Economic Pragmatism vs. Conservative Religion

There are two responses to the column by David Brooks which I quoted from earlier. Many conservatives, having come off a campaign which was based upon distorting Obama’s words to make him appear much further to the left than he actually is on economic issues, must be delighted by the turn of events. Although Obama has actually been influenced by the economic views at the University of Chicago far more than many conservatives will admit, current events have led to Obama’s support of much more government spending than he would support under normal circumstances. There are views on this from both the left and right.

Greg Sargent writes in response to David Brooks:

My first reaction to this was to wonder: Why are Obama aides reacting so defensively to criticism from the right? Poll after poll after poll has shown that substantial majorities are comfortable with the Obama administration’s dramatic expansion of government’s role and support the scale of Obama’s ambitious agenda and the speed with which he’s enacting it. Conservatives will call Obama a wild-eyed radical nut-job no matter what he does.

And why the fear of offending Reagan’s ghost? A new poll yesterday found that by a sizable margin the public thinks Obama-nomics, not Reaganomics, is what the country needs right now.

On second thought, though, maybe what we’re seeing here is more of the Obama team’s efforts to redefine the moderate center. What Obama advisers are saying is that they’re undoing the radicalism of the Bush years.

Yes, the Obama team is attempting an expansion of government activism not seen since Lyndon Johnson. But they’re redefining this type of government action as not radical at all, as the sensible and even moderate course, given the circumstances. And they’re saying this because that’s really how they see it.

Andrew Sullivan once again breaks from the right wing in having a similar reality-based view of what Obama is doing, acknowledging the difference between what one might generally do based on principle as opposed to actions during a crisis:

Much of the reaction on the right and center-right to Obama’s budget has been a recourse to abstract principles. There’s nothing wrong with such principles – low taxes, balanced budgets, small and limited government. I share them. But no self-respecting conservative would ever defend such principles without considering the full context in which we now find ourselves.

To give a blindingly obvious example: to treat the stimulus package as just another expansion of government, a reckless lurch to the left, as Fox News has done, is absurd. As unemployment spikes, stocks crash, and deflation looms on the horizon, deficit spending means something else. It’s a pragmatic, not a liberal decision.

Now look at some less clear-cut contexts. The last thirty years have seen historically low tax rates for the successful. But they have also seen a sharp, globalization-fed increase in inequality.

If your goal is to keep a polity in one piece during an economic crisis, raising some taxes on those who have had a relatively low-tax couple of decades, is again pragmatically defensible. If I thought Obama’s goal was to redistribute for the sake of it, I’d be appalled. But that isn’t what he’s said and it isn’t what he believes. Ditto cap-and-trade. I don’t think it’s the best way to tackle climate change, but I do see it as a legitimate, practical response to climate change – not some expansion of government for its own sake. It’s also a real, if flawed, attempt to wean us off oil after a decade in which we learned the hard way what oil-fueled fanaticism can do to us. Again: this is about reacting to changes in the world. It seems to me to be within the conservative mindset to adjust to practical necessity and a changing world.

This is true even of healthcare. Even private sector enthusiasts like yours truly can see there’s a resilient problem here – of costs soaring, of de facto universal coverage without any of the economies of scale that a more coherent universal coverage would allow, of unaccountable private agencies rationing irrationally and unaccountably. I don’t think it’s radical or super-liberal to ask how we can tackle these questions – or to accept that the past couple of decades have not proven the superiority of the status quo.

I’m not sure what the answers to all these questions are. But I am sure that a good faith effort to tackle them is what we need. We have a new president who’s a liberal but open to suggestion and debate. I don’t believe going on and on about what a big liberal he is, and how we’re all about to turn into France, moves this debate constructively along. If the right wants to return as something more than a populist gabfest on radio and cable, we’d better join that debate. And even have a few constructive ideas.

The problem with the extremists dominating the conservative movement at present can be seen in Sullivan’s comment that, ” It seems to me to be within the conservative mindset to adjust to practical necessity and a changing world.” Unfortunately the conservative movement has become a religion. Policy decisions are made based upon whether they fit into their religious views, in this case on the economy, regardless of the actual circumstances and regardless of the facts.

As Rod Dreher also pointed out, the segment of the conservative movement which follows Rush Limbaugh has no room for changes based upon changing situations. Instead they believe, to quote Limbaugh, “Conservativism is what it is and it is forever.” No amount of evidence will change their mind because they do not want to change their religious beliefs. This leads to the view that they would rather have Obama fail, and have the economy worsen as opposed to risk being worshippers of false gods.

The Obama Response To Conservative Criticism

In his previous column, David Brooks wrote that “the Obama budget is a liberal, big government document that should make moderates nervous.” I didn’t expect today’s column, entitled  When Obamatons Respond, to be very favorable about Obama. Brooks surprised me.

The column presents five points from the responses of members of the Obama administration which are contrary to all the conservative talking points. He begins:

In the first place, they do not see themselves as a group of liberal crusaders. They see themselves as pragmatists who inherited a government and an economy that have been thrown out of whack. They’re not engaged in an ideological project to overturn the Reagan Revolution, a fight that was over long ago. They’re trying to restore balance: nurture an economy so that productivity gains are shared by the middle class and correct the irresponsible habits that developed during the Bush era.

The budget, they continue, isn’t some grand transformation of America. It raises taxes on energy and offsets them with tax cuts for the middle class. It raises taxes on the rich to a level slightly above where they were in the Clinton years and then uses the money as a down payment on health care reform. That’s what the budget does. It’s not the Russian Revolution.

I’ll list his other points more briefly:

Second, they argue, the Obama administration will not usher in an era of big government…

Third, they say, Republicans should welcome the budget’s health care ideas. The Medicare reform represents a big cut in entitlement spending…

Fourth, the White House claims the budget will not produce a sea of red ink. Deficits are now at a gargantuan 12 percent of G.D.P., but the White House aims to bring this down to 3.5 percent in 2012. Besides, the long-range debt is what matters, and on this subject President Obama is hawkish…

Fifth, the Obama folks feel they spend as much time resisting liberal ideas as enacting them. The president resisted union pressure and capped pay increases for government workers. He resisted efforts to create mandatory veterans’ health benefits. The administration plans to tackle the suspiciously large increase in the number of people claiming disability benefits.

As a conservative, Brooks still expresses qualms about what the Obama administration is planning but he does concede, “the White House made a case that was sophisticated and fact-based.” Could anyone seriously call anything coming out of the Republican Party in the past decade either sophisticated or fact-based?

My Vote For William Kristol’s Replacement: Megan McArdle

The New York Times made the correct choice in dumping William Kristol. That’s not because he’s a conservative. I would hate to see them do the same to David Brooks, who can write excellent columns on the days when he doesn’t feel obligated to bash Democrats as opposed to dealing with ideas. William Kristol turned out to be a terrible writer whose entire columns consisted of writing which was too much like the portions of David Brooks’ work which I could do without and none of what makes Brooks worth reading.

It certainly makes sense for The New York Times to include conservative or libertarian thought on its op-ed page to provide for a diversity of viewpoints, especially with the current Democratic domination of government. A number of names are now being thrown around.

The worst suggestion was from Patrick Ruffini for Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh shares all of Kristol’s faults and adds still more. William Kristol at least had a chance to promote conservative beliefs before quickly demonstrating that his column was not worth reading. Limbaugh’s reputation, and past work, will guarantee that nothing he writes will be taken seriously.

Some conservatives like the idea of driving liberals nuts, thinking that they derive some benefit from people like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Sarah Palin who liberals (and all other thinking people) will not take seriously. Conservatives would be better off with a conservative columnist who does not immediately turn off a liberal readership, and who has a chance of influencing readers if they should make a strong argument.

Of the names floating around I like Megan McArdle, a blogger at The Atlantic,  the best. To a considerable degree this is because she leans libertarian as opposed to being a social conservative. New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal has said he admires the work of Megan McArdle, along with Byron York (and I certainly prefer Megan of the two).

While writers such as Kristol and Limbaugh (and Brooks on a bad day) primarily seek to demonize liberals, Megan can engage liberals in serious debate as she seeks to understand their views even when disagreeing. Her objection to liberal views can be seen as providing value in forcing liberals to answer tough questions and perhaps refine their views. An example can be seen in yesterday’s post on the stimulus plan.

If forced to move on to other names under consideration and to move to more conventional conservative as opposed to libertarian thought, Peggy Noonan would be a fine choice. While I might often disagree with her, I would never say she is a terrible writer as I did about Kristol. Having a prominent conservative columnist exposing Sarah Palin’s deficiencies is also of value. The biggest problem is that this would just be a lateral move for Noonan from one major New York paper to another. It would not provide another conservative columnist worth reading a national audience.

Among other names being floated which are far better than Rush Limbaugh are David Frum and Ross Douthat (also of The Atlantic).If we are going to consider bloggers from The Atlantic, how about going with a conservative who actually drives many conservatives nuts–Andrew Sullivan?

Quote of the Day

“If a foreign enemy attacks the United States during the Harvard-Yale game any time over the next four years, we’re screwed. ”

David Brooks, writing on the academic backgrounds of Obama’s appointees

Bonus quote from David Brooks for those who expect  him to be attacking Obama:

“The events of the past two weeks should be reassuring to anybody who feared that Obama would veer to the left or would suffer self-inflicted wounds because of his inexperience. He’s off to a start that nearly justifies the hype.”

Fairness Doctrine Hysteria

Among the warnings of socialism and rampant gay marriage emanating from the right wing, there has been considerable hysteria over the Fairness Doctrine, with some conservatives claiming that if the Democrats won the election conservative talk radio and Fox would be shut down. This is despite the fact that Obama opposes the Fairness Doctrine and there is limited support for it in Congress. Matthew Yglesias writes:

Am I the only one who’s confused by all this conservative organizing against the re-imposition of the “fairness doctrine” on talk radio? I understand why they oppose that move, but why are they putting so much energy into blocking something that nobody is trying to do. A Fairness Act bill was submitted in the House in 2005, but it only 16 cosponsors. No such bill was submitted in the last conference. Barack Obama opposes reintroducing the Fairness Act. And speaking as a paid-up member of the vast left-wing conspiracy, nobody on our side is getting any marching orders about this.

I guess they need something to talk about on the radio shows, but I’d just focus in on Obama’s plan to turn the United States into a socialist dystopia.

Kevin Drum is as puzzled about this as Yglesias:

It’s true, as Matt says, that the gang at The Corner has been kind of obsessed lately with the idea that Democrats plan to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine after Obama takes office. Bye bye Rush Limbaugh! I started noticing this chit chat a couple of weeks ago and did a bit of desultory googling to try to figure out what they were talking about, but I couldn’t find much. It turns out that a few senators over the years have made occasional ritual calls to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, but the bulk of the conservative hyperventilating always eventually linked back to a single sentence in The American Spectator:

According to two members of the House Democrat Caucus, Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer have informed them that they will “aggressively pursue” reinstatement of the so-called Fairness Doctrine over the next six months.

So the Spectator, not exactly known for its deep sources with the Democratic Party, reports that “two members” of the House Democratic caucus claim that Pelosi and Hoyer are going to aggressively pursue reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine. Unfortunately for the conspiracy theorists, this was reported in May of 2007, and unless I missed some big news, Pelosi and Hoyer failed to make their big push.

So why are conservatives in such a tizzy about this? It’s a mystery. There do appear to be a few members of Congress who think it’s a shame we got rid of the Fairness Doctrine, but as near as I can tell, “few” equals four or five in the Senate and maybe a dozen in the House. There are probably more Republicans who believe in a return to the gold standard than there are Democrats who seriously want to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine.

Andrew Sullivan provides two plausible explanations, writing “An unhealthy longing for victimhood? Or pure paranoia? Neither explanation is encouraging.”

While not directly addressing this issue, Steve Benen provides a third explanation when he quotes David Brooks as admitting that Republicans have “no coherent belief system.” Lacking any coherent beliefs, or as I argued yesterday, lacking any arguments which resonate with the voters, they are forced to throw out whatever  muck they can come up with. Along with so many other conservative arguments, it doesn’t matter whether it is at all grounded in reality. This falls in the same category as the Republican warnings in 2004 that the Democrats would take away people’s bibles if John Kerry had been elected.

David Brooks on Palin and Obama

David Brooks, in an interview for The Atlantic, has described Sarah Palin as a “fatal cancer to the Republican party” and has criticized her Bush-like anti-intellectualism:

[Sarah Palin] represents a fatal cancer to the Republican party. When I first started in journalism, I worked at the National Review for Bill Buckley. And Buckley famously said he’d rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. But he didn’t think those were the only two options. He thought it was important to have people on the conservative side who celebrated ideas, who celebrated learning. And his whole life was based on that, and that was also true for a lot of the other conservatives in the Reagan era. Reagan had an immense faith in the power of ideas. But there has been a counter, more populist tradition, which is not only to scorn liberal ideas but to scorn ideas entirely. And I’m afraid that Sarah Palin has those prejudices. I think President Bush has those prejudices.

He also commented on Obama’s intellect:

Obama has the great intellect. I was interviewing Obama a couple years ago, and I’m getting nowhere with the interview, it’s late in the night, he’s on the phone, walking off the Senate floor, he’s cranky. Out of the blue I say, ‘Ever read a guy named Reinhold Niebuhr?’ And he says, ‘Yeah.’ So i say, ‘What did Niebuhr mean to you?’ For the next 20 minutes, he gave me a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you. And I was dazzled, I felt the tingle up my knee as Chris Matthews would say.

And the other thing that does separate Obama from just a pure intellectual: he has tremendous powers of social perception. And this is why he’s a politician, not an academic. A couple of years ago, I was writing columns attacking the Republican congress for spending too much money. And I throw in a few sentences attacking the Democrats to make myself feel better. And one morning I get an email from Obama saying, ‘David, if you wanna attack us, fine, but you’re only throwing in those sentences to make yourself feel better.’ And it was a perfect description of what was going through my mind. And everybody who knows Obama all have these stories to tell about his capacity for social perception.

Republican Tax Scares

Republicans try to win elections by using fear. Fear of terrorism has been their major act for the past several years, and before that they used fear of Communism. If that’s not enough, they’ll scare voters by saying Democrats will take way their guns or bibles. Then there’s their old routine of saying Democrats will take away all your money, which basically circles back to using fear of Communism. This year we’ve already seen a number of erroneous comments from John McCain and other Republicans about Barack Obama’s tax plans. Fortunately they are being debunked from a variety of sources.

Yesterday The Entrepreneurial Agenda, a blog at Inc.com, looked at accusations that Obama would harm small business by raising taxes. McCain’s argument is that, “Small businesses are the job engine of America, and I will make it easier for them to grow and create more jobs….If you are one of the 23 million small business owners in America who files as an individual rate payer, Senator Obama is going to raise your tax rates.” The Agenda responds:

Well, McCain is certainly, unequivocally wrong that Obama will raise taxes on 23 million small businesses. Let’s begin by establishing the figures. According to Census Department (as reported by SBA), in 2005 there were some 26 million firms with 500 or fewer employees. (McCain’s figures apparently come from 2002.) Of these, 20 million have no employees at all. Many of these are glorified hobbies, others are lucrative consulting gigs, but as the nonpartisan Factcheck.org points out in a thorough debunking, “McCain is arguing that Obama’s tax increase would ‘destroy jobs,’ but he’s counting mostly firms that don’t produce any.”

Obama has promised to repeal the Bush tax cuts on couples making more than $250,000 and individuals earning over $200,000 — basically, all of the top tax bracket and reaching halfway down the second-highest tax bracket. And how many small businesses would that affect? The Tax Policy Center calculates the number of tax filers (“units,” it calls them) in each bracket who reported some small business income or loss, and in 2007 that amounted to just 481,000 units — just 1.4 percent of all those who reported small business income. (The Tax Policy Calculates that 32 million tax units had small business income, which includes straight business or farm income, or income passed from partnerships or S-Corps.) And that number is undoubtedly high, because many filers in the second highest (33 percent) tax bracket earned less than Obama’s proposed threshold. Others are professionals — lawyers or accountants, say — who’ve organized their practices into partnerships. In any case, the vast majority — around 99 percent — of small businesses, however you define them, would not see their taxes increased under Barack Obama’s scheme.

A more interesting question is whether small businesses would actually see a bigger tax cut under Obama or McCain. Again, if the number-crunchers at the Tax Policy Center is to be trusted, then the laurels go to Obama, who’s proposing a variety of additional tax cuts targeted toward low-income and working families. (Here is the analysis, which includes very detailed descriptions of the candidates’ proposals. More detailed, in fact, than the candidates’ own position papers. Because the candidates haven’t fully fleshed out their tax proposals publicly, the Center has talked informally with campaign advisers and made its own assumptions to fill in the blanks.) Anyone earning under $112,000 in 2009 — or 80 percent of the population — is more likely to see a higher after-tax income under Obama than under McCain.

The post refers to this post at factcheck.org which debunks McCain’s charges on taxes on small business. This isn’t the only time that factcheck.org has debunked false claims on Obama’s tax plans recently. They debunked a claim that Obama “voted to raise income taxes on individuals who earn as little as $32,000 per year.” They concluded that McCain’s $32,000 figure is “phony.” That is only one of many false claims on Obama’s record made by Republicans. Factcheck.org also debunked a claim from the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee that Obama voted for higher taxes 94 times.

The report of the Tax Policy Center provides other important information which I previously discussed here. While us affluent wine drinking elitists who back Obama might wind up paying more in taxes under Obama than McCain, it is worthwhile to look at how much more this will be to determine if it is really worth compromising principles and voting Republican to save a few bucks. In my previous post, which provides more details and links for those who want to review the numbers, I quoted from Hilzoy who noted:

people below the top five percent (which starts at $237,040) do not lose after-tax income under Obama’s plan, and people making $237,040-$619,561 lose all of $12 a year, on average. It’s only in the top one percent that people take a sizable hit. But since so much of the Bush tax cuts went to them, that seems fair to me.

Rather than paying higher taxes under Obama the difference is that most affluent Obama supporters will see  a smaller tax cut than they would receive from McCain while the more affluent will see a small tax increase which we can easily afford. It isn’t until the top one tenth of one percent where there is a major difference. The top 0.1% receives an average tax cut of $269,364 from McCain while they would see an average tax increase of $701,885 under Obama. Again, this is largely a consequence of them receiving the largest benefits under Bush’s plan.  On the other end of the spectrum, McCain would give the lowest quintile an average tax cut of $19 while Obama would give them an average tax cut of $567.

Obama described his own tax policies in a video I posted here. In the video Obama makes it clear that those earning under $250,000 will not receive an increase in taxes–not in their income tax, not in Social Security payroll taxes, and not in capital gains taxes. The vast majority will receive a tax cut.

(more…)

David Brooks Repeats False GOP Talking Points on Obama’s Tax Policy

Yesterday’s column by David Brooks illustrates why I both like and dislike his work. His column starts out making points similar to a recent post I wrote on the realignment between the parties, with an increasing number of educated and affluent voters now voting Democratic.  Brooks writes:

Political analysts now notice a gap between professionals and managers. Professionals, like lawyers and media types, tend to vote and give Democratic. Corporate managers tend to vote and give Republican. The former get their values from competitive universities and the media world; the latter get theirs from churches, management seminars and the country club.

The trends are pretty clear: rising economic sectors tend to favor Democrats while declining economic sectors are more likely to favor Republicans. The Democratic Party (not just Obama) has huge fund-raising advantages among people who work in electronics, communications, law and the catchall category of finance, insurance and real estate. Republicans have the advantage in agribusiness, oil and gas and transportation. Which set of sectors do you think are going to grow most quickly in this century’s service economy?

Initially I found some interesting material in his column, but he really goes downhill in the next paragraph:

Amazingly, Democrats have cultivated this donor base while trending populist on trade by forsaking much of the Clinton Third Way approach and by vowing to raise taxes on capital gains and the wealthy. If Obama’s tax plans go through, those affluent donors could wind up giving over 50 percent of their income to the federal government.

In terms of populism, it is notable that of the three major candidates this year, the two who ran populist campaigns, Clinton and Edwards lost while the candidate who is most market-oriented and influenced by Chicago school economists did win. Obama’s victory was a clear sign of the direction the Democratic Party has been moving for the last several years.

Even worse is the mischaracterization of Obama’s tax policies. Such scare tactics on his tax policies represent typical Republican attacks, similar to their old claims that Democrats will take away people’s guns and bibles. I didn’t bother to respond to this column yesterday as I’ve discussed Obama’s tax policies  recently (here and here). Obama’s tax policies are most likely designed to avoid scaring away the affluent new Democratic voters who Brooks discusses. Obama has been saying that those making up to $250,000 will not see an increase in taxes, including income taxes, capital gains taxes, and Social Security payroll taxes. It is primarily those in the top one tenth of one percent who will see an increase, primarily as they benefited the most from Bush’s tax cuts.

Jared Bernstein has commented further on this column:

According to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center’s analysis of Obama’s tax plan, the correct share for the richest 1 percent of households–those with income above $600,000–is 36 percent; for the for the richest 0.1 percent, above $2.9 million, the rate would be 39 percent. Note also that since these estimates include taxes remitted by corporations, the actual tax returns that these households fill out would find them paying less than 30 percent of their income in taxes. Even with Senator Obama’s proposal to raise Social Security taxes on those with earnings above $250,000, a proposal for which he has yet to specify a rate, tax liabilities of the affluent would still be far below 50 percent of their income.

It’s also worth noting that these tax rates for those at the top of the scale are about the same as those that prevailed under Bill Clinton’s presidency (average for the top 1 percent, 1993-2000: 35 percent), a period of strong and broadly shared economic growth.

Does This Look Like an Elitist?

You can’t win in politics. Most of the time Obama is attacked as a wine and latte drinking elitist. This week the above picture has been posted all over where he portrays the opposite image while out on a bike ride with one of his daughters. At least Obama is doing a good job of deflecting criticism by stressing the safety factor:

Obama, at a fundraiser last night, was pretty funny discussing the pictures of him riding a bike and looking like a doofus over the weekend:

“I had an internal debate. Because I knew that the A.P. was going to take a picture, and they were trying to portray it like Dukakis wearing that tank helmet. But I wanted to make sure that the children who saw that picture knew that even the Democratic nominee for president wears a helmet when he goes biking.”

And: “Now, obviously the rest of my apparel was apparently not up to snuff, because I got a hard time from all sorts of blogs. Who said I looked like Urkel.”

I imagine he’d look better without a helmet, but that wouldn’t be safe. He’d also look better if he was wearing a suit rather than jeans, but that would just be weird.

In terms of dressing like a nerd, Obama’s outfit is pretty tame. If you really want to see how to dress like a nerd, check out here. If Obama starts running around in a Green Lantern or Flash shirt then there might be some real political repercussions. After dressing like this, I bet Obama could even pass David Brooks’ test of looking like he could go to the salad bar at Applebee’s if not for the fact that Applebee’s doesn’t have a salad bar (an error revealing more about Obama’s critics than Obama).

Quote of the Day: VP Choices

“My first thought on the running mate question is that to balance his ticket, Barack Obama should pick a really old white general. Therefore, he should pick Dwight Eisenhower. John McCain, on the other hand, needs to pick someone younger than himself. Therefore, he also should pick Dwight Eisenhower.”

David Brooks

If you don’t like that choice, here’s more suggestions, such as the evil Obama from the mirror universe, Lex Luthor, or Optimus Prime.