasingly constitutes its most fervent and loyal base, and you wouldn’t want to distance yourself from that group.  Especially when you consider how successful the Tea Party has become at dislodging Republicans off the GOP ballot who don’t cater to their worldview.  But the public perception of the Tea Party by those outside it is of a radical fringe type group that’s just a hair-trigger away from an armed revolution.  Aligning with such a group marginalizes the independent voters and leaves GOP Congressmen vulnerable in the general election.

Many, both inside and outside the Tea Party have correctly pointed out that it is the extreme teabaggers that get all the press coverage and that many in the movement are espousing reasonable positions.

I believe it’s true that the Tea Party is not all or even mostly made up of birthers, conspiracy theorists, anarchists, and white supremacists.  I further believe the press does provide excessive coverage of the loonies, because, well… it’s not news when the bus arrives on time, only when it crashes.  But it’s hard for them to claim victimhood when the most public faces of the Tea Party are people like Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, and Sharon Angle.  The press didn’t anoint these folks, the Tea Party movement did.

Bachmann in particular is so out of touch with reality that the MN Progressive Project has taken to calling her Princess Sparklepony.  She fears the census.  She’s convinced The Fed is conspiring to create a global currency.  She believes the healthcare bill promotes abortion and rations your care.  She’s not worried about global warming because Jesus will save the planet.  It goes on and on and on.  She used to frighten me a little, but it’s gone so far that it’s just comical.  Unless you’re from Minnesota, then it’s just embarrassing.

So here’s a little free political advice for the Tea Party.  If you want to be taken seriously by people who don’t have a ready supply of pitchforks and torches and a hankerin’ to storm the castle, you need to put serious people out in front of your movement.   Princess Sparklepony is perhaps not the most inspired choice.

Praying for Atheists

Christopher Hitchens, one of the so-called Four Horseman of the new atheists, has esophageal cancer.  Should you pray for him?  The Rev. Robert Barron thinks so, yet countless atheists and theists alike are having a fit about it.

Let me start with the disclaimer that while I do wish Hitchens well in his treatment and recovery, even though I’m also an atheist, I’m not a fan.  ‘The Four Horsemen’ – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens (video) preach what is now being referred to as “new atheism”.  I would characterize it more properly as antitheism rather than atheism as they don’t simply lack a belief in God, they are advocating against it.  Something I cannot support at all.  Further, I believe in large part they give the lot of us a bad name.

However, I do have a perspective on the dilemma of praying for atheists as I went through this myself.  A few years back I was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  It was benign and wasn’t as scary as cancer, but it was scary enough.  Scary enough that a few of my Christian friends wondered if this event would lead me back to God.  I thought the notion was naive, but not too surprising given the popular saying that there are no atheists in foxholes.  The premise being that when facing death, one always finds comfort in religion.  Although, I think most people, including myself, who have made rational and considered choices to be atheists have long since considered the realities of death and its inherent lack of an afterlife.  I’m quite at peace with that.  In fact, I’m actually comforted by the finality of death.  I’m in no hurry mind you.  But when I get to that end, I’m okay with it actually being an end.

The other interesting question I got, both directly and indirectly, was whether or not it would be okay to pray for me.  It was interesting and even considerate for people to ask.  At the time, I couldn’t see how this could possibly offend me, but based on some of the reactions to Hitchens’ situation, apparently some people really get their shorts in a bunch over this.

I’ve thought about this notion of prayer directed at non-believers from both my perspective and the perspective of the theist, and I’m still perplexed about how there is a downside for anyone.  As an atheist, I don’t believe someone’s prayers are actually influencing my health.  However, the fact that people care enough to exert that effort is touching.  It means they care about me, and that is a healthy thought for anyone.  On the flip side, the theist believes they are actually making a difference.  They have a feeling of contributing to my health.  That’s a healthy thing for them. And if their God should really exist and opt to intervene, all the better for both of us!

If there’s a downside here it’s not remotely apparent.  So follow your heart.  Do what feels right.  If you’re a theist, pray for whom you wish.  If you’re an atheist, be grateful people care.  Above all, remember that whether you believe in another life or not, this one is all too short.

Inside, Outside, Upside-down

Snoopy for PresidentWhat makes a good President?  Is Obama one?  Would Sarah Palin be?  I got to thinking about this after an innocent Facebook post of Kim’s on the Bristol-Levi engagement somehow turned into a rant that included the claim that as President, Palin “OBVIOUSLY could have done a better job than Obozo.”  Something clearly not obvious to me, but the commenter was on a tear.  While she didn’t express overall support for Palin, she made it pretty clear she thought an untrained beagle fresh off the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm would be a better choice than our current Commander-in-Chief.

The issue she had was not so much with the policies as with the man.  And this seems a fairly common theme among Obama’s detractors.  It’s not clear there is any policy he could back that would appease them.  And Sarah Palin generates similar enmity amongst her detractors.  Policy aside, she appears to them as simply an unqualified person or the job.  Yet I would venture there are pretty few people in common among those two groups.

Now in Obama’s case there is undoubtedly some latent racism going on, and in Palin’s case, some latent sexism.  But I don’t think that accounts for the vast level of personal discomfort these two polarizing figures generate.  I think it’s something more insidious.

It is perhaps useful to contrast Obama and Palin against two of our more effective Presidents in recent history.  Reagan and Clinton both had tenures including significant accomplishment while maintaining fairly good approval ratings.  Sure, they each had their scandals, but history seems to be ranking them roughly even, and head and shoulders above any other Presidents in my lifetime.

It strikes me that what these two men had in common was the ability to deal with complexity while conveying simplicity.  The issues a President must deal with are massively complex.  Not only the political process itself, but the economy, foreign policy, domestic policy, etc. all are gruesomely intricate and interwoven systems.  Sure, anyone can surround themselves with experts, but actually understanding and interpreting the information from multiple experts across a wide field of topics requires a keen intelligence.  And both of these guys could cut it.

Yet the cruel reality of American culture is that we inherently distrust intellectuals.  While we worship those who are tougher than us, thinner than us, better athletes than us, better singers than us, or even more beautiful, we can’t stand a smartypants. Ironically, while we’ll aspire to be thinner, more beautiful, or in better shape, our response to someone who is our intellectual superior is not aspiration or inspiration, but rather we try to tear them down to our level.  How dare they try to come off as smarter than us?

Reagan and Clinton both realized we like our reality pre-digested and boiled down to something we can absorb in a 30-second news feature.  They were also masters of taking the abstruse and simplifying it, then presenting it in non-threatening and inspirational ways.  They could motivate people toward the essence of a plan without burdening them with its inherent complexities.

Comparing that to Obama and Palin we see two very different things.  They are each half of the equation that Reagan and Clinton used.  Obama is clearly up to the intellectual challenge.  He’s smart enough to be President, but he lacks the ability to convey a simplicity to his policies.  He makes people feel lectured to rather than inspiring them toward a useful abstraction.  The result is that he too often inspires fear and loathing rather than action and support.

On the flip side, Palin does a great job of selling simple ideas and inspiring people toward action and support.  The problem is, she seems to really believe the world is that simple.  There’s no evidence she’s up to the intellectual challenge of being President when the cameras aren’t rolling.  In fact, there’s a fair bit of evidence she isn’t.  In many ways, this is the same failing George W. Bush had.  He was a likable enough guy, he had a certain folksy charm and did a fair job of making his points.  But he lacked the intellectual depth to perform the core duties of President, and the country and his legacy suffered for that.

In the era previous to cable news and the Internet, wonky intellectuals could roam the White House halls as effective leaders.  But Obama would seem to be the poster child for why those days are gone.  Personally, I’m not troubled by that.  I admire intellectuals.  I want my leaders to be smarter than me.  But I think people like me are in a minority.

Ideally, future Presidents will have the magic mix of complexity on the inside and simplicity on the outside.  In the meantime, I assert long and loud that we are so very much better off with an effective intellectual executive who can’t seem to get his message right than being upside-down with a shallow overly simplistic talking head who is loved by the cameras but can’t fly the desk.


TP BillboardThe North Iowa Tea Party took the initiative to put up a billboard comparing Obama to Lenin and Hitler.  In a rare fit of sanity, other factions of the Tea Party have denounced the sign as unhelpful.  Even the co-founder of the group responsible for the billboard said, “The purpose of the billboard was to draw attention to the socialism. It seems to have been lost in the visuals.”

Still, this group was hardly unique in trying to paint Obama as the lost grandson of Hitler.  Tea Party rallies are rife with such signs, and Glenn Beck spends so much time talking about Nazis the History Channel is starting to feel encroached on.

Moreover, there is such delicious irony in the tag line, “RADICAL LEADERS PREY ON  THE FEARFUL & NAIVE.”  Really?  We can argue about naive, but preying on fears has become the cornerstone strategy of conservatives.  Karl Rove practically made a science of it.  Can you say 9/11?  And are not the comparisons to historical tyrants and despots intended entirely to prey on fears?

Even ignoring the comparisons, what no one is backing off from is labeling Obama a “socialist”.  All seem to agree this is the important message of this sign in particular, and of the Tea Party and Conservatives more generally.  We will hear this socialist chant shouted long and hard as we ramp up to the elections.  But isn’t that just fear mongering as well?  It’s pretty indisputable that the specter of socialism induces fear in the electorate.  So the only real question is whether or not the label is factual.

What is socialism?  Merriam-Webster’s defines it as:

Main Entry: so·cial·ism
Pronunciation: \ˈsō-shə-ˌli-zəm\
Function: noun
Date: 1837

1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3 : a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

Socialism (created by Tim's Cogitorium)Are any of those things even close to happening in this country?  Had the government opted to temporarily nationalize the banks instead of using TARP and just throwing cash at them, then that would have been socialism—at least a little bit for a little while.  But it should be noted that despite calls by some economists to do exactly that, Obama consistently rejected that strategy.

What about healthcare?  Even the public option, which Obama also backed away from, would not be socialist medicine.  Britain has socialist medicine.  All the hospitals are owned by the state.  All doctors are federal employees.  Nothing remotely like that was ever proposed here.  At the extreme, the proposal on the table was Medicare for all citizens.  But Medicare is not socialized medicine.  At best, it could be argued to be socialized insurance.

Let’s be clear.  If the income tax was raised to 90% and the government took to dropping cash from helicopters over poor neighborhoods that would not be socialism.  It would be stupid.  But it wouldn’t be socialist.  The term is used entirely because it inspires fear.  Something radical leaders do use to prey on the naive.  Hmmmm…