Friday, September 30, 2011

Truth Quotient Rankings - Politicos

While Panderbear was birding in Ecuador, U.S. political panderers continued to ply their trade. President Obama moved into first place in the TQ ratings among individuals by standing still. Ron Paul, perhaps demonstrating the power of reversion to the mean, fell precipitously due to Mostly False and Pants on Fire statements. Vice President Joe Biden continues walk the fine line between anti-panderer and panderer with a TQ of 1.00. Rick Perry's TQ rating dropped in parallel with his polling numbers. Rick Santorum dug deep and mustered his first unequivocally true statement, thus jumping ahead of chain emails, Michelle Bachmann, and Herman Cain. Michele Bachmann took possession of last place, with Herman Cain a nose behind in their race to the bottom.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bye Bye Birdie

Panderbear is birding in Ecuador. Until he returns you may amuse yourselves by reading and commenting on previous posts or by identifying Ecuadorian birds in the slideshow. Panderbear recommends the latter. Good birdie.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Founding Fathers Say Tax the Rich

Alexander Hamilton First Secretary of the Treasury
Regarding "the exercise of the power of internal taxation" founding father, first Secretary of the Treasury, and leader of the constitutional convention, Alexander Hamilton, argues in Federalist Paper No. 36 "make it a fixed point of policy in the national administration to go as far as may be practicable in making the luxury of the rich tributary to the public treasury, in order to diminish the necessity of those impositions which might create dissatisfaction in the poorer and most numerous classes of the society. Happy it is when the interest which the government has in the preservation of its own power, coincides with a proper distribution of the public burdens, and tends to guard the least wealthy part of the community from oppression!"

Panderbear imagines leaders and members of the modern Republican Party and Tea Party must look askance at what one of their revered forebears had to say about distribution of the tax burden. That is, they would if they actually read what Representative Michele Bachmann refers to as "sacred" documents. Hamilton's tax-the-rich philosophy is anathema to these latter day disciples of trickle-down economics, don't-tax-job-creators tax policy, and all things constitutional.

Panderbear, who has a nose for hypocrisy and pandering, is beginning to suspect that more than a few of these more-patriotic-and-constitution-loving-than-thou types haven't actually read The Federalist Papers and the U.S. Constitution, other than the Second Amendment of course. If so, their constant refrain about returning to the gilded-age of adherence and reverence for the Constitution rings hollow indeed, not to mention being egregiously hypocritical. Cartoon versions of the founding fathers and the Constitution, notwithstanding, Panderbear thinks Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and their peers had a greater grasp on economic and political reality than today's conservatives.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

A Trillion Here, A Trillion There

Congressional Budget Office data show where increases in the national debt came from over the past decade. The graphic below presents a lot of information and Panderbear is still puzzling over some arcane details, but a few broad themes are apparent.

Of the $12.7 trillion added to the debt, $3.6 trillion is lost tax revenue due to the Great Recession, $1.4 trillion is attributable to President Obama's policies, and $7 trillion to President Bush's. The other $700 billion are loans that hopefully will be paid back. The bulk of Obama's tab consists of the Recovery Act and the middle class tax cut. Ignoring anything less than a $1 trillion, half of Bush's bill is the cost of two wars and increased defense spending and the other half is tax cuts.

The majority of debt added by Obama consisted of standard Economics 101 inspired deficit spending to jump-start the economy. Contrary declarations of pandering politicians notwithstanding, a consensus of economists agree that the current situation would be much worse without that spending. If anything the stimulus was too small.

Bush's additions to the debt went for war, defense build up, and tax cuts. Almost all of the $7 trillion Bush added to the national debt were self-inflicted wounds, monies that need not have been spent or were lost to tax cuts mostly benefiting the wealthy.

The Bush tab is five times Obama's and the ratio would be higher still if costs of the recession were added to Bush's total. It's clear that anyone attempting to pin the exploding debt on President Obama is either ill-informed or pandering.

National Debt Sources

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Economic Treason

Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal
Americans exhibit abiding skepticism regarding the exercise of government power. President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and defeat of global fascism brought an era of relative goodwill toward government. A can-do view of government emerged from successful programs like Eisenhower’s national highway system and Kennedy's man on the moon. But, for many Americans, the notion of government as competent benefactor has plummeted to earth. Healthy skepticism has devolved into dysfunctional cynicism, outrage, and intransigence. What caused the turnabout?

Presidents Nixon and Bush are alpha and omega in destroying public confidence in the presidency and government. Nixon's criminality and paranoia-inspired, divisive political strategies, particularly his cynical "Southern Strategy," began a corrosive process culminating in Bush's polarizing politics, unwarranted stubbornness, disrespect for law and constitution, and breathtaking incompetence.

President Reagan is the meat in this sandwich of presidential misfeasance. His trickle-down, supply-side economics and "government is the problem, not the solution" mantra, proved a poisonous combination. Under-regulation and unsustainable tax cuts led to economic turmoil, exploding deficits, and exsanguination of the middle class, while public distrust of government ensured lack of appetite for an effective response. History has delivered its dispassionate verdict on both Reaganomics and government too small for the job. Fail.

Flawed conservative economic theories brought financial ruin. Public cynicism and the Republican and Tea Party's intransigent politics of “NO” in Congress endanger effective action. We must revive Roosevelt era pragmatism. Congress must discard ideological extremism and selfish considerations of political advantage in favor of taking immediate, practical steps. While Americans remain in financial harm’s way, obstructionist politics is tantamount to economic treason.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Death Penalty In Error

Cameron Todd Willingham
Texas is the death penalty capitol of the United States. Governor Perry throwing his Texas-size cowboy hat into the Republican nomination ring seems a propitious time to discuss capital punishment, a topic more subject to political pandering than most.

Society must protect itself from the actions of criminals. How is that protection achieved? Constitutionally, the people of the United States have given themselves the right, not simply to prevent future bad acts, but to commit, as is stamped on the death certificate of each inmate executed in Texas, homicide.

Doing less than the minimum necessary to prevent the convicted from repeating criminal acts invites recidivism. Doing more is exacting revenge. Should the thirst for revenge be our guiding principle in assigning punishment? If so, what elevates our collective will above vigilantism or even the acts of the criminal?

What about the deterrence value of the death penalty? Fear of punishment may prevent some crimes, the issue is still open regarding capital offenses, but is it moral to kill one person in an effort to prevent bad acts by others? As a society we must seek moral high-ground whenever we contemplate revoking a citizen’s constitutional rights to life and liberty. If we have the means to rehabilitate, why punish? If we lack the ability to rehabilitate, we may morally retreat to protecting society from future criminal acts through incarceration.

Capital punishment, because it provides no protection beyond that of life imprisonment, is revenge. It constitutes a victory of emotion over reason and an irrevocable tragedy if applied in error, as may well have been the case with Cameron Todd Willingham, former resident of Corsicana, Texas. The death penalty cannot be morally justified. Executions, even after legal due process, are homicide and by definition premeditated. Premeditated homicide is murder. Until capital punishment is no more, we will all have blood on our hands.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Second Amendment

Monsters from the Second Amendment
Strict constructionists, ever on guard against activist Supreme Court Justices finding new rights in the Constitution, should have been appalled, lest they be hypocrites, by the 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller in which only the five conservative justices found a new right where every preceding court for 200 years had failed. Namely they "discovered" that the Second Amendment applies to individuals, not just well regulated militias.

The Bill of Rights is a paragon of conciseness. None of the first ten amendments, save one, wastes a single word on explication or justification. The Second Amendment reads in its entirety, "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Fully 13 of 27 words are justification.

What are we to make of this solitary instance of verbosity in all the Bill of Rights? Shall we insult the Founding Fathers by claiming these words are superfluous? No. By construction the "militia" clause qualifies the remainder of the sentence. Clearly, the Second Amendment is meant to facilitate the arming of militias, not personal arsenals. This does not mean individuals cannot or should not own guns. It simply implies that duly elected legislative bodies have the right and duty to ensure public safety by enacting reasonable limitations on the owning and carrying of firearms.

Politicians who pander to monsters from the Second Amendment by supporting NRA sponsored concealed-carry laws and oppose reasonable limitations on magazine size and military assault weapons are culpable for tragedies facilitated by their actions. They must be held accountable, not with Second Amendment remedies, but at the ballot box.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Affirmative Action

A favorite target of conservative panderers is affirmative action. They condemn affirmative action as “reverse discrimination” and argue two wrongs don’t make a right. Some argue it is restitution for discrimination in the past paid to those who never personally suffered discrimination. Both of these arguments are specious and demonstrably false. 

Affirmative Action or Reverse Discrimination

According to the U.S. Supreme Court affirmative action is appropriate when illegal discrimination has led to continuing harmful inequities and when no other remedy is available. If there is another practical solution, the law requires it be used instead of affirmative action. Actions taken are required to be narrowly tailored to resolve the existing inequity and to cease when that disparity is eliminated.

Affirmative action is only employed when the alternative is to do nothing. Our choice is either to allow the harmful effects of intolerance-driven discrimination to persist indefinitely or to correct an egregious situation via judicial due process carefully weighing the interests and rights of all parties. The “two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right” argument implicitly assumes a moral equivalence between these two options which does not exist. The choice isn't whether or not to perpetrate a second wrong; it is whether to resolve an existing inequity or permit it to continue. Affirmative actions are taken not as restitution for past wrongs, but to prevent unfair, hurtful effects of illegal discrimination from propagating into the future. Not taking affirmative action in such cases is clearly the greater error and is morally dubious.

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Taxing the Rich is Good for the Economy

Top Federal marginal income tax rate from 1913 to 2011
Panderbear just loves this table! It provides historical perspective for the tax history impaired. It shows, among other things, that the top federal income tax bracket is currently well below its nearly one hundred-year average.

Putting aside the issue of tax rate fairness discussed in a previous post, what does this table tell us? Panderbear directs your attention to the 1920 to 1925 time frame. The top marginal tax rate plummeted more precipitously then than at any other time in the history of incomes taxes. Less than 5-years later we had the epic 1929 stock market crash followed by the Great Depression.

During the Reagan administration the top marginal tax rate again plummeted. After a period of increased rates under President Clinton, the last time we had a balanced budget, the rates declined again under President Bush. And here we are struggling to shake off the effects of the Great Recession.

Two precipitous drops in the top marginal federal income tax rate followed by one Great Depression and one Great Recession. Is there a causal relationship between lowering the top tax rate and recession/depression? Panderbear doesn't know, but a plausible case can be made for that hypothesis. For much of the 20th century and up to the present, the economy has been consumer driven. When consumers spend the economy booms. When they don't the economy suffers. Lowering the tax burden on high wage earners has the effect of increasing the relative tax burden on middle class consumers. Feeling they are taxed more, consumers spend less and that's bad for the economy.

Coincidence is not proof of cause and effect. Nevertheless, the chart shows that high marginal income tax rates do not lead to economic downturns, but lowering them may. It's something for flat tax advocates to think about.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ignorant and Free

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Thomas Jefferson.

Many among the Tea Party and Religious Right are fiercely resistant to fact-based logical reasoning. They have their faith, either in religion or in cartoonish versions of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Bumper sticker slogans masquerade as political philosophy. "Tax and Spend!"

Ignorant and Free
Social conservatives often hold intellectuals in contempt, speaking disparagingly of "elites." They don't want intelligent, competent officeholders. They want "authentic" folks in government. Folks just like them. Folks who share their belief system. Well, the Founding Fathers were an intellectual elite, the progressives of their time, and there is more in the Constitution than the Second Amendment. 

Nature respects neither the common touch nor conservatives' notions of "commonsense." It doesn't have a political philosophy or a religion. It obeys only its own laws. If our public policy is not informed by facts, rational thinking, and best science, then it is doomed to fail. What Jefferson said is both profound and true. As a nation we ignore it at our peril. No amount of praying and magical thinking, and certainly no amount of political pandering, will make it otherwise.

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Friday, September 2, 2011

Hypocrisy Belt

Arkansas and Louisiana voters distinguished themselves in two respects in the 2008 presidential election. First, as a map published in the New York Times entitled "The McCain Belt" graphically illustrates, a swath of counties from Texas and Oklahoma east through Arkansas, Louisiana, and arcing up into the Appalachian states voted in much larger numbers for McCain in 2008 than for Bush in 2004.

McCain Belt

Second, as Panderbear noticed and wrote about at the time, as the election approached, polls in all but a few states converged on the ultimate actual vote. The exceptions were Arkansas, Louisiana, and to a lesser degree several other southern states. For example, while state polls consistently reported McCain with a 10% lead over Obama, he actually won Arkansas by a surprising 20% margin. A similar 10% discrepancy turned up in the Louisiana numbers. What are we to make of these anomalies?

I fear the most plausible and parsimonious explanation is an unhappy one. Why did McCain garner far more votes in Arkansas and Louisiana than Bush did in 2004? The answer is likely skin deep. Why did McCain win Arkansas by 20% while the polls were saying 10%? Academic studies indicate that the "Bradley Effect," wherein many people tell pollsters they plan to vote for the African-American candidate and then don't, died out elsewhere in the United States in the mid-90's. This effect appears to persist in Arkansas, Louisiana, and several other states.

As an Arkansas resident Panderbear is particularly chagrined that the 2008 presidential election results suggest both bigotry and hypocrisy are alive and well in the Arkansas electorate. Panderbear also wonders what percentage of the Arkansas electorate voted based upon race and didn't bother to lie to pollsters. In any case it's clear that any politician who pretends racism isn't a significant factor in American electoral politics today is badly misinformed or pandering big time.

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