Monday, January 17, 2011

Conservatism Today

National Review boldly comes out against government-provided meals for malnourished children. Hard to believe someone could write this in disapproval:

That really sums it up. The Obama administration seeks to feed this nation’s children all year round — not just when school is in session. Another example of this year-round feeding frenzy is the $350 million Congress appropriated last year for the Summer Food Service Program, which provides nearly 2 million children with up to three meals per day during the summer months.

The audacity of the government to try to help poor, malnourished children!

But tell us, what's the solution?

The solution to the country’s child-nutrition problems can’t be found in school lunches or any federally funded child-meal program. The only real solution is to encourage parents to take greater control of what their children are eating.

Who knew that rising out of poverty was that easy? This is the classic conservative tack: emphasize the importance of personal responsibility on such matters, where responsibility in those cases translates to "you're on your own." Again, quite a limited definition of responsibility.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why We Have Progressive Income Taxes

This is a follow-up of sorts to my post on ways of thinking about taxes. But whereas that post was about justifying income taxes generally, this one's about justifying progressive taxes. A progressive income tax is basically one where the tax rate increases along with the amount of income.

There are many arguments in favor of progressive taxes, some more obvious than others. A common one is that the accumulation of great wealth tends to lead to power and influence over policy, which in turns leads to more wealth. Wealth begets wealth, the rich get richer. Progressive income taxes are a way of fending of an aristocracy where a few individuals wield incredible power over everyone else. At points in US history, for example, there were individuals who wielded almost as much power and influence as the entire US government.

A related argument in favor of progressive income taxes is that they reduce inequality. Inequality has become a hot topic recently, with some claiming that inequality breeds societal ills and still others claiming that vast inequality is morally wrong regardless of whether or not it breeds other social problems.

But it's the less obvious arguments that interest me here, and they are at least as important if not more. First, let's consider the question "Who benefits most from government?" In theory, governments serve everybody, but not necessarily equally. Our first intuition might be that the poor benefit the most, as governments often institute some sort of social safety net including welfare. But the services and protections of government are actually enjoyed disproportionately by the wealthy, the benefits increasing as wealth increases. Why? One reason is that as wealth increases, so do assets. And the enjoyment of private assets is only possible through government-enforced laws. The Trouble with Billionaires, a recent book co-written by a tax lawyer and a journalist, describes the situation by responding to critics of progressive income tax who decry the "interfering state":

On the contrary, that interfering state has been their best friend. Without it, they'd be scrounging around in the bush with the rest of us, worried about when the next marauding gang was going to pounce on the buffalo they had just speared in an attempt to feed their children. Only with the complex set of laws governing property, inheritance, contracts, banking, stock exchanges, and other commercial relations--not to mention criminal prosecution of those trying to seize their buffalo--can the rich be secure in holding their possessions and enjoy the comfortable lives that come with those possessions.

Besides protection of assets, also discussed here, I would add political influence as a way that the wealthy disproportionately benefit from government. The more wealth you have, the more influence and lobbying power you have, and the more you help control the environment in which you live. So another way of answering this question is to rephrase it and ask "If government is removed, who has the most to lose?" The answer becomes even clearer.

The second point is to consider how the wealth is generated in the first place. There is a tendency, particularly strong in the US, to think of wealthy individuals as "self-made," pulling themselves up by their boot-straps and making billions out of thin air. Of course, you can't actually make billions on a desert island. You make billions by taking advantage of a common inheritance of knowledge and advances, incrementally building upon developments that go back hundreds of years. You generate wealth by drawing on this "common treasury," incurring debts along the way. Taxes are one way that we recognize the roles society and cultural inheritance play in wealth generation.

Strangely, for some people who have achieved great success and wealth that comes with it, they don't feel thankful or lucky or indebted to the society and circumstances that allowed their success, but rather feel that the society owes them. They perceive themselves as self-made men and the majority of others as leeches, leading to such Randian notions as the elite Going Galt.

Thankfully, not all wealthy individuals feel that way. Warren Buffet is a great example. He often talks about how he generated his billions by being fortunate enough to live in a particular place at a particular time where his skill-set (he's good at allocating money in the market) happened to be highly valued. I've referred before to his description of The Ovarian Lottery in determining our fates. It's no coincidence that he favors progressive taxes. He has actually criticized the US government for not taxing him more.

If you're interested in these issues, I highly recommmend this book.

Don't Forget the Social Darwinists!

I should clarify this passage from my previous post:

Based on my conversations with conservatives, I think most of them also believe that the affluent have a moral obligation to help the less fortunate. They simply dispute that the government has a right to force them to help via taxes.

One example would be Christian conservatives, who often believe that their faith requires them to help the less fortunate. But there are also many conservatives who believe that no such obligation exists, that it's each man to himself and survival of the fittest. Strangely enough, I know some Christians who are also social darwinists, which makes you wonder what their Christianity actually means.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Krugman on "Two Moralities"

Krugman's column today relates to my preceding post:
One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

My one qualm with this is the line regarding the liberal view: "It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate." Based on my conversations with conservatives, I think most of them also believe that the affluent have a moral obligation to help the less fortunate. They simply dispute that the government has a right to force them to help via taxes. They view it as forced charity. This is what I was trying to address in the preceding post on taxes.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ways of Thinking about Taxes

The main motivation of the political right in the U.S. and Canada over the past couple of years seems to center primarily around fiscal issues. The tea partiers and most conservatives I know give social issues a lower priority than did right-wingers of even 10 years ago. And the main right-wing complaint I hear seems to be some variation of, or a sentiment similar to, the following question:

What right does the government have to tell me how to spend my money?

The thing is, most people reading this probably live in some form of a representational democracy. And if you're one of those people, that question doesn't really make sense as a complaint. It's true, of course, that governments decide how taxes are allocated, but it's also true that you decide on the make-up of your government (if you exercise your vote). You vote for people who you think will reflect your priorities and advocate for causes you believe in. To answer the above question concisely then, the government has a right to tell you how to spend your taxes because you elected them.

Taxes and voting go hand-in-hand in a democracy. The founders of the U.S. knew this. Note that they were railing against taxation without representation, not against taxes. If you're eligible to vote, you can't make the same complaint they did. Some people, such as permanent residents, do suffer from taxation without representation because they can't vote but pay taxes as anyone else would. But for people who can vote, the whole idea is to vote for people who will reflect your priorities and act as your agent. If you're a conservative and favor small government, lower taxes and a right-leaning social agenda, then by all means support the people who stand up for that. The government isn't telling you how to spend your money, you're telling the government how to spend your money. You decide.

"Wait," you might say, "I don't really make that decision. I just get one vote, and the people I voted for didn't even get elected." Well, that's tough. You get one vote in a democracy. If you had more power than that, it wouldn't be a democracy. In practice, some people or entities (e.g. lobbying firms, huge corporations) do have more power than that, and a big part of the liberal agenda is to try to counteract that and empower the single voter. The proverbial "little guy" that politicians are always blathering on about.

If you're a libertarian, your objection might be harsher. "I don't want to pay any taxes at all. It's my money." Some libertarians like Robert Nozick went so far as to describe taxes as being the fruits of slave labor. That's a real misunderstanding of what taxes are. Maybe a decent analogy is with membership fees. If you live in Canada or the U.S., for example, you enjoy many benefits and advantages of a well-developed country with decent infrastructure, security and some semblance of a social safety net. If you were born in Canada or the U.S., you are a winner in what billionaire Warren Buffet (who favors higher taxes on the rich) calls the Ovarian Lottery. You were born into a life of relative ease, comfort and massive potential. Taxes are one way you pay your dues in the land of plenty. We make exceptions for people in extreme poverty, but generally we consider tax-shirkers to be looking for a free ride.

A libertarian could counter again and say, "I don't want any of those advantages. I voted for minarchy!" Realistically, the chaos and anarchy of minarchism would eventually lead to some form of tax-funded government, even if it were limited. But if you feel really strongly about it, can I suggest Somalia?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Threats and Rhetoric

Nate Silver has a good post on assassination threats and mentions this stunning statistic:
The journalist Ronald Kessler, meanwhile, wrote in his bestselling book that there has been a 400 percent increase in the number of threats against the White House since Barack Obama took office.

That's incredible. How much of this huge up-tick in threats might be due to the rhetoric and invective churned out by the right? We don't know. Is there a simpler explanation? An obvious explanation could be racism. But would racism alone account for a four-fold increase? Possibly, until I was reminded of this other stat on threats:

The passage of the health care reform bill has resulted in a threefold increase in serious threats to members of Congress according to Federal police enforcement officers.

The health care reform debate was by far the most heated part of the Obama presidency so far, with people on the right labeling the President a socialist, a communist and suggesting that he would institute death panels. I doubt violent threats would have increased by three- or four-fold if the national debate had been passionate yet restrained, if our leaders had spent less time characterizing Obama as a treasonous communist terrorist instead of simply a political foe to be engaged.

Loughner and the Political Discourse

It seems like most of the MSM discussion of the Tucson shooting and its political implications have failed to separate out two questions:

1. Is violent political rhetoric a problem?

2. Did violent political rhetoric cause the shooting?

My answers would be "yes" and "no," respectively. All the details we've learned about Jared Lee Loughner point to him being mentally ill, probably schizophrenic, and harboring a hodge-podge of paranoid beliefs that don't place him neatly on the political spectrum. Even if we eventually find out that he took some inspiration from political speeches or talk radio, there is no direct line of culpability from Palin et al. to the shooting.

But we shouldn't make our debate about question 1 contingent on whatever Loughner's motivations turn out to be. People were criticizing the overheated political climate long before this tragedy occurred and should continue to do so. I think that's what George Packer meant when he said that Loughner's motivations don't matter. And I'm starting to see similar responses from bloggers across the political spectrum, from David Frum, Ezra Klein, Brendan Nyhan, and Jonathan Chait.

Klein and Chait both go on to defend the presence of anger and passion in our political debates, and I second that. I get angry about politics all the time, because the stakes are often huge. But it's a big leap from giving an angry defense of your views to proclaiming armed revolution if you don't get your way. From Chait:

Since the closing stages of the 2008 election, conservatives have regularly described President Obama as an alien figure and his policies a fundamental threat to American liberty. It has become normal for conservatives to hint that they will take up arms if they don't get their way politically -- a violation of the cultural norm of respecting democratic outcomes that forms the basis for the stability of our political system.

There's no doubt that many politicians and media personalities have fostered a climate in which violence is seen as a credible force for change. "Watering the tree of liberty" and all that. We should all condemn that trend, as it has worsened rapidly and worryingly in the past few years.

Unfortunately the debate of the past few days seems to have coalesced into "was he or wasn't he motivated by politics?" which blurs the questions and misses the larger point.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Ezra Levant, Peter Kent and "Ethical" Oil

It's disheartening to see that the top priority of the new Environment Minister is to defend the tar sands at all costs, and almost as disheartening to see him getting talking points from Ezra Levant:

Mr. Levant, a onetime aide to Stockwell Day, has helped popularize the argument that oil-sands petroleum is ethically superior to petroleum produced by countries such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran – all nations that also sell crude to the U.S. market or Asian markets.

Mr. Levant is correct that, all other things being equal, we should support Canadian democracy over the despotic OPEC regimes. But Canada's superior governance does not make tar sands "ethical," for you can't define ethical in purely geopolitical terms and ignore environmental consequences. The tar sands are unsustainable because of their energy intensiveness (input to output ratio), water requirements, tailing ponds and pollution in the Athabasca River. One of Canada's great resources is it's vast natural beauty, and that's being seriously blighted by the tar sands.

Moreover, Levant (and Kent) are presenting a false choice between despotic oil and dirty oil. There are many other energy options more deserving of the "ethical" label.