Hog is dead--long live Hog!


Friday, April 28, 2006

[Global Warming, White House]

George W. Bush: the Environment President
Gas Price, national average: $2.93. Month ago: $2.50. Year ago: $2.23.
The incredible rise of gas prices demonstrates the political truth about perceptions. We have in office an oil man whose second in command is an oil man (you may arrange Bush and Cheney in the order you prefer). The Secretary of State is an oil woman. The Congress is run by oil(y) Republicans who have been well-financed by big oil (John Boehner, who replaces very oily Tom DeLay, has some work to do, but give him time). Washington is geared to ensure that ExxonMobil have capacious SUV tanks unfettered by CAFE standards or other silly regulations. And of course, Americans are well aware of all this.

When gas prices were a couple bucks a gallon, this didn't seem like such a bad thing. Americans may even have been lulled into the spin that oilmen would look out for them and keep prices low. But when gas prices spike fifty cents in a month, Americans are reminded of the oilmen-in-chief, and they immediately smell collusion. Americans are all about a little profiteering, but gluttony is unseemly, and now that it costs $150 to fill up the Hummer, someone's gotta pay.

All things being equal, if John Kerry, who had a perfect 100% environmental record as a Senator, were president now, we'd probably still see gas prices spiking. He'd probably be blamed in part for that, too, but in the manner of Jimmy Carter--as a weak-kneed liberal who can't face down the tough-as-nails free market. But Bush looks like a creep who's shafting Americans, and there will be a price to pay.

NPR ran a story that will probably be common in the coming weeks: a day-in-the life piece about how Americans can't afford gas, and so they're having to give up their Silverados or their kids' hockey teams. With Bush and the oilies at the helm, folks will more quickly assume the worst and begin to change their habits--after all, who's Washington gonna look out for, them or Exxon?

And Bush is culpable in a larger sense: he's ignored global warming, mocked international efforts to curb greenhouse gases, made it easier for factories to pollute, protected the free-for-all in SUV CAFE standards, given tax breaks for SUVs, and generally made it very clear that he thinks there's nothing wrong with turning the whole world into a Crawford-like wasteland.

If anything can spur Americans to get scared, it's these idiots. Having been weaned on a diet of governmental mistrust, they're poised to look at gas prices and see bigger trends. It's possible, then, that Bush may prod America into becoming a greener country than any goodie goodie liberal.

_____________
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais. Caption: House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Ill., center, gets out of a Hydrogen Alternative Fueled automobile, left, as he prepares to board his SUV, which uses gasoline, after holding a new conference at a local gas station in Washington, Thursday, April 27, 2006 to discuss the recent rise in gas prices. Hastert and other members of Congress drove off in the Hydrogen-Fueled cars only to switch to their official cars to drive back the few block back to the U.S. Capitol.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

[Congress]

Wyden is Filibustering

Whoa. Really filibustering, as in Jimmy Stewart filibustering. Actually, just appears to be ending. See it live here. He wanted a vote on an oil price-gauging amendment on the appropriations bill.
[Meta]

The Blogger Falters

A lot going on today, and I'm scrambling to get it all done. Therefore, blogging delayed until afternoon at the earliest.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

[White House]

Question: When Did the Bush Administration Jump the Shark

I was talking to a federal economist this morning (some readers, who know this economist, believe him to be dead; he's not), and he posed the question of when the Bush administration jumped the shark. "Jumping the shark," as you no doubt know, is the moment when a good thing goes bad:
The term has also evolved to describe other areas of pop culture, including movie series, music or acting celebrities, or authors for whom a drastic change was seen as the beginning of the end. These changes are often attempts to attract their fans' waning attention with over-the-top statements or increasingly overt appeals to sex or violence.
The federal economist went on to answer his sage question inaccurately; he wrongly suggested it was the "Mission Accomplished" episode that put Bush over the top. But anyone who was blogging at the time knows that Bush was far from the beginning of his end. It's difficult to argue that Bush did any shark-jumping before November 2004, though I'm willing to entertain the suggestion.

A list of possible moments:
  • November 2, 2004 - the election itself.
  • February 2005 - Bush promotes Social Security privatization;
  • March 20, 2005 - Terri Schiavo affair;
  • October 29, 2005 - Scooter Libby indicted;
  • February 2006 - Dubai ports debacle;
  • April 2006 - immigration debacle/marches.
I think my co-worker, who has speculated on this in a slightly different context, would go with Social Security. I'm inclined to say it was actually the election. There was something in the way the theocon right asserted itself in the minutes following the election that seemed to signal Bush's death rattle. I didn't really notice it at the time, but looking back, that may have been his final, grand appeal. If only we could cancel the presidency....

Thoughts?
[Media Access]

The Net Neutrality Debate

When I imagined media week, I hadn't actually been thinking of this wrinkle: net neutrality. This is a rather wonky issue that I've been slow to get my brain around--but which could have astounding ramifications on how we use the internet. It has become the issue of the week among many bloggers, and I will direct you to their comments in a moment. But first, Ezra Klein summarizes the issue (and seriously, this is the shortest summary I've seen):
The net, though, relies on equal access to bandwidth, and a consortium of telecom behemoths are preparing to deny that to some. The principle at hand is called “net neutrality”; it means that broadband carriers, the folks who own the physical connection infrastructure, can’t decide how it’s used or who can use it. If you’re using SBC as your carrier, they can’t redirect you away from Comcast’s website. If you’re using AT&T, they don’t bar you from patronizing competing online telephone providers like Vonage. In short, as CNET put it, broadband carriers cannot configure their pipes to play favorites. In other countries, this principle is sacrosanct: South Korea, Japan, and the UK have all enshrined it in law. America has not. And if the telecom providers have their way, the net neutrality will give way to online favoritism....

Here’s what that would look like: Right now, the net is best described by its ubiquitous pseudonym: the information superhighway. It is, essentially, an interstate, freely traveled by all cars, regardless of weight. What the telecoms want is to section it off into a series of toll roads, which will charge based on vehicle characteristics. So heavy travelers – sites like Google and AOL and Yahoo and YouTube – will be charged far more, at least at the beginning, than light travelers (say, local community bulletin boards). The next step would be for the telecoms to enter into content distribution deals with various providers. Think of the toll road operator partnering up with Toyota, and attempting to choke Toyota’s competition by making it prohibitively expensive for competing sedans....

The first showdown came on Thursday April 6th, when the House Telecom Committee voted against Congressman Ed Markey’s net neutrality resolution, 23-8. Nothing neutral about that. The prime mover against Markey has been subcommittee chair Joe Barton, and a quick glance at his funding sources may explain why. $57,000 from SBC, $20,000 from Comcast, and so on.
The members of that committee, incidentally, are here. (Oregonians reading this blog will delight in learning that the one non-Democrat is representing our state on the committee--Greg Walden.)

__________
Other sources
The other folks covering this include (but are by no means limited to):
eRobin (also here), Kevin Drum (also here), and Reed Hundt. That's probably a lot more than you'll need.
[White House]

Blame Bush

Of all the things Bush might be blamed for, it appears that the price of gasoline is what's principally fueling (sorry) his low poll numbers. There is a rich irony here, because of all the things he should be blamed for, the price of oil is near the bottom of the list. Neglect and saber-rattling may have destablized the prices beyond where they would be under a competent president, but really, gas prices are a global phenomenon.

To date, the public is dissatisfied with the Bush administration's approach to solving the problem. In the Post-ABC survey, just 23 percent approved of the job the White House was doing on the "situation with gasoline prices," while 74 percent disapproved.

The CNN poll showed just 24 percent agreeing with the statement that Bush was "doing enough to solve the country's energy problems," while 71 percent said he was not doing enough.

The irony is that he should be at 33% in the polls, whether it's for the price of gas or (select one or more): Iraq, the Social Security blunder, Harriet Myers, the Medicare doughnut hole, Dubai ports, immigration, tax cuts for the wealthy, deficits, Katrina, Terri Schiavo, etc. That people have selected the one emergent debacle for which he's less directly responsible is just, to me, the maraschino cherry on his just desserts.

Bush managed to fool enough of the people for enough of the time to get himself re-elected in 2004. If the election happened now, only 40 million Americans would vote for him. Twenty-two million are now disillusioned (in addition to the 59 million who were already disillusioned), and not by false news. Many righties are howling that Bush shouldn't be blamed for the price of gas--or police brutality, or the weather in Topeka. But that argument is only useful so long as he is being blamed for those disasters he created (you don't see the same righties demanding fairness about that).

So I say go ahead, blame Bush. He's got it coming.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

[Media]

Clever New Thoughts about FOX News

Speaking of the Fox propaganda division, I happened to catch their strange Sunday show--I believe it's called "Why the President's Right"--this weekend. In some ways, it's the most entertaining of the Sunday shows, which now rehash the manifold ways in which Bush and the GOP have blundered, lied, dropped the ball, appeared vacant, tortured, and so on. But sprightly Fox continues to offer quite innovative spin about why these blunders, lies, gulags and so on are really impressive markers of Bush's success. In one sense, it marks the introduction of a new art form that incorporates current events, rhetoric, and performance. There is something subtly philosophical about it as well.

For the brain trust at FOX, there is no such thing as objectivity. So, when Bill Kristol leans forward, shoulders hunched but eyes peering sideways at Chris Wallace, it's a delight to watch him, say, make the argument that Dana Priest, who revealed the existence of illegal gulags in Europe, is a criminal--as he did Sunday. He combines nimble reasoning, Buckleyesque timing, and wonky gravitas in a peppery stew of entertainment.

For FOX, though, there is a downside. The network, with a mission to promote the President, managed to trick itself into thinking that the alternative it offered was a fresh, conservative viewpoint. Under this logic, they perform the same function as the NYT--just for the other team. But the actual alternative it offered was slavish propaganda in place of objectivity.

The FOXites thus committed a logical falacy. By recognizing (a) that objectivity is unattainable in an absolute sense (see postmodernism, Heisenberg, et. al.) and that (b) the very effort to create "objectivity" necessarily creates its own unobjective filter, they then drew the conclusion that (c) their version of bias was free of agenda. Ah, but here is the mistake: their version of bias is slavish to an agenda, but just one unseen to them.

Which is to say, to cut to the chase, that watching the FOX kabuki now is to be immediately confronted not just with people like Kristol, Hume, and Wallace who are performing their entertaining new art, but that those people don't realize they're performing kabuki. It would be one thing if these propagandists were merely running their (admittedly slick) cynical con to promote a lying, incompetent crook like Bush. This is what I had heretofore imagined. But watching Sunday, amid this new world order in which Bush is now broadly known to be a liar, incompetent and crook (even FOX's own poll puts him at 33%), I was confronted with the obvious truth that the folks at FOX don't realize what they're doing. In their version of offering the alternative NYT narrative, they've signed on to promote Bush no matter what. For them, this represents the lack of agenda, fairness and balance, ipso facto, and a version of truth.

They signed onto this ship, and by god, they're going down with it.
[White House, Media]

Tony Snow is the New Scotty

This just in: the White House is reshuffling media spokespeople. Tony Snow will now move from the administration's FOX propaganda division to the West Wing proper, where he'll replace the hapless Scott McClellan. Snow, who hosts a morning radio segment called "President Bush is our Lord, and All Who Deny Him are Traitors," is expected to more effectively place Presidential lies into the media. McClellan, whose service as chief propagandist was described as "amateurish," was most recently caught exposing the White House in its tangle of lies regarding the Valerie Plame leak.

Unnamed officials within both the West Wing and the Fox propaganda division expect Snow, a polished spinmaster, to effectively conceal administration deceits.

[Note: despite the tone of this post--outright derision--it is nevertheless factual in its main point, if altogether scurrilous and inaccurate in details. Sorry for any confusion.]

Monday, April 24, 2006

[Media]

Freedom of the Press
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Last November, the Washington Post's Dana Priest broke a remarkable story. Thanks to information she received from inside the CIA, she learned that the US had established an international covert prison system where it detained and, presumably, tortured prisoners. It was the first report of the so-called "black sites." Last week, she won a Pulitzer for the story and coincidentally, the alleged leaker, Mary McCarthy, was fired by the CIA.

Journalists considered this one of the biggest stories of the year, and I assume most foreign-policy reporters were green with envy. But jackboot types from the administration felt exactly the opposite: this was tantamount to treason. (Nevermind that the "black sites" are illegal, unamerican, and morally reprehensible.) Even as the story was breaking, the White House threatened Priest that she might have to disclose her sources.

Recall also that four reporters were indicted for having been leaked information in the Valerie Plame incident--and that the administration used the occasion to threaten other journalists that their rights to protect their sources was something less than they imagined.

So what are a reporter's rights? The First Amendment specifically gives a right of speech to the press, but also to individuals. Is the press's right special? Does this right of speech also protect their sources?

The answer is ... well, it isn't final--various court decisions have pushed the boundaries around over the course of time. There's every reason to believe it will continue to move. That the Constitution specifically distinguishes between rights of press and individuals speaks to exclusive rights.

For the press, this generally means that the government can't prevent publication of stories, force publication of other stories (propaganda), or impose penalties for stories about which it disagrees. These are mostly settled. Less settled is the question of reporters' sources. In 1972, the Supreme Court actually ruled that reporters have no such privilege to protect their sources, though what followed was a series of lower-court rulings that did seem to create such a privilege:
Most significantly, in 1972 in Branzburg v. Hayes, a sharply divided Court was skeptical of the contention that the First Amendment protects journalists from the compelled disclosure of the identities of their confidential sources, at least in the context of a grand-jury proceeding. The Court, however, has not addressed that issue in the 30 years since Branzburg, and has effectively permitted the lower courts to fashion an impressive body of law grounding just such a “reporter’s privilege” firmly in the press clause itself. That privilege, however, is by no means absolute and may be forfeited in a variety of circumstances, especially when no confidential source is thereby placed in jeopardy or when disclosure is sought in the context of a grand-jury or other criminal proceeding.
Branzburg is exactly where the Bushies have lately tried to find some footing. Which isn't the least bit surprising--as secretive as they are, and as many dubiously legal and outright illegal acts as they've committed, it's little wonder they'd like to stem pesky reporters' inquiry. However, the White House may well have overplayed its hand. The very crimes committed by Bush--like the black sites discovered by Dana Priest--undermine his case; they argue for an expanded right to inquiry, perhaps a more established right to protect sources. And perhaps this is why, in the final analysis, the White House backed off its threats to go after Dana Priest.
[Media Week]

When the Media Becomes the News.

Since Scooter Libby
revealed that Bush told him to leak information from the National Intelligence Estimate, a debate has been slowly boiling about the nature of the free media in a time of terror. Okay, it's a fake argument: only Bush apologists think that the media should be muzzled, and their argument is made all the more ironic by the fact that the White House, one of the most secretive and dishonest, has been successful at subverting the democratic process only because the media has been weak.

Still, a couple other stories makes it a good time to look at the media more closely. On the news shows yesterday, the righties were howling about the CIA analyst who leaked the information about "dark sites" to the WaPo's Dana Priest (for which she was last week awarded a Pulitzer). They think this kind of leak--again, an act by a patriot who (accurately) felt that the administration was subverting democracy--was "over the line."

In a second case, the FBI is trying to get access to the files of Jack Anderson, a reporter who broke a number of stories like Priest's in his long career (he died in December), and who they say has national security secrets.

These form a good platform, and so this week I will use them to dive into the deep waters of the role, function, and rights of the media (including blogs!) in George Bush's America.

Friday, April 21, 2006

[Taxes]

Our Current Flat Tax.

Yesterday I mentioned Ron Wyden's flat tax--which isn't flat in the Forbes sense of everyone being taxed at the same rate. Wyden's tax is progressive, meaning the wealthy are taxed at a higher percent of their income, which is the system we've had since the Supremes wrangled with this questions in the early part of last century. It's a system Americans generally agree on--it's a matter of fairness, sort of like giving worse golfers few extra strokes to compete with better golfers. Level playing field and all that.

Except, of course, it's not.

Right now, the wealthy are taxed about the same amount as median-income earners. The reason is because how we earn our money is taxed differently. If your income arrives via paycheck, you are taxed in one way; if it arrives as profit from moving money or assets around, it's taxed in a different way. In the first case, it's known as "income"--and you get dinged for various payroll taxes. In the second case, it's known as a "capital gain," and you pay different kinds of taxes. And guess what? Over the past thirty years, rates on the first type have gone up, while rates on the latter type have gone down.

The midcentury tax policies produced what was was known as the "great compression," when the distance between the rich and poor shrunk the most in history. That trend has been reversed since Jimmy Carter raised payroll taxes, and the result has been a New Gilded Age.

Kevin Phillips charted the course of this change in his book Wealth and Democracy. In 1948, the median taxpayer (half earned more, half earned less) in America paid 5.3% of their income in federal taxes. This includes all taxes, not just income taxes. The top 1% of taxpayers paid 77%. That held course until Reagan (in the early 70s, the median was still just paying 16%, the top one percent 69%). Carter started the shift by boosting payroll taxes, and Reagan piled on, by slashing taxes on capital gains. By 1985, the median income-earner paid 24.4% in all taxes, and the top 1% paid just 24.9%. I couldn't find a median figure for current rates, but in 2000--before the Bush tax cuts, the middle quintile now has a tax rate of 17%, while the top 1% was at 29%.

Meanwhile, the corporate income tax has also continued to drop. Between 1940 and 1970, it bounced around from highs of 39% to lows of 17% (most years it was in the low to mid-twenties). In 2001, Bush slashed them to 7.6%. The payroll rate, by contrast, was 31% that year.

Finally, two more stats are relevant. During the period of the New Gilded Age (consider this an effort to re-frame the Norquista agenda), while taxes on the middle class have risen, wages have stagnated. While the richest 1% saw their incomes more than double between 1979 and 2002, the bottom 60% of wage earners saw their after-tax incomes grow anemically. In order, the bottom, second, and middle quintiles saw their income increase just 4.5%, 12%, and 15%. During the Bush years, median incomes have actually fallen, after adjustments for inflation.

Last, all of these financial woes have led Americans to fall further into debt. In 1950, the household debt Americans carried as a percentage of their annual income was 38% (so, for example, if you earned $1000 a year, your entire personal debt was $380). In 2000, it was 94%. And, for the first time in decades, in 2005, Americans spent more of their disposable income on consumer items than they earned, going further into hock.

This post is running long, but I'll just conclude it by saying that American tax policy since the late 70s has been designed to shift the burden away from middle- and low-wage workers. At the same time incomes for those workers stagnated, they took on greater debt, and government had to slash off-setting social services. Meanwhile, the rich have done very well. These are not unrelated phenomema.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

[Taxes]

Wyden's Flat Tax.

Looking through my posts, they're as much about budgets as taxes, so here's something directly on topic: Senator Ron Wyden's "flat" tax. He has offered it as a fix to two major problems in the US tax code: getting rid of the insane complexity (it is 1.4 million words long, would stand 6 feet tall if bound in standard paper, and takes the average citizen 31 hours to fill out), and getting rid of all the little perks to the rich.

I'm not sure why he called it a flat tax, unless he's adopting Bush's trojan-horse nomenclature ("healthy forests," "clean skies")--it's not flat, and flat taxes are always offered, as Steve Forbes', as a sop to the rich. Wyden's proposal is designed for simplicity:
  • On a one-page 1040, filers would be taxed at one of three (nonflat) rates: 15%, 25%, and 35%.
  • The corporate income tax would be fixed at 35%
  • Almost all loopholes would be eliminated (including the AMT), particularly in the corporate code
Apropos of my comment earlier in the week that taxes are actually politics, I think we can divine a few things about what Wyden's after. The tax code has gotten way out of whack. Corporations and the wealthy now have a host of loopholes, thanks to a slow accretion of tax breaks since 1981, to protect their income. Regular workers have seen their taxes rise, because they're taxed at the paycheck, while the rich get breaks on their income through capital gains.

So while Wyden's tax system doesn't look particularly progressive superficially (as recently as 1964, the top income bracket was 94%), it actually makes huge gains. It also has great window-appeal; almost everyone recognizes that the tax code needs to be simplified, so this is a huge selling point. By leaving the top marginal rate low, he makes it difficult for the rich to argue publicly that they're getting shafted (though of course privately they know just how much they've been shafting the US). It would actually reduce the burden on the middle-class an poor while adding money to the budget.

He's not offering a return to midcentury progressive tax politics, but it's a huge step in the right direction, and may actually have political legs.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

[Bizarro World]

Hard to Argue with This

This is John Hindraker, and no, it's not satire:

It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.
[News]

Scotty and Rob and Karl.

Two bits of news before we get back into taxes (which I can tell from the traffic and comments is absolutely thrilling you). First, Scott McClellan resigned this morning while Karl Rove stepped back. Hoy!
Rove will remain deputy chief of staff to President Bush, but he will drop his portfolio as policy coordinator -- a job he assumed a year ago -- and once again concentrate his focus on politics as the 2006 mid-term elections approach, senior administration officials said.
I may update this post with commentary from around the 'sphere once I have a chance to look around.

Also, I have a story in today's Willamette Week that arose from the visit last week of Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong. The upshot? The two have a theory that the netroots can defeat entrenched power and financial might. In Oregon, we have just such a case in a legislative race as the sitting Speaker of the House, a four-term incumbent, is trying to fight back a challenge by Democratic newbie Rob Brading. She's outspending him at a nearly 10-1 clip, but he has the blogs on his side!

We'll see if they're worth a damn...

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

[Taxes]

Where Your Taxes Go.

Before I describe where your tax dollars go, let me direct you to a fun budget simulation Nathan Newman has created. It allows you to go line-by-line through the budget (he has long forms and short forms) and add or subtract from the current allocations. The intent, I believe, is mainly philosophical--we don't really have the luxury of changing a lot of the items in the budget, and most of the items arise from compromise between sharply divided ideological positions. He even has a longer version that allows you to select how you want to spend your money. But it does give you a sense of how divergent US priorities are from your own.

Budget Simulation

(For example, if the US cut its defense budget in half--a move most Americans would describe as catastrophically short-sighted, military spending in the US would still be greater than the next two countries combined.)

So, where do your taxes go? The entire US budget is $2.67 trillion.* The three big ticket items are Social Security ($545 billion), military ($446 billion), and Medicare ($253 billion). If you include non-Medicare health spending (Medicaid, other health programs, research, etc.), all spending on health ($598 billion) is the US's largest single expenditure. These three items account for $1.59 trillion--or 60% of all expenditures.

The fourth most expensive single item? The Bush tax cuts, which go almost exclusively to the top wealth-earners. Those cuts will cost us $295 billion in 2006 alone, almost as much as we will spend on Medicare this year. Knowing that, you think we're adequately serving the nation's interest? (Obviously a rhetorical question.)

Defense
If you use a slightly different filter, however, the defense budget is substantially higher. The figures quoted above don't include veteran obligations ($115 billion) or spending on Iraq and Afghanistan ($112 billion). Nor, obviously, has anything been budgeted for an Iranian invasion. Taken together, all military-related expenditures are actually $673 billion for 2006--the most expensive area of spending, and a full quarter of all spending. (The moral question, of knowing that we each spend weeks of our year earning money to support a military empire, is beyond the scope of a budget discussion--but worth mentioning.)

Tax Cuts
Newman's simulation highlights a dirty big secret about the budget: tax cuts aren't really cuts, they're expenditures. The tax code has two opposing functions: to fund government and to create incentives for certain behavior. The first function is straightforward; to fund the activities of government, the government needs revenues. The only way to get those revenues is taxation.

The second function is different. Government wants to encourage certain behavior, so it creates tax incentives to do so. Modern economics is really based on the notion of incentives--creating a financial carrot attractive enough to cause people to behave in certain ways. So, for example, if you want to encourage carmakers to produce low-emission cars, you could pass a regulation mandating it (as in CAFE standards), or you could create a tax break for people who buy hybrids. The government therefore spends some of its money, in the form of a kickback, to promote hybrids.

Bush's tax cuts were sold as the same thing. The brute (and roundly dismissed) logic of the administration holds that giving rich people money will cause them to spend, which energizes the economy so that everyone gets richer. But even if the logic were good, it's still not a cut--it's an expenditure.

Liberals should relate to the tax cuts this way and try to change the dialogue to reflect that. We have a certain amount of money in the bank, and we can either spend it on richies or on health care. (Or, in the case of the tax cuts, we could borrow money and give it to richies, which is what we're doing.)

If you'd like to see a line-by-line list of all the US expenditures, you can find it here.*
__________________________
*You actually have to scroll to the bottom of the page and click the "Find out what the budget is" button. Don't change any of the variable before clicking it, or you'll have simulated numbers.

Monday, April 17, 2006

[Taxes]

Taxation: It Ain't About the Budget.

It would not be unreasonable to regard taxes as a budgetary matter. The state has to pay for certain services, and it must have revenues to do so. Therefore, functionally, taxes would seem to create the revenue to pay for the services. In practice, however, taxes have always been the exercise of political ideology.

The history of American taxation is, like the history of the Bush administration, an example of how taxes reflected the political ideology of the ruling party. During the civil war, Congress (that is "the Union") passed the first income tax to support the war. The marginal rate was 3%, which in 1962 was increased to 5% on higher incomes (progressive income taxation is born!). Along the way, the debate raged between factions who argued unequal taxation was an affront to American democracy and those who felt fairness demanded each pay according to his means. (Sound familiar?)

The top marginal rate fluctuated from the initial 3% all the way to 94% during WWII as the country swung from the excesses of the Gilded Age to the great progressive era of FDR. The tax debate featured a judicial fight and an amendment to the Constitution. It charts the history of the 20th Century not only politically, but economically, as economists grew more sophisticated in their understanding of incentives and macroeconomics. And then came the great reversal, when, thanks to Reagan, the ideologues changed the debate and began to reverse progressivity in the tax code (while simultaneously making it a byzantine patchwork of giveaways to the wealthy.)

As a index of how quickly things have changed, and how successfully the conservatives have been, Reagan's famous 1981 tax cuts lowered the top bracket to 50%--still far higher than it is today. In '86, Reagan pushed through a second cut, dropping the rate almost in half, to 28%, but Bush I was forced to raise it to 31% when the deficits ballooned (the famous "read my lips: no new taxes" retraction that cost him the election). He also cut corporate rates in half, from 50% to 35%. In 1964, the top marginal rate was 91%; in 1986, 28%.

The country's tax debates actually make a fascinating history, and if you have the time, the Treasury department's fact sheet is an entertaining read (or perhaps I reveal too much of my own character by thinking so).

The salient point, and the important frame for any discussion about taxes, though, is that tax rates are political. They reward certain segments of the population and punish others. Who those rewards flow to can be tracked directly back to the support the ruling party has received, be they the broad populist coalition who supported FDR, or the entrenched corporate donors who support Bush. Of course, the US has to pay its bills. Tax law, however, determines who will be doing the paying.
[Taxes]

In "Celebration" of April's Ides: Tax Week.

Today is not actually the ides of April, and yet it is tax day. A weekend reprieve for all you late-filers. In honor of this annual moment, I'll do a week on taxes. Our own senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has a proposal for a flat tax, about which I'm not uniformly delighted. Bush has a series of lies prepped for gullible voters. Your taxes fund various and sundry government programs, from killing Iraqis to promoting religion. I'll look at these topics and others, as well as, of course, whatever else comes up this week.

Friday, April 14, 2006

[Blogosphere]

Interview with Kos and Jerome

A wee version of the interview I did with Markos and Jerome is now online at Willamette Week. In a week or two I may post a longer version.

WW: What do you mean when you write that the party's establishment is blocking the chance of progressives' success?

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga: To me it's ironic that we call ourselves progressives, yet we're held in thrall by this party establishment that hasn't progressed in its views in the last 30 years.

Read the rest here.
[Bush, Foreign Policy]

What if the Generals Said No?

It's interesting that, during the same week that a number of former generals are urging for the ouster of Don Rumsfeld, Sy Hersh would write this:
[The Pentagon advisor on the war on terror] also confirmed that some senior officers and officials were considering resigning over the issue. “There are very strong sentiments within the military against brandishing nuclear weapons against other countries,” the adviser told me. “This goes to high levels.” The matter may soon reach a decisive point, he said, because the Joint Chiefs had agreed to give President Bush a formal recommendation stating that they are strongly opposed to considering the nuclear option for Iran.
It is almost inconceivable, but what if Bush and his radical coterie of hawk advisors decided to go to war with Iran and employ nuclear strikes and the military didn't support him? This kind of thing happens in other countries, where civilian power is predicated on military support. But the US? Could it happen?

We have arrived at a moment when support of senior military leadership for Bush's foreign policy is apparently near a breach. They urge caution, while meanwhile the White House
was “absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb” if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do “what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,” and “that saving Iran is going to be his legacy....”

The House member said that no one in the meetings “is really objecting” to the talk of war. “The people they’re briefing are the same ones who led the charge on Iraq. At most, questions are raised: How are you going to hit all the sites at once? How are you going to get deep enough?” (Iran is building facilities underground.) “There’s no pressure from Congress” not to take military action, the House member added. “The only political pressure is from the guys who want to do it.” Speaking of President Bush, the House member said, “The most worrisome thing is that this guy has a messianic vision.”
It is certainly reasonable to imaging Bush ordering "tactical strikes" without an order of war from Congress. Is it beyond imagining to think that the military might appeal to Congress to intercede? This is wild, weird stuff, but I don't think the chance of it playing out is zero.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Tom Toles

[Bush]

Coming to Terms With a Lying President.

Three news stories have dominated the blogosphere in the past 72 hours--the Sy Hersh piece about Iran, the Valerie Plame leak story, and the Bush claims about discovering a biological weapons lab in Iraq following the invasion. I have mostly stayed mum because there doesn't seem to be anything to add to the story. That Bush both wants to invade Iran, possibly with nukes, and won't cop to it are completely unremarkable. Bush's entire presidency has followed that pattern: wishing to enact something radical, denying it, then going ahead and doing it. On the weapons lab? Again, predictable as old faithful: Bush, confronted with an unsavory fact, denies involvment.

The only thing remotely of interest in these stories is why the press don't ignore Bush. Whether he does plan to invade Iran or not, for example, is not something his comments can shed light on. His administration has been a travesty of lies. He has lied directly, indirectly, and has run the federal government as a huge propaganda ministry to forward his lies. He may or may not tell the truth from here to January 2009, but it shouldn't matter; why on earth would anyone take him at his word?

The three stories all underscore the mendacity of the White House--each is slightly different in tone and substance, but each depends on the credibility of the President. I stifle yawns and listen to the back and forth--apologists race forth to explain how, if you cock your head just so, you can see how, technically speaking, the lie was not a lie. This is followed by a credulous reporter sifting through the details and confirming, yes, it's true, if you do cock your head just so, you can see how, technically speaking, the lie was not a lie.

I can't believe there's a person alive who actually believes Bush. There are just those who still have some lucre to bleed from his reign and those who don't. Oh, and I guess those who, by dint of employment, must pretend to believe Bush, in the interest of fair journalism.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

[Immigration]

Trouble on the Fringe.

A couple of weeks ago, during immigration week, I wondered about why the GOP would actually take up the legislation. It's a great piece of wedge politics rhetorically: you can subtlely play to racists, the panicked, and low-wage hungry corporations.
This is perhaps one of the main reasons the right are so exercised by the immigration issue. As long as no legislation is on the table, it's a great issue--it unites everyone behind an opaque, fuzzy issue. But it emerges instantly as a wedge for the right when any legislation comes out because either the security hawks, the business lobby, or the isolationist/racist wing loses.
The chickens are coming home to roost. Republicans are their own poison pill: left to draft the kind of legislation they really want, they come up with Social Security and Medicare "reform," laws to protect Terri Schiavo, and an immigration bill that criminalizes harboring illegals in a church. The messianic impulse that kept the GOP united, focused, and dominant the past twelve years is now driving the party over the cliff.

The House immigration bill is a case in point. A CNN poll found that 70% of Americans are sympathetic to illegal immigrants. According to a Pew poll, only 21% of Americans think immigration are a serious security risk. That same poll found that Latinos are viewed positively by 80% of respondents. The overheated rhetoric and overreaching legislation--it never had a chance to get through the Senate--is causing massive blowback.
In the wake of this week's massive demonstrations, many House Republicans are worried that a tough anti-illegal-immigration bill they thought would please their political base has earned them little benefit while becoming a lightning rod for the fast-growing national movement for immigrant rights....

The politics of the issue have shifted markedly since the House acted. Republican lawmakers are increasingly saying they will now consider some avenue to grant illegal immigrants access to lawful employment.
Not only have the Republicans not pushed through radical, draconian law, but they appear to have opened a Pandora's box that will force them to actually make concessions.

This is good news for all the obvious reasons, but it may have implications for November, too. the base has always stayed in line because they were fed a constant thin gruel of rhetoric that the GOP wasn't in a position to act on (overturning Roe, for example). But now the Republicans are actually trying to make good, and they can't. If this is sufficiently dispiriting, the radical fringe in the GOP base may actually, finally, lose a little of their energy. In November, if the casual Republicans are enervated, the base is enervated, and only the habitual Republicans stay in line, we could actually see serious change.

I have been so wrong for so long about what the right-wing fringe will do that this doesn't rise to the level of even thoughtful speculation. Call it a thought experiment. But a pleasant thought it is...

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

[Meta]

A Word From Hog.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Beervana is not dead. The Spring Beer Fest is this weekend, and I'm using that as a springboard to get back on track.

Thank you.
[Political Strategies]

Big Tent.

I did in fact have the opportunity to interivew Markos and Jerome yesterday. I was on the payroll of Willamette Week, so I won't divulge the content of the interview until after those pieces appear. However, I will reflect a little on a nice point they made (not just yesterday, but also on their book and at every pit stop along the book tour).

The central diagnosis they make about the ailment of the Democratic Party is this: it's an uneasy collection of inviduals looking out for the pet single-issue cause, not a team. They give the example of NARAL punishing Democrats who aren't sufficiently pro-choice, even if that means letting the theocons control all three branches of government. Significantly, they point out that millions of dollars and volunteer hours go into abortion rights, labor, and the environment, and yet all three have seen massive erosion of earlier gains over the past quarter century. By not working together, the single-issue folk have damaged themselves.

[Analysis: True, and this seems like a major barrier. But whether issue groups will ever cede their little fiefdoms for a larger movement is the real question. Kos and Jerome think they may, and even quote a Texas NARAL supporter who acknowledged, grimly, that there isn't much else less to lose. We'll see.]

______________
Note: while they were in town, Jerome and Markos went to Powell's and signed about 100 books, which are now available. If these guys become the next Carville and Trippi, signed originals of their debut books might be like a rookie card for Joe DiMaggio. Or maybe not.
[Local Elections]

Deposing the Oregon Speaker.

Last night, as a bonus event on their book tour, Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong headlined at a benefit for Rob Brading. Brading is running against the Oregon House Speaker, Republican Karen Minnis. In Oregon, she has achieved a mythical level of evil, our hometown version of Tom DeLay. No one really cares to hear about her legislative misdeeds, but do a search at BlueOregon and you'll get a sense (she's even got top billing today).

Brading's a good guy and he ran impressively in 2004, scaring Minnis with almost no money or support. He'll have more support this year, and with luck, last night's event helped raise a few bucks. He'll need it. The campaign figures came out this week, and he's getting killed.
Rob Brading: $57,487.78
Karen Minnis: $282,666.82
Brading received $13k from FuturePAC (the House Dems campaign committee), by far his biggest donation . Aside from that, he got three or four donations in the thousand dollar range. Minnis's donor sheet is full of major donors, local and not. Her filing sheet is 47 pages long, and I don't want to dig through the whole thing, so here's a few highlights from the first few pages:
$5k - Oregon Right to Life
$1500 - Idaho Power
$5k - Weyerhaeuser
$1500 - Novartis Pharamceuticals
$5k - RJ Reynolds
$1500 - Bristol-Myers Squibb
She's running a national campaign to keep Oregon in line with the national GOP agenda. This has been catastrophic for Oregon, and even good conservatives should wonder why a GOP leader needs to be sleeping with these tawdry bedmates.

[Correction: those figures aren't cumulative--or may not be. I wasn't reading the form for cumulative amounts, just listing single donations.]

Monday, April 10, 2006

[Media]

Beeg Interview

I'm preparing for what I hope emerges as an interview with Markos--Kos--Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong. Will post later...

Thursday, April 06, 2006

[Plame Leak]

Libby Fingers Bush on Plame Leak?

Okay, the news first:
A former top aide to Vice President Cheney told a federal grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA agent's identity that President Bush authorized him to disclose classified intelligence information about Iraq as a way of rebutting criticism from the agent's husband, according to court papers filed by prosecutors....

In the court filing, Fitzgerald says Libby met with New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003, "only after the Vice President advised defendant that the President specifically had authorized defendant to disclose certain information in the NIE...

he document says Libby "testified that he was specifically authorized in advance of the meeting to disclose the key judgments of the classified NIE to Miller on that occasion because it was thought that the NIE was 'pretty definitive' against what Ambassador Wilson had said and that the Vice President thought that it was 'very important' for the key judgments of the NIE to come out. Defendant further testified that he at first advised the Vice President that he could not have this conversation with reporter Miller because of the classified nature of the NIE. Defendant testified that the Vice President later advised him that the President had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions of the NIE."

Source: WaPo
This is, of course, either a yawner (if you're liberal or have been awake at any time in the past five years) or proof of nothing (if you've been awake but practicing the extreme form of fundamentalism required by the Bush faithful). There was never a question that Libby was acting alone, without authorization of his boss, only a question about whether he would admit Cheney's involvment. Bush's involvment is always less believable, principally because he doesn't seem competent to be trusted with the facts, so you never know what he's been cut in on.

Around the blogosphere, all the moths are drawn to this flame, but I report this with a certain fatigue. I have absolutely no confidence anymore in our government. The GOP will never open hearings, the packed courts will offer ultra-favorable rulings to any probes, and the media will be distracted in exactly seven hours. Even video footage of Exxon execs stuffing checks into Bush's pockets wouldn't be enough to get him strung up. The country is run by crooks, and there's not a lot to be done about it. But I digress. Should you be more interested in the story reading is to be had. I offer you the cream ...

Needlenose offers a novel legal argument to the procedings. Much of the discussion revolves around the question of whether the information was actually classified. Kevin Drum explains. For an alternative take, the ever faithful Tom Maguire threads the needle for the defense (hey Tom, a tactical withdrawal might be the way to go about now), which Andrew Sullivan threatens to label naivete. Arianna goes charmingly snarky (I can't read her prose without hearing her accent, which adds snark to snark). PSoTD is singing my dreary, cynical tune (you can't dance to it, but it's great for smoky bars). Susie is short and sweet. Finally, Bob Fertik outlines the ways in which the story might have legs ... if anyone cared.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

[GOP Corruption]

Dogged by Scandal and Corruption, DeLay Quits.

I don't have a whole lot to add to the DeLay business (what's to say?), but I was shocked by the coverage today. Every story I heard/saw treated this as only distantly related to his corruption. For example, so-smeared liberal mouthpieces:
Now, I don't care that the press gives DeLay his talking points--that's fair journalism. But to not frame this story as one in which a corrupt pol is ducking and running is irresponsible. Who's served by that?

So anyway, the headline to this post is the one I'd have written. It's accurate and objective. These other headlines, and most of the stories, are examples of DeLay's success at spinning his own exit.

Monday, April 03, 2006

[Immigration]

Dobbs: No Irish Flags.

I missed this last week, but I'll offer it as one more shard of content on my way out the door.
Janet Murguia, National Council of La Raza: We just had St. Patrick's Day; are you saying that the Irish, because they're holding up their Irish flags--that all of a sudden they're not loyal or they're unamerican?

Lou Dobbs: You ready to listen to me loud and clear? I don't think that we should have any flag-flying in this country except the flag of the United States ... I don't think there should be a St. Patrick's Day. I don't care who you are.
Bet he loves Cinco de Mayo.
[Meta]

An Advisory to Hog's Three Readers.

I've sent the interns home, and we're shutting the doors for a week. I may blog a bit in the margins, but it's going to be a little slow. Regular schedule to resume next week.

Interesting bits offered in lieu of actual content:
  • Koufax Awards announced. (Hog not among winners; interns suspect fraud.)
  • Study finds no effect of intercessory prayer (report, Times' article)
  • There's one guy (Keith Olbermann) on cable news who doesn't like the Prez, and Howie Kurtz doesn't like him (goose and gander cliches here).
  • Experts lean toward Bruins; Vegas likes the Gators. (Maybe we should make the experts put money on it and see if they still like UCLA.)
  • Andy Sullivan has my back on immigration--it's bad news for the GOP. Pith:
    Every time a Republican congressman stands up to inveigh against illegals the Hispanic vote veers to the Democrats. Every time a Republican senator speaks in favour of guest-workers and inclusion, a white male Southerner decides not to bother voting this November.
  • I had a request last week for links to track the '06 races. Here you go: Dem Underground, National Journal, Sabato, WaPo.
All right then.