Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


Just When You Thought California Couldn't Get Worse

No help on reapportionment.  Rs Dreier and Lungren may go down, though Dems' dilemmas also amuse.  Progressivism's wheel of destruction rolls on.  Conservatives' only immediate weapon in California is direct democracy.  Learning how to campaign outside a narrow and shrinking constituency also helps--in the long run.  Short term solution is to use Progressivism's weapons against it.  Direct democracy is one such device; something good may come out of their new primary system, though odds are against it.
Categories > Congress


Hayward on Romney on Energy

Our own promiscuously-blogging enviro-guru Steven Hayward has a takedown at Power Line of "Romney's frequent slavishness to the conventional wisdom" on America's comparative energy efficiency. Hayward gets to the heart of both the issue and Romney's likely problem among conservatives - we aren't trailing Europe in any contest of importance to us and we're tired of hearing the contrary from our leaders. Pawlenty's economic speech invoked American exceptionalism - Romney's energy speech fawned over European eco-policies. Not only are Romney's facts and loyalties erroneous, his tone and instincts seem to be deeply flawed.
Categories > Economy

Foreign Affairs

Re: What Price Reset

Regarding Julie's post below on Russia's missile defense technology sharing demands in the new START Treaty negotiations, our good-hearted liberal friend Joel Mathis weighs in with a comment thread to say, essentially, "And so's your old man!"  Ronaldus Magnus, he reminds us, proposed to share missile technology with the Soviet Union; why should we be reluctant now to consider the same thing?

To wit, three observations.  First, I recall Walter Mondale, even as he opposed Reagan's SDI initiative, also said it would be irresponsible to share the technology with the Soviet Union if we had it.  Another great example of how Reagan tied liberals in knots.  Second, this was one feature of Reagan's diplomacy that most annoyed Gorbachev.  Whenever Reagan brought up the "sharing" idea at summits, Gorbachev would say he found the idea simply incredible.  You won't even sell us advanced farm equipment, he complained; what makes you think I can believe that you'd share advanced defense technology with us (especially since Gorbachev knew that Reagan knew the USSR was cheating on the ABM Treaty)?  Reagan never had a very good answer to this.  

Moreover, Gorbachev argued sensibly, why do you need missile defense at all if we both disarm?  Here Reagan's answer partly anticipates the present moment.  Because, Reagan argued at the Reykjavik summit, rogue nations 20 years from now may develop nuclear weapons and acquire ballistic missiles.  He named Libya as one specific possibility.  (I suppose it would have been too awkward to mention Iran, since Reagan was selling them weapons at that very moment.)  Which brings me to the salient point: While today's Russia is less of a direct threat to the US than was the Soviet Union at the peak of it might, it is arguably more of a problem for the reason other respondents to Joel's comment point out: what makes us think Russia won't divulge our technology to Iran and other bad actors?  I have little doubt that Reagan would be much less likely to share missile technology today.  In this he'd resemble an example of Churchill's essay "Consistency in Politics:"

[A] statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship of state on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other.  His arguments in each case when contrasted can be shown to be not only very different in character, but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction: yet his object will throughout have remained the same.  His resolves, his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged; his methods may be verbally irreconcilable.  We cannot call this inconsistency.  In fact it may be claimed to be the truest consistency.  The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.

The circumstances today are vastly different that under the bipolar world of the US--USSR.  I suspect Reagan today would share technology with allies against the rogues and not with Russia; he'd want partnerships with nations more reliable than Russia, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, who are keen to deploy our missile defenses.  Oh wait--that's right: Obama gave that away already, canceling our deployment plans with those countries.
Categories > Foreign Affairs


UPDATED: Pawlenty on the Economy

I had missed Tim Pawlenty's speech on the economy at the University of Chicago this past Tuesday (see Missoula post below for details). However, the address isn't to be missed. Pawlenty is positioning himself as the conservative frontrunner, and his views on the most important issue of the election are bold and courageous. If he can also project sufficient character, optimism and leadership to persuade nervous but determined moderates to his plan, he'll have a solid shot at the presidency in 2012.

Here's his first salvo:

UPDATE: Pawlenty apparently thinks he did a good job with the Chicago speech, as well. His campaign video summary / advertisement is here:

Liberals have begun to howl in protest. Ruth Marcus in the WaPo calls his plan "delusional" (for assuming economic growth at 5% is possible) and "reckless" (for promising tax cuts). I don't think most Americans will prefer Marcus' sky-is-falling objections to tax cuts and optimism about the economy. It's interesting to see liberals pushing the pessimistic side of the argument and attacking a message of hope and change. 

Categories > Economy

Literature, Poetry, and Books

And Now For Something Completely Different...

I've touched upon everything from renewable energy to "New Europe" to armadillos today. What can top all of that? The 8 worst X-Men ever!


Running Against Wall Street Privilege

I don't know if Walter Russell Mead's account of the housing bubble and financial collapse contains enough of the truth to form the basis for a populist Republican campaign in November of 2012.  I do know that this is brilliantly inflammatory writing:

The Democratic Party today is a fragile coalition of elite liberals, traditionally Democratic ethnic blue collar whites, African Americans and Hispanics.  The Fannie Mae story is essentially a story of how liberal Wall Streeters raped every one else -- and how the organized leadership of the other groups colluded in the attack.

Something about this narrative feels off, but I wonder if this perspective on the housing bubble and the financial crisis might be combined with some of the suggestions of regular NLT commenter Art Deco:

Revisions to financial regulation which might include the following: requiring exchange trading of swaps and derivative or banning credit default swaps or both; separation of deposits-and-loans banking from securities underwriting, proprietary trading, prime brokerage, and private equity; separation of securities underwriting from proprietary trading, vending of mutual funds and such, and any sort of business that involves investment counseling; separation of the vending of mutual funds and such from the provision of investment counseling; separation of proprietary trading from any other sort of business; abolition of insurance on financial products; excision of regulations which promote the disaggregation of mortgage lending; eventual liquidation of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae; requirements that hedge funds and investment accounts be levered no more than 1:3; institutional provision for an authority which can (if possible) rapid roll up insolvent securities firms; provision for re-capitalizing banks and securities firms via debt-for-equity swaps; and provision for dismantling of the megabanks.

Maybe this would lead to good politics and (more importantly) good policy.  Heck, I dunno.

Anyway, this book is going on my summer reading list. 

Categories > Politics


Media Evolution at AOL

I previously wrote at AOL's Political Machine - I was actually a founding member. When that site transformed into Politics Daily, my profile and blogs were transferred to the new site. As I mentioned previously, AOL purchased the Huffington Post in February for $315 million. I feared what the tea leaves portended:

[Political Machine's] producers, Coates Bateman and Michael Kraskin, as well as lead editors such as David Knowles, strove to keep the site above mere partisan ranting and struggled to retain ideological balance. All of the fine bloggers with whom I wrote (with the exception of the odious Cenk Uyger) delightfully played their parts in the agreed upon larger drama. But reports indicate that the blog may soon be folded into HuffPost - and with it, I fear, any semblance of ideological balance or journalistic integrity.

Politics Daily has now been subsumed into the Huffington Post. Hence, my former blog-home is now the Huffington Post.

I feel dirty.

Another "evolution" in journalism - a moderate site and a hard-left site merge into a hard-left site. And another predictable result - after only a few months, the merger is a disaster.  

Categories > Journalism

Shameless Self-Promotion


I've been a long-time fan of the conservative-libertarian site, Intellectual Conservative, and the good folks over there have invited me to come onboard as a columnist. So, when I wax too long for Peter's patience here on NLT, I'll occasionally redirect an article to IC.

My latest article with IC attempts to "decipher the incoherency of renewable energy." The intro:

Windmills are not the future of the global economy. They were dandy for grain-grinding in the 19th century (and much appreciated for their contribution to bread-baking and beer-brewing), but they've taken their place alongside wooden teeth and horse-drawn carriages. And yet windmills are the latest craze in Congress - the leading-lady in a full ensemble touring Washington under the title, "Renewable Energy." The troupe premiered on the D.C. circuit in the 1960's, with Al Gore soon emerging as the leading-man, and their quixotic environmentalist spectacle recently received an all-expense-paid encore from the Democrats lame-duck Congress.

I hope you'll RTWT.

Foreign Affairs

What Price Reset?

President Obama's unbounded faith in his ability to make nice and persuade current and former enemies to see reason appears to know no limits.  Former CIA Director, R. James Woolsey and Ashbrook Scholar graduate, Rebeccah Heinrichs give a fascinating accounting of the efforts of leaders in Congress to do what they can to "reset" Obama's naive attempts at a Russian "reset."  It seems that the Obama administration is willing to veto the defense budget over a section in that bill which would prevent the President from sharing sensitive missile defense technology with the Russians.

Russian President Dimitry Medvedev has been successful in negotiations with the Obama administration at getting the preamble to the new START treaty to include language that equates offensive missile technology with defensive capabilities.  As controversy swirled over that dubious equation, it was discovered that the Russians have also requested a great deal of information regarding U.S. missile defense technology and operational authority as part of a separate missile defense agreement they have been working on with the Obama administration.  And the Obama administration gives no indication that they will not happily share it as part of an effort to smooth relations with the former Soviets.  Congress is attempting to prevent the administration from willy-nilly divulging that sensitive information and, of course, from allowing it to get into the hands of Russian allies like the Iranians.  Whatever may be said about the "resetting" of relations with Russia, it remain cozy with nations--like Iran--that pose an unquestionable threat to U.S. security.   
Categories > Foreign Affairs


California Conservative Confusion

In the Manhattan Institute's City Journal: California, Steven Greenhut offers an important essay in support of Governor Jerry Brown's plan to eliminate California's redevelopment agencies (RDAs).  In that essay, Greenhut recounts the patterns of abuse that have characterized the activities of these agencies and also offers numerous examples of corruption typified by cronyism and sweetheart deals.  In other words, RDAs offer all the things liberty loving Americans have come to know and loathe about government programs. 

It should not be imagined, however, that California Democrats are suddenly stumbling upon a revelation combined with a conscience on this front.  When it comes to the many ways that government programs and funds can often foster abuse, Brown and his friends remain deaf to arguments for eliminating them.  Brown's desire to eliminate the RDAs is merely a part of his (otherwise farcical) plans to take charge of California's budgetary woes (woes he and his party have, of course, largely created). 

While no political ally of Brown's, Greenhut shows that he may be even more annoyed with a particular kind of Republican--at least when it comes to the question of the RDAs.  Republicans, you see, are leading the charge at blocking Brown's efforts to eliminate the RDAs.  While happy to decry property rights abuses and aggressive exercises of eminent domain when those outrages loom large in the popular imagination (viz the Kelo decision), these Republicans have also been happy to overlook the potential for those abuses in their own communities.  This is particularly true when standing upon the principle of property rights means a decrease or an end to the RDA dollars upon which many local governments have become dependent.  And, as local governments struggle, there is even greater temptation to lust after the power of eminent domain for the purpose of bringing into a community businesses perceived as having more potential to generate sales tax revenue for a particular city.  You've got to make payroll somehow.  So there is principle and there is interest.  When government intervenes to make interest look even more attractive than it already is, some Republicans too readily turn their heads.

The arguments of these Republicans on behalf of RDAs begin to resemble the most frustrating elements of efforts to improve public schools:  "Our schools are great!" or "Our RDA is not abusive." It's always somebody else's community that is the problem . . . until it isn't. 

Republicans who are now engaged in this unseemly whining about cutting RDAs are not simply wrong to be concerned, however.  There is the very real problem that local governments in California--now virtually dependent upon RDA money for balancing their books--are going to take a large hit.  They certainly will.  But this fact alone does not mean that the RDAs should be preserved.  This fact, instead of causing folks to moan and grasp at the state coffers with even more animation, should cause them to demand a complete re-evaluation of the purposes and powers of local government entities and for more carefully defining the limits of the state's.  That means hard work at persuading voters and standing upon principle; something Republicans cannot do effectively if they engage in this kind of rhetorical hypocrisy.  Perhaps too many California Republicans are so beat down and tired from a half century of near total Democratic domination in the statehouse, that they can't summon the will to fight on principle anymore.  If that is the case, it is time for them to pack it in.  This is work that must be done if California is to remain the Golden State.  They cannot expect ever to win the larger argument if they too readily give in on specific aspects of it in the name of petty interests now.

It may very well be true that this effort is a cynical ploy on the part of Gov. Brown to make the public feel the pain of necessary cuts; to damage municipal government entities just enough to spread the misery and make people more pliable on the question of tax hikes.  Hit them where they live, and such.  Whatever the motive, however, the substance deserves applause.  And instead of hiding in a foxhole, Republicans should be leading this charge and taking the issue right back at Jerry. 

Categories > Conservatism

Foreign Affairs

A New Europe note

Justin Paulette writes with perfect clarity about the New Europe and why we should pay more attention to it than is this administration.  Good points all, and I agree.
Categories > Foreign Affairs


Goings and Doings

I've been remiss in my blogging as of late, but I've been off to distant places . . .

. . . and trying new things.

But now I'm home with my customary neighbors in the back-yard . . .


. . . and reminded that it's a wonderfully diverse country in which we live.

Categories > Leisure


An Acceptable Litmus Test

In a prognostication which should make Peter smile, the New York Times predicts that motorcycle riding will become the 2012 entrance requirement for Republican presidential hopefuls.
Categories > Elections


Harry V. Jaffa's Gift

Last Friday found me in Washington at the dinner honoring Jaffa (he is now 93 years young).  The fine event was run by the Claremont Institute, under the good eyes of President Brian Kennedy, and Chairman Tom Klingenstein. Matthew Spalding acted not only as MC, but also said a few good words about the Old Man. Kennedy, Arkes, Podhoretz, Kesler, and I were to say something for no longer than seven minutes each in his honor.  They were fine short speeches honoring his great mind, and the things for which it should be known.  I merely told him that I was grateful for his patience, for his ability to wait out--and keep talking to, if not with--those of us who were unworthy and unschooled.  I thanked him for his generosity, for inviting us into his mind, into his conversation.  I thanked him for his clarity. I told him that until I met him I had never actually seen a mind work, I had never seen a man think.  With him that is all I saw.  Since then I try to imitate this rare excellence, and only rarely am I able to.   I thanked him for showing us how to get inside the thing--Plato, Shakespeare, equality, Churchill, Lincoln, justice, Twain, Aquinas, liberty--instead of talking around it and about it.  I told him how me and my friends--which friendships he made both possible and good--have been disposed, since we met him, to do this our whole lives, and how this is because of him, that he is the cause of it.  I wanted to say to him that he showed us how to establish a habit of freedom of thought necessary to rise to the level of equality that the American mind demanded, but I do not think I was able to get that far because my heart overflowed with gratitude.  So I just thanked him again and told him that I loved him.
Categories > Education

Romney's Newest Problem

As if Romney didn't have enough problems with the albatross of his heath care position, last week he dug himself a fresh hole by unthinkingly embracing the failing conventional wisdom on climate change.  Hugh Hewitt, who likes Romney, made a shout out on his blog for me to do a primer on the subject and post it on Powerline, which is what I have done this morning.  It's a two-cup-of-coffee post, under the old NLT format.

Quote of the Day

Quotation du Jour

From David Bernstein's Rehabilitating Lochner: "[Learned] Hand and [Felix] Frankfurter both wrote unsigned editorials for The New Republic calling for the repeal of the Firth and Fourteenth Amendments' due process clauses. Privately, Justice Brandeis supported the repeal of the entire Fourteenth Amendment."
Categories > Quote of the Day


Mostly For Pointyheads

So Tim Pawlenty gave a big speech on taxes and the economy today.  He wants to institute a two-tier income tax with rates of 10% and 25%, cut the corporate income tax to 15% and eliminate the capital gains, interest income, dividend and inheritance taxes.  It was a pretty partisan speech, but that doesn't mean it was ineffective.  Pawlenty (when he isn't pretending to be furious and acting out his cartoonish idea of what a "populist" sounds like) has room to be more ideological and partisan partly because of his calm affect.  There is a lot to chew over, but two questions predominated.

1.  What will be there distributional impact of his tax policy if there are changes to income tax deductions in order to prevent tax revenues from collapsing? 

2.  What will be the impact of Pawlenty's policies on federal revenues?  If his plan would cause revenues to decline, that means that we would have to make even deeper cuts than those outlined in Ryan's PTP (whose tax plan budgets for revenue neutrality) or an even larger deficit.  The cuts in Ryan's PTP are already politically problematic to say the least (and he might not have budgeted enough money for Medicare) so advocating even sharper cuts will be even tougher.  Or we could have a sovereign default. 

IF Pawlenty's plan is shown as likely to cause a sharp drop in federal revenues it would probably have some political ramifications.  Obama's budget promises of 2008 were nonsense of course (remember "net budget cut") but the deficit and the public debt were a much smaller issue in 2008 and the Republicans were burdened with a President with approval ratings in the 30s.  Obama's approval ratings have been solid at about the 44% range.  The asymmetry of media power between the left and right will make sure that all persuadable voters will have heard that Pawlenty a) said he believed that we were in a debt crisis that required wide sacrifice and b) Pawlenty came out for a tax plan that made the deficit worse in order to cut taxes on high earners.  I think Pawlenty will have two answers to this:

1.  You should trust me rather than the naysayers.  I'm the guy who told Iowa we can't afford ethanol subsidies.  I'm the guy who went to Wall Street and told them no more bailouts.  I'm the guy who went to Florida and said that the younger generation will have to work a little longer before collecting Social Security benefits and lifetime high earners will get smaller Social Security COLAS.  So when I say it adds up, that means it add up.

2.  Cutting taxes will boost the economy so much that it will make up for the lost revenue.

There are circumstances under which this approach could work politically.  Circumstances in 2012 could be such that a majority of voters might be willing to go along with such explanations if the Republican candidate doesn't come across as fanatical, insane, or grotesquely ignorant.  There are several problems with this:

1.  It assumes a situation where Republicans mostly win by default.

2.  Our public debt problems are real and serious.

Categories > Politics

Refine & Enlarge

The Lost Art of Legislation

The Lost Art of Legislation is the latest Letter from an Ohio Farmer: While it may be necessary for Congress to delegate the working out of many details to administrative agencies, yet this practice has come with the high cost of degrading the deliberative function of Congress's lawmaking power.The Farmer asks Congress to assume more responsibility for its actions.  Do read it.
Categories > Refine & Enlarge

Democracy and the Welfare State

Last week I blogged that taxes should be high enough "to pay for the things the government needs to do."  And which are those?  "In a democracy, all the things the people feel the government really ought to do."  Thus, I wrote, "I'm happy to abide by the outcome of the democratic debate over that question, but I think it should be conducted honestly. Honesty requires stipulating that the amount of government we get is no larger than the amount we're willing to pay for, as opposed to the dream-world welfare state we would build if wealth were limitless."

Some commentators objected to this formulation as being too receptive to a growing welfare state.  Joel Mathis, who got this discussion started, welcomed my framework as being more conducive to the welfare state than conservatives usually are, or than most liberals assume most conservatives are.

So, am I a squish on the question of the welfare state?  I prefer to think that I am restating the fundamental facts about how the question will and should be considered and settled.  Let me cite, as we Claremont types must, Abraham Lincoln, who said in 1858, "In this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed."  Or, as he put it in 1861, "A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people."

I was trying to say last week what I took Lincoln to have been saying 150 years ago: Majorities can err, but the only safe and legitimate corrective for those who believe that the majority has erred, or is about to, is to mold public sentiment so that bad policies become untenable.  America's welfare state has grown for the past 80 years because people like getting what it provides.  There are two reasons it hasn't grown even faster.  The lesser one is that people have some qualms, now largely forgotten, about the legitimacy of having the government redistribute wealth from some people to others.  The more politically consequential reason is that people like getting what the welfare state provides much more than they like paying for what it costs. 

Unfortunately, the path of least political resistance, giving people the big welfare state and small tax bills they want, leads to the edge of a cliff, one that is now in view as federal debt held by the public will head north to 100% of GDP in a little over a decade if we adhere to President Obama's 2012 budget.  The tag line from a Michelob Lite commercial in the 1980s was, "Who says you can't have it all?"  Reality, that's who, George F. Will wrote at the time.

Reality remains inflexible about this business of giving the whole country New York's welfare state and South Dakota's tax system.  Intellectually honest liberals say that if we want not only the big welfare state we already have, but the much bigger one depicted in any randomly selected Democratic party platform from the past 40 years, we'll have to have much higher taxes.  Barack Obama's intellectual dishonesty led him to promise that we can finance a much bigger welfare state if the most prosperous 3% of us, those making more than $250,000 per year, pay higher taxes while the rest of us get taxes that remain where they are or diminish. 

As Matthew Yglesias argued, there's a practical and a political problem with this approach.  The practical problem is that America is already raising a higher portion of its tax revenues from the wealthy, and further tax increases on the rich can raise only a limited amount of additional revenue.  "An extra annual tax of $500 per capita could raise almost $150 billion," he wrote.  "Obtaining a comparable amount from the top 1 percent of individuals would require $50,000 from each of them, an amount that the very wealthiest could easily pay but that is probably an unrealistic burden on those near the bottom of the top 1 percent. To get a lot of money you need to be willing to take at least a little from a broad group of people."

The political problem, according to Yglesias, is that, "A platform of no tax increases for the bottom 95 percent can win elections, but it reinforces rather than debunks the right's fundamental view of the tax question -- that public services aren't worth paying for -- and merely suggests that the correct answer is to get someone else to pay for them.... At the end of the day, persuading people to support a more active role for government means persuading all of them that such a government is worth paying for."

That fact that so few liberals - not just in politics but even in the safe harbors of journalism, academia and think tanks - have tried to convince Americans that a more active role for government is worth paying for, by all of us, suggests they don't believe there will be many takers for that proposition.  I suspect they're right: the welfare state we'll have if its costs are honestly reckoned and realistically shared will be much smaller (and much smarter) than the one we have now.  This is the case I understand Congressman Paul Ryan to be making, and one that other conservatives should be pressing as well.


Overturning Plessy v. Ferguson

The descendants of the litigants in the great civil rights case of 1896 form a foundation.  Sweet idea, and I'm wondering whether serious tea party-style activists might follow suit by forming similar foundations devoted to ending irrational discrimination.  They might find inspiration in Jennifer Roback Morse's libertarian scholarship, which notes the City of New Orleans overriding the railway's preference for integrated seating.  (Clint Bolick has also performed great service along these lines.)  Here is another way to put natural rights-thinking to practical use.  Reading Charles Lofgren's classic work on Plessy is essential background.  The Claremont historian shows the direct ties between Plessy's arguments and the Declaration of Independence.

The Tea Party's most appealing argument is for the restoration of the principles of the Declaration of Independence in everyday life.  The fight for color-blind justice is an essential part of that argument.  Thanks to Mike in the comments.

Treppenwitz:  Here is one version of Edward Erler's argument on Plessy's persistence in our jurisprudence.

Categories > Race


Jew Hatred in California

The propaganda in support of banning the circumcision of children in San Francisco breaks my heart.  My general take on things is that nothing ever really changes in the world.  There is no true and lasting progress. Even so, it is depressing to see something that could be straight out of Germany in the 1930s in modern America.   Here's more on the subject.  Part of me still hopes that it is all some kind of misguided satire of the supporters of the ban, but I gather that's not the case.
Categories > Religion


Further Thoughts on Taxes and Spending

Harold Meyerson recently set out to sneer, in the pages and pixels of the Washington Post, but succeeded more decisively in refuting himself. It's always a bad sign when a writer introduces statistical evidence that weakens the argument he's trying to make.

Meyerson wanted to show that the Republican approach to cutting the deficit—spending cuts only, no tax increases—is absurd. His point on taxes is that in 1955, according to the Campaign for America's Future, the country's 400 wealthiest taxpayers had an average income of $13.3 million (in 2008 dollars) and paid 51.2% of that in federal income taxes. In 2008 the richest 400 had an average income of $270.5 million and paid 18% of that in federal income taxes. In 1955, he notes, "we could afford to pave roads."

But wait. 51.2% of $13.3 million is $6,809,600, the average federal income tax bill for the most fortunate 400 in 1955, using 2008 dollars. Thus, the federal government gathered in the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $2.724 billion from the whole lot of them. 18% of $270.5 million is $48.69 million, meaning that average tax bill for the top 400 was, adjusted for inflation, more than seven times as high in 2008 as in 1955. Those 400 households collectively accounted for $19.476 billion in federal revenues.

It speaks well of American governance during the Eisenhower administration that we managed to pave our roads while receiving $2.724 billion in federal taxes from our richest citizens. It speaks poorly of the quality of our governance today if, despite the additional $16.75 billion the families in the capstone of the income pyramid paid to the IRS in 2008, we can't pave the roads as often or as well, which Meyerson suggests is the case.

Assuming Mr. Meyerson owns and operates a calculator, it makes sense to ascribe his mistake—speaking as if the tax revenues generated by the richest 400 have gotten much smaller when they have clearly gotten much bigger—to a philosophical disposition rather than a mathematical error. Most people, and certainly most NLT readers, assume the purpose of a tax system is to raise revenues to finance the government's activities. A seven-fold increase in tax revenue from one segment of the population would, accordingly, mean that the government could undertake more activities, or that other segments of the population could pay lower taxes, which is a rough description of what actually happened in America between 1955 and 2008.

If, however, the primary purpose of the tax system is to punish or reproach the rich, to express our envy and resentment of people who are rich and getting richer, then it makes sense to treat the much larger revenues from that cohort as a minor detail and concentrate, angrily, on the fact that their incomes have gone up while their tax rates have gone down. Six years ago the columnist Jonathan Chait insisted that such malign intentions toward the wealthy played no part in liberals' preference for progressive taxes: "Liberals want to make the rich pay higher tax rates not because they hate them.… It's because somebody has to pay for the government, and the rich can more easily bear higher rates."

Well, yes, one advantage to being rich is that you can afford things easily that would be difficult or impossible for other people, including the 91% federal income tax bracket that was on the books in 1955. The problem with Chait's argument is there's no way to say where it stops. If the principle is that the rich should pay higher taxes because they can more easily bear the rates, then we should keep raising tax rates until the rich can no longer bear them—until, that is, they're no longer rich. One need not be rich to find this prospect disquieting. A government that can take whatever it wants strikes a lot of people as unfair, and unfree.

Assurances that only the rich will suffer as a consequence haven't convinced most people that this policy is fair, or that it really will be confined to the wealthy. In November 2010 voters in Washington, a state blue enough to have given Barack Obama 57% of its vote in 2008, rejected a state income tax applicable only to individuals making more than $200,000 per year and families making over $400,000. That most prosperous 1.2% of the state's population evidently had a lot of less-affluent friends, since 65 percent of the voters opposed the tax. One factor was that the promise to limit the income tax to the $200,000 and $400,000 thresholds was good for all of two years, after which the legislature could have applied it more broadly.

Meyerson makes a second point. Not only are the rich getting off too lightly, but the main beneficiaries of the federal government's activities tend to be red states. He cites a Tax Foundation study showing that in 2005 the federal government spent between $1.76 and $2.03 in New Mexico, Mississippi, Alaska, Louisiana, and West Virginia for every dollar it received from those states in taxes. By contrast, the blue states subsidize the federal government's operations: New Jersey, Nevada, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Minnesota received between 61 and 72 cents for every dollar paid in federal taxes. The states that "drain the government also constitute the Republicans' electoral base," writes Meyerson, "while those that produce the wealth constitute the Democrats'."

But, again, there's more to the story. The Tax Foundation study includes money transferred between citizens and the federal government as well as between the federal government and state and local ones. As the organization explains in the introduction to its study, "The most important factor determining whether a state is a net beneficiary is per capita income. States with wealthier residents pay higher federal taxes per capita thanks to the progressive structure of the income tax." New Jersey and Connecticut are net exporters of dollars, vis-à-vis the federal government, precisely because progressive federal taxes, which Meyerson imagines to have been relegated to the dustbin of history, draw in so much money from those states' disproportionately affluent residents. Mississippi and West Virginia have disproportionately few residents in the top tax brackets, but more than their share of poor residents receiving assistance from Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, school lunches, and a long list of other government programs.

If the disparities between importer and exporter states are intolerable, then perfect fairness will be attained when no such disparities exist, and every one of the fifty states receives precisely as much from Washington as it sends to Washington. At that point, however, the involvement of the federal government becomes completely pointless. The big steps needed to reduce the disparities between states that are net importers of federal dollars and net exporters would be to abolish the progressive federal income tax in favor of a flat tax or Value Added Tax, and do away with federal programs that direct assistance to households with low incomes.

I'm not as mean-spirited as Harold Meyerson, so I'll suggest consideration of a less drastic remedy, proposed 38 years ago by William Buckley in his book Four Reforms. Buckley would confine eligibility for welfare state programs to Americans living in states whose median income was below the national average. Because Buckley thought it was economically and politically debilitating to "turn the skies black with criss-crossing dollars," his reform would ground a lot of those dollars. Federal welfare expenditures would shrink, as the number of people eligible for them was limited, and prosperous states would pay for their own welfare programs without the transit and administrative fees of sending them on to Washington and then back to the states. Mr. Meyerson, do you wish to second the motion?

Categories > Politics