February 22, 2011

Raise High the Tax Level, Carpenters

Faithful reader JM weighs in with the question about raising taxes. There are, after all, two approaches to balancing the budget. My own sense is that there is enough money sloshing around in the American economy to achieve a federal balance without significantly damaging the Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous. It would take two significant moves: One, an increase in the top marginal rate paid by the pluto-oligarchs; and Two, a more rational approach to defense spending which would reduce the outlay to, say, the $500 billion level (and that's everything, tips, gratuities, even the gift bags). To solve Social Security, the cap on the maximum income subject to FICA tax needs to be raised and perhaps titrated, year-by-year, to achieve a balance between outgo and income. And the health care system needs to be nationalized.

The Pluto-Oligarchs will, naturally, point to the following chart, which demonstrates that about 70% of all income taxes are already paid by the top 10%. This fact, of course, tends to demonstrate that income inequality in the United States has reached obscene, Gilded Age levels. Caricatures of the very rich come easily to mind. Do they really need 5 vacation homes when 4 should get the job done? Is it necessary to travel by helicopter to the Hamptons when a chauffeured limo is cheaper? If John McCain isn't even certain how many houses his heiress/USC cheerleader wife owns, isn't that an indication of excess and not just of mental vacuity?

Percentiles Ranked by AGI

AGI Threshold on Percentiles

Percentage of Federal Personal Income Tax Paid

Top 1%



Top 5%



Top 10%



Top 25%



Top 50%



Bottom 50%



I would answer that just because the wealthy are paying a lot (relative to the total paid) does not mean they are paying enough. It all comes down to a question of what kind of country we actually want, which is an oblique way of saying: what happened to the concept of patriotism in this country? Why do the rich, through their army of lobbyists, want to hamstring the federal government through relentlessly lowering the top marginal rates (and why does the Crypto-Republican, Barack Obama, play along)?

One idea I have is that modern American politicians, such as the aforementioned Mr. Obama, wear the American flag lapel pins popularized by the Bush-era Gauleiters to remind themselves that they are, in fact, Americans. It's not always obvious. The move to globalization, the tax breaks for offshoring companies, the preference for spending money in places like Iraq and Afghanistan instead of Detroit and Baltimore, confuse the issue of just whose interests they're really serving. Increasingly, I get the idea that patriotism in this country is not only the last refuge of scoundrels, but is an entirely outmoded concept. Saying such a thing in the wrong redneck bar in Columbus, GA, could be a huge mistake, of course, because all those soldiers transiting from Fort Benning to the killing fields of Baghdad and Kandahar, and who come home with one leg, or no eyes, or a damaged brain, don't want to hear about this "death of patriotism" stuff, so keep it to yourself, you Berkeley fag-radical.

A conversation to be avoided, at least in that context. Still, the people responsible for sending these soldiers overseas, by an overwhelming majority, do not themselves place their asses on the line, nor those of their close relatives (Bush, Cheney, Obama, Wolfowitz, Rice, Feith, Limbaugh, Beck, O'Reilly, Coulter et alia ad nauseum). Nor do they actually foment and sustain these wars out of patriotic motives; they're entirely mercenary, the acts of war profiteers or of political opportunists. Sadly, this is the emotional trap, the cover story of an inapt patriotism, which ensnares the military grunts, the ones actually in harm's way. I feel for them. You could say it's my patriotic duty.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I think The Powers That Be in this country essentially use the United States, for want of a less techno-hip word, as a platform for commercial purposes. America is a headquarters country, and the richest use the USA as a base of operations without sinking deep roots into our native soil. They build their factories overseas and they seek to starve their own country of nationality of the tax benefits of their largess (billions in corporate profits are kept permanently overseas so that they can avoid the problem of "repatriating" the money and exposing it to taxation). A compliant Congress builds a tax and regulatory regime which enables all of this unpatriotic activity.

Which is why I don't think a massive restructuring of the tax paradigm is worth the effort anymore. For entirely different reasons from the right wing "small government" freaks, who are primarily interested in dismantling the welfare state so that government's functions can be limited to maintaining the military-industrial complex and bailing out their banks once they screw up again in the course of trying to screw everyone else.

I've become more of a "regional guy," someone who believes the central government apparatus has become too big, too complex and completely unmanageable and unresponsive. These are the reasons I believe that so many Americans feel detached from the nation they grew up in. No matter what the polls show (leave Iraq now, end this decade-long fiasco in Afghanistan, shrink the military, place some rational limit on possession of private Kalashnikovs, give the people some form of socialized medicine we can actually afford, try to keep the ambient air temperature in the sub-100 degree range), the political system remains unswayed. It serves its own interests, not those of the general public.

Most of the things we really need that government provides happen at the local level: schools, fire departments, police, fixing potholes. The federal government has become a very irritating and insanely expensive distraction. So yeah, Grover Norquist: starve The Beast. I'm just picturing something a little bigger and more comprehensive.

February 20, 2011

Note to GOP: Please, Please Shut the Government Down

It's just that we could all use a break.

The major objection to making them all just shut the hell up and go away for a while is that the Social Security checks which would otherwise be sent out or directly deposited in recipients' accounts on March 10 (the first distribution date after the March 4 expiration of the "continuing resolution" under which these clowns continue their act) will be interrupted. I concede that is a cause for concern, but c'mon, even these brain-dead politicos can surely find a solution to that. The FICA payments will keep coming in; can't someone, just one clerk, stay behind and make sure the mail goes out?

That wasn't so hard, was it? Okay, so the one real problem with disbanding the federal government has been handled.

The beautiful part, the hopeful angle, to the government shut-down is that it will happen unless Congress does something to prevent it. We know how good they are at that kind of thing. These are the same people running a $3.8 trillion operation on a $2.2 trillion budget. As noted, the "continuing resolution" which permits the government to spend money will expire on March 4, which is only 11 (eleven!) days from now. They have to use a "continuing resolution" to begin with because there is no real budget in place, and hasn't been for a very long time (Obama did not propose one for the previous fiscal year) which is to say, the continuing resolution is itself a sign of the extreme dysfunction in Washington's governance. Emblematic of its lack of realism, of its tendency to procrastinate and to act like little children. The GOP wants Obama to enact its meaningless series of token, mean-spirited, Luddite budget cuts, which are all aimed at favorite conservative voodoo dolls, like the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Education, and scientific research, and solar energy, and the rest of their list of Liberal targets. The Democrats resist all of these token gestures in favor of token gestures of their own.

"That's the wrong $30 billion to cut out of the $1.6 trillion deficit!" is the moving battle cry of the Democrats, our liberal heroes. "If we're going to eviscerate government spending by cutting nearly 2% of the budget, excuse me, deficit, then we need to target carefully the budget cuts we choose, because the American people are counting on us to do our jobs!"

They all agree on only one thing: the Department of Defense must have its money.

See what I mean? Are you coming around? Can't they just all take a hike, like the Democrats in Wisconsin did? The Donkeys in Wisconsin went to Illinois; the asses in Washington, D.C. have all fifty states to choose from. Anywhere other than the District of Columbia, which is where they screw everything up.

Do Tom Coburn and John Boehner realize just how much of an Uncle Remus situation this is? Please oh please, Congress, don't throw us into the brier patch of a government shutdown! What would we do without you?

Obama will veto your spending cuts, because he's a man of principle. He believes that if we're going to save money, we should do so by cutting LIHEAP, the assistance to low income families that allows them to avoid hypothermia during the arctic months of winter in the Northeast and Midwest, particularly in those areas which are not reliably Democratic. The O-Man has argued strenuously for slashing this unconscionable waste of money from its present $5 billion to $2.5 billion. Saving this money will allow us to continue nation building in Kandahar, which is where our interests really lie, not in those row houses in Philadelphia where the gas was turned off a month ago and the interior temperature has that same invigorating, chilly zing! as the air outside. Well, who voted for Hillary in the 2008 primary?

So many heroes, so little time to choose. The question is: which side to support? Where should we be spending all that money that Congress needs to borrow in order to spend almost anything? Should we borrow money and spend it on education, or borrow money and spend it on suppressing the Taliban a while longer, since the first decade of suppression hasn't quite done the trick? These people obviously know what they're doing, and I want to be sure they have the tools to do their jobs. But just to give them time to reflect on their priorities, to make sure they "get this right," as they all like to say - maybe they should take off for a couple of years and think it all through. You know?