Category: Politics

But Certainly Everyone Has $200 to Donate?

Michelle Cottle has a delicious critique of the NYT Thursday Styles Section, aptly titled The Gray Lady Wears Prada. Cottle juxtaposes the “high-minded liberal sensibility” that the Times’s bobo readers aspire to cultivate with the breathless high-end consumerism of Thursday Styles’ Hermès scarves and Jimmy Choo mules. The most revealing quote comes from Times editor Bertram “Trip” Field III, who insists that “we’re [not] trying to serve only those readers who can afford a $10,000 watch.” When Cottle examines the egalitarian timepieces Trip’s claimed to have covered, it turns out the cheapest one is an $890 Prada.

I’m not going to tsk-tsk consumerism here—been there, done that. But I do think Cottle’s insightful piece discloses another aspect of elite journalism—a class bias so pervasive that it’s not even noticed. I think such biases also work their way into scholarship. For example, the bien-pensant consensus on campaign finance reform has long held that we want races funded by a large number of “small donors”—presumably those who donate less than $500. But really, with median family income around $65,000 and average household savings near zero, how many of these small donations are going to come from those at the bottom half of the income scale?

Thankfully, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres’s “Patriot Dollars” proposal addresses this issue by proposing donation vouchers of equal size for all voters. But I’m wondering where else implicit class biases inform a scholarly consensus…any ideas?

Necessary Investment Incentives?

scrooge mcduck.jpg

Pretty soon the alternative minimum tax is going to hit millions more taxpayers—even people making less than $50,000 annually. This extended reach will primarily harm those who work hard, pay property taxes, and have other deductions for things like dependent care, education, and health care. This AMT bite was never intended by Congress—it’s just reaching down the tax bracket because the figures it’s based on were drawn up decades ago.

You’d think this problem would be at the top of the tax reform agenda. Sadly, no. Rather, the big debate is over whether to extend tax cuts on investment income. As brilliant NYT tax reporter David Cay Johnston observes,

Among taxpayers with incomes greater than $10 million, the amount by which their investment tax bill was reduced averaged about $500,000 in 2003, and total tax savings, which included the two Bush tax cuts on compensation, nearly doubled, to slightly more than $1 million.

So this debate is basically about whether to make such windfalls permanent, or to try to stop our current fiscal irresponsibility and actually do something about our massive national debt.

But perhaps I misunderstand the issue. Is there a good policy reason for tax cuts for the superrich? Would they simply refuse to invest if better tax treatment weren’t given—choosing instead, perhaps, to roll around in vaults of money ala Scrooge McDuck? Would they renounce U.S. citizenship and move to the Isle of Man? I’m just trying to understand this policy on a higher level than positive political theory (which would, of course, predict that those best able to invest in money-intensive politics would get the highest returns). I guess I need to start reading the Tax Prof Blog!

A Triumph for Divided Government?

Apparently Massachusetts politicians have hammered out a plan providing universal health coverage in that state. The bill is an interesting mix of mandates, incentives, and taxes. There’s still some chance a squabble over taxes on businesses that don’t provide insurance coverage may scuttle the deal. But overall, it’s a very encouraging sign.

As the deal is finalized, I’ll be watching my indefatigable friend Nathan Newman’s blog (and that of PLAN, a group advocating social justice on a variety of fronts in state legislatures, and the Center for American Progress). Newman appears pretty pleased with the direction of reform now. If it works, it might stand as a great argument for divided government. Everyone knows health care reform is necessary, but few interests appear willing to give anything if “the other side’s” party is the only one responsible for legislation (remember the scorched earth tacticians Harry & Louise?). A Republican governor in Massachusetts, balanced by a strongly Democratic legislature, appears to have broken the gridlock.

Boutique Medicine: Tax it, Don’t Ax It

Sick of waiting weeks for a doctor’s appointment? Or hurried visits? Well, “concierge physicians” have got a deal for you. Just pay a retainer to a practice (usually between $2,000 and $5,000 annually), and you’ll get immediate attention, long visits, and personalized preventive care. There’s just one catch—when you and, say, 400 other health care “consumers” sign-up at a given practice, it drops the other 1500 patients it had been serving to concentrate solely on retainer patients.

Is this problematic? Some important Democrats say yes, and have moved to kick “concierge physicians” out of the Medicare program. Tommy Thompson resisted that move when he headed HHS—and now he’s on a leading concierge franchise’s board. But since he’s left, some lower level officials at HHS have been raising concerns about “boutique medicine.”

After thinking about retainer care for a while, I have a few conclusions about these efforts. In a nutshell: I think it’s unwise to try to ban concierge care outright. But I do worry about it. It’s consonant with a larger movement that TNR describes: “to radically transform health insurance altogether, so that risk is gradually transferred away from large groups ( i.e., the government and large employers) and onto individuals (i.e., you).” If health insurance starts to move from a “defined benefit” to a “defined contribution” model, we can count on a diversion of scarce medical resources from a common risk pool to pockets of well-heeled consumers. Here’s why I think so…

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Demography Ain’t Destiny

Daniel Drezner notes the latest study in the always irritating demographic-victory-of-the-scary-is-upon-us field of empirical research. This time, instead of the Chinese or the Hasidim, it’s the conservatives of Salt Lake City who will, if the trend lines continue unabated, take over the earth.

Look, there’s no doubt that far into the future, there will be way fewer bloodline-pure Italians, or ditto-pure Iowans born into Italy or Iowa. There’s also no question that if you’re only going on the basis of children produced, Salt Lake City will grow at a faster rate than Seattle.

But what conclusions can be drawn from these facts in light of the prevalence of immigration and assimilation? I have no confidence – none – that the political ideologies of parents with big families will result in successful political movements soldiered by their children. And if I was a political consultant, I’d be more concerned with the ideological ferment in Greater Los Angeles than I would in the ten Great Plains states that might rival it in population, even if your average couple in Scotts Bluff produces more kids than your average couple in West Hollywood. Or at least I would be if we didn’t have a Senate.

From Gradgrind to Glaeser

Economic analysis is often illuminating, but sometimes it just seems to provide cover for new Gradgrinds to ply reductionist utilitarianism. Case in point: the NYT Magazine has a glowing profile of Edward Glaeser, an economist from Harvard. As a patrician, provocateur, and polymath, Glaeser is reported to have single handedly revived the field of urban economics. Here are some of his prescriptions (as reported by Jon Gertner):

1) Don’t rebuild much of New Orleans– just let hard-pressed residents move somewhere else (and expect our exceedingly eleemosynary Congress to cut checks to each resident for $200,000, since that’s what they were planning to spend on infrastructure!). And don’t try to revive struggling rust-belt cities like Detroit, either.

2) “Car-based cities” are great; they “enable residents to buy cheaper, bigger houses,” and “the average car commute is about 24 minutes; on public transportation, it is around 48 minutes.”

I have a few questions for Glaeser. First, does his model value stability at all? Let’s say that this process of dispersion in search of better jobs leaves very few nuclear families with extended families nearby to help with child and elder care. Is the resultant need to hire day care workers and visiting nurses a boon to the economy, because unpaid labor to that end wouldn’t count in the GDP? Just how parsimonious are his models?

I have some personal experience with the “exodus from the Rustbelt” that Glaeser finds so appealing…

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Tax Scholar: Bush Is An Atheist

george_bush_narrowweb__200x245.jpgMy colleague, Susan Hamill, is never one to shy from a fight. Four years ago she burst onto the scene with her article, An Argument For Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics. This piece, which I’ve noted previously was a driving force behind an ultimately unsuccessful Alabama tax reform proposal, argued that (what she termed) “Judeo-Christian” ethics demanded that true believers support a more progressive tax scheme in the state. Her arguments were the centerpiece of the statewide debate on the referendum and she was targeted by Alabama’s Christian Coalition. (Curiously, she garnered the support of the national group.) I’ll never forget The Economist’s headline about this referendum: What Would Jesus Tax?

Well, my friends, Susan is back.

In her new paper, An Evaluation of Federal Tax Policy Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics, she argues that:

“the moral values driving the Bush Administration’s tax policy decisions reflect objectivist ethics, a form of atheism that exalts individual property rights over all other moral considerations. Given their overwhelming adherence to Christianity and Judaism, I conclude that President Bush, many members of Congress and many Americans are not meeting the moral obligations of their faiths.”

Powerful stuff! Susan joined the Alabama faculty as a tax scholar in the mid-1990’s. About five years ago, on sabbatical, she pursued graduate work at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School – not exactly a hotbed of liberalism. These recent pieces reflect a marriage of scholarship with personal passion. Not surprisingly, people from many perspectives can find ways to disagree with Susan. On the other hand, she exemplifies a professor who believes her scholarship must have practical consequences. I have tremendous admiration for both her work and the way she has chosen to structure her professional life.

Is Bush an atheist? Who’d have thought you’d read the Virginia Tax Review to find out.

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Justice Breyer At Alabama

This afternoon, Justice Breyer gave the Albritton Lecture at the University of Alabama. His talk was uncontroversial, as he staked out all the positions one might expect. Citation of foreign law? If it’s helpful to read materials from other nations, why wouldn’t we? We aren’t bound by them. Kelo? Surprised by all the uproar since this seemed to have been the law since FDR. Being tagged as an activist? You’ve got the wrong Justice! Just take a look at that study by Gewirtz and Golder.

Breyer’s visit was still well worth the candle. We’ve had a string of Justices join us in Tuscaloosa, over the last few years, a happy side benefit to our Hugo Black Fellow Program. (Former Supreme Court clerks come and teach a light load for a year, giving them a chance to test out the job and write in relative peace.) They humanize the Court and make everyone feel a little better about the institution. Justice Thomas was immensely popular among students – as he is, apparently, among clerks. He spent time, lots and lots of it, answering student questions, shmoozing one-on-one. He managed to disarm even those folks who were prepared to loathe him.

Breyer had a different battle on his hands visiting the Heart of Dixie. Many students probably expected a liberal activist. (The opening question, asking him how he believed the Constitution protected property rights, gives you a sense of things. ) With his emphasis on the primacy of legislative decisionmaking – hardly a surprise from the author of Booker’s advisory sentencing guidelines opinion. – I suspect that many students found him remarkably unthreatening. They are correct. Those seeking a left-wing bogeyman on the Supreme Court will have to look elsewhere. To paraphrase Alex Kotlowitz, There Are No Liberals Here.

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More on the Democrats and a Contract with America

Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post arguing that the Democrats should create a Contract with America. In today’s Washington Post, an interesting article explores why the Democrats have no version of Newt Gingrich:

Where is the Democrats’ Gang of Seven? Why isn’t some spirited group of junior House Democrats capturing the public’s imagination and sinking its teeth into the spreading Jack Abramoff mess? And where is the Democratic equivalent of Gingrich?

In Congress, reform often comes from the back bench. Junior members have the least to lose and the shortest — and thus usually the cleanest — records. These unlikely agents of change are often change’s biggest beneficiaries. . . .

And yet, after languishing in the minority for more than a decade, the Democrats’ back bench has yet to produce a Gang of Seven or an insurgent leader such as Gingrich, who inspired dozens of GOP House candidates in 1994. Most of the Democrats elected since the Republicans took over in 1994 simply replaced other Democrats. Moreover, none was really elected on a message of bringing “change” to Congress.