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The Reformicons

Thomas B. Edsall has an interesting piece in the New York Times on the “Republican Discovery of the Poor,” the embrace of economic populism, and the promotion of reforms, including changes to the tax code. Edsall understands the potential challenge to Democrats as Republicans “plan to bring the fight to the Democrats on their own turf.”

None of this is good news for Hillary Clinton. As Edsall concludes:

The obligation to counter the Republicans falls on Hillary Clinton. Her supporters are aware that she must navigate between the party’s competing constituencies while simultaneously demonstrating that she is not beholden to the Democratic special interest group network. If the 2016 election becomes a Clinton-Bush contest (or Clinton versus someone else who is committed to reformicon principles), its outcome will be determined by the ability of each candidate to surmount the same hurdle, but from opposite directions. How do you speak for the economically insecure without offending the very secure?

Edsall may not fully appreciate the longstanding disdain for corporate welfare and tax expenditures among libertarian elements of the GOP. What he presents as strategic calculations on the part of some Republicans may be more correctly understood as a longstanding commitment among some factions of the GOP. Whether this will constitute a threat to the Democratic candidate will depend on whether the reformist elements can survive the primaries.

Just came across this Templeton Foundation conversation on the role of reason in moral thought and action. Very enlightening. Over time, I have become more of a “Smithian” in acknowledging the role of moral emotion in guiding our intuitions and appropriately establishing moral commitments, though I also see a role for reason in systematizing those intuitions. My own view comes quite close to that expressed by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. The main problem with the compatibilist-determinist view expressed by brain scientists is that the discovery that people give all sorts of reasons for their moral acts doesn’t mean that reason doesn’t play a role in establishing the truth about morality, just as the fact that people come to their understanding of the world (say, color or the laws of physics) in different, imperfect ways doesn’t undermine the validity of experimental induction to discover the truth of the matter.

Bryan Caplan argues that social conservatives should prefer libertines to hypocrites, contrary to the common meme that “at least hypocrites have moral standards.” The argument is pretty simple: hypocrites seem to share your values, but when you least expect it, they will betray you. So far as it goes, the argument is pretty convincing.

But libertines and hypocrites aren’t the only two possible types of people who fail to live up to putative moral standards. A true hypocrite doesn’t actually have moral standards but merely pretends to them. After all, if one has moral standards, they should affect your behavior appreciably, but the hypocrite simply does what (s)he wants anyway while feigning belief in a stricter standard. That’s what makes hypocrites so dangerous.

The third type of moral failure is weakness of will. The weak-willed believe in moral standards and generally live up to them, but occasionally fail due to weakness of will. The weak of will acknowledge their flaws and try to do better, but you know they will sometimes fail. Unlike the hypocrite, the weak-willed is open about his/her failings, and therefore when dealing with them you know better what you’re dealing with. Unlike the libertine, the weak-willed often actually do live up to moral standards, so long as it isn’t too hard to do so.

Therefore, social conservatives should rank moral failures thus: 1) weakness of will, 2) libertinism, 3) hypocrisy. What some social conservatives praise when they praise “hypocrisy” is probably actually weakness of will, if they took some time to reflect on the distinctions.

I thought about these distinctions while considering the case of corrupt socialists. In the Spanish news today is the number-three man at Podemos, the extreme-left party in Spain (more or less their answer to Greece’s Syriza – the relations between the two parties are extremely close). This man, Juan Carlos Monedero, took half a million dollars from left-wing governments in Latin America (most particularly the Venezuelan dictatorship) for “consulting” and failed to pay taxes on it. He also defrauded his university, a technical college in Madrid, which was contractually guaranteed 20% of his consulting contracts.

Does this fraud evince hypocrisy or weakness of will? After all, Podemos has taken the lead in denouncing corruption in other parties, whom they call “la casta.” Withholding taxes from the government has to be a cardinal sin for socialists. Can true-believing socialists excuse the act on the grounds that “at least he has principles”? Or is he really pretending at having socialist principles at all?

It’s difficult to answer this question, because socialism attracts the unprincipled. If you want to enrich yourself through government, there’s no better way to do it than to denounce corruption and promote populist measures against the rich in order to get elected, and then once elected, use state-controlled companies to feather your own nest. When the state controls the economy, it controls wealth, and it will be extremely tempting to funnel some of that wealth to yourself and your friends.

Not knowing more about the man, it’s difficult to know whether Monedero – and quite possibly the other leaders of Podemos – are hypocrites or merely weak-willed. But that fact alone shows one of the inherent problems of socialism: really existing socialism either brings about rule by the already corrupt or corrupts those who rule.

The Big Chill

Despite candidate Obama’s promises of greater openness and transparency, the last few years have not been good ones with respect to freedom of the press. As Al Hunt observes: “The Obama administration has pursued more journalists than other administrations, secretly looking at phone records and credit card transactions and surreptitiously tracking their movements.”

A new Pew survey reveals that the administration’s policies may have a chilling effect:

About two-thirds of investigative journalists surveyed (64%) believe that the U.S. government has probably collected data about their phone calls, emails or online communications, and eight-in-ten believe that being a journalist increases the likelihood that their data will be collected. Those who report on national security, foreign affairs or the federal government are particularly likely to believe the government has already collected data about their electronic communications (71% say this is the case)

Although only 14 percent say that concerns over government surveillance have kept them from pursuing a story, it has forced 49 percent to change the way they store or share documents.

Following the terrorist attack in Paris, President Obama proclaimed: “Free expression and a free press are core values they are universal values, principles that can be attacked but never eradicated.” Let’s hope he is correct.

Vaccinate This

Interest in childhood vaccinations has risen in the past few weeks, with the growing number of cases of measles. As Christopher Ingraham (Washington Post) notes: “Public opinion polling shows that vaccination attitudes don’t differ much by party affiliation. Or by income, or even education. But there is one important demographic factor: age.”

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Rand Paul has run into some difficulties in the past few days when responding to questions regarding vaccinations. Perhaps his position is more complicated than can be captured in a sound byte. Alternatively, the ambiguity might be a calculated response to the beliefs of a key demographic that Paul has been courting.

The Breakthrough Year?

In the State of the Union, President Obama proclaimed the good economic news. He declared 2014 a “breakthrough year for America,” noting “our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999.” He also made the case for “middle-class economics,” promising a budget that would focus on “lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.”

Things appear far less rosy a week and one-half later. The Commerce Department’s growth figures for the final quarter of 2014 (released Thursday) reveal a slowing economy: 2.6 percent for the fourth quarter, compared with 4.6 percent in the second quarter and 5 percent in the third. That places real GDP growth for 2014 at 2.4 percent. The “breakthrough year” seems to be but a marginal improvement over 2.2 percent (2013) and 2.3 percent (2012). The Commerce Department also released the figures on the seasonally adjusted homeownership rate: 63.9 percent, the lowest level in 20 years.

Perhaps these figures only strengthen the case for “middle class economics”? Unfortunately, the Tax Policy Center’s analysis of the tax provisions in the SOTU reveal that the middle class (the middle quintile) would actually incur a tax increase of $7. Certainly, the provisions would have a significant impact on the top quintile (an average increase of $1,818) with the greatest hit on the top 0.1 percent ($168,006). But the increased revenues would give the greatest relief to the bottom quintile ($174), rather than the middle class. As Max Ehrenfreund (Washington Post, Wonkblog) notes: “There’s no point in calling this tax plan ‘middle-class economics,’ since its main effect is to help the poor. After all, they’re the ones who need it most, and there’s no reason to shy away from policies that benefit them.”

Well, there is a reason for calling this “middle-class economics” just like there is a reason for calling 2014 a “breakthrough year.” Unfortunately, the reason is not grounded in the empirics.

Critics of the President’s State of the Union address noted it did little to promote bipartisanship. Yet, it has already stimulated bipartisan agreement on one of the President’s education proposals.

In the State of the Union, President Obama proposed free community college:

“I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college—to zero.

…Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt. Understand, you’ve got to earn it—you’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time. Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible. I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.”

One detail that failed to make it into the State of the Union address: The funding for the program would come by effectively killing the 529 college savings accounts, that exempt earnings from taxation if used for educational expenses.

This fact stimulated bipartisanship, albeit not the kind the President anticipated. As Jonathan Weisman (New York Times) explains:

President Obama, facing angry reprisals from parents and from lawmakers of both parties, will drop his proposal to effectively end the popular college savings accounts known as 529s, but will keep an expanded tuition tax credit at the center of his college access plan, White House officials said Tuesday.

The decision came just hours after Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio demanded that the proposal be withdrawn from the president’s budget, due out Monday, “for the sake of middle-class families.” But the call for the White House to relent also came from top Democrats, including Representatives Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking member of the Budget Committee.

Although this means of funding the community college proposal seemed particularly tone deaf, it does illustrate that bipartisanship is possible when protecting tax expenditures. Imagine if reformers focused on even larger tax expenditures (e.g. the $212 billion exclusion of employer-provided health insurance, the $176 billion expenditures for pensions and 401(k)s, or the $101 billion deduction of mortgage interest)? A new era of bipartisanship might bloom.

Related: See Josh Kraushaar in National Journal for an interesting piece on the SOTU and the implications for Hillary Clinton 2016.

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