I timed this topic in the expectation that the Republican Congress would have completed Obamacare repeal and be nearing completion of its first budget, with yet more large tax and spending cuts. Like everybody else I overestimated their competence. President Trump just announced that repeal is dead and it’s time to move on to…more tax cuts (aka tax reform.) Since by law the first major step in preparing the FY2018 federal budget must be completed by April 1 and the FY2018 budget is not even close to finished yet, now would be a good time for both the GOP and CivCon to focus on taxes and spending.
Radically altering who bears the burden of paying for the American government has been the GOP’s raison d’etre for 20+ years. Obamacare repeal itself would have been a big tax cut on the wealthy and a big cut in subsidies for low-income Americans. It also would have opened up room in the budget for the really huge tax cuts they were planning as the real centerpiece of GOP governance. (I will explain how on Monday, or just see the link below.) I guess creating such room is wasn’t worth walking the plank of taking away millions of people’s health insurance.
Anyway, even without all of this drama, a number of considerations would complicate our discussion of tax fairness. There is more than one way of defining what’s equitable, for instance. Beyond fairness, Public Finance 101 says that a good public finance system should have other features, like be as “efficient” as possible (minimally distorting to the private economy). It should be sustainable and stable, simple,; and politically acceptable. Oh, and no discussion of the costs of government makes any sense if it ignores the benefits of government. As I have mentioned 8 million times, informed citizens must have a rough idea of what and who our taxes are spent on.
For links, I’ll try something a little different this week. This post will stay at the top of the website all week. It has the usual meeting discussion questions and a few short, useful introductory articles.
But, below it I will do 2-3 short posts. Each one will have one or two simple charts that illustrate something important about how high the tax burden is in the United States and who bears it. The idea is we need to know what is before we meet to debate what should be.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Tax level/burden: What is the level and distribution of the tax burden now? Federal v. state/local taxes. Which types of taxes (income, corporate, payroll, etc.) cost the most? Who pays which taxes?
- Spending: Biggest programs and who benefits? Biggest misconceptions?
- Loopholes like the mortgage interest deduction are equivalent to spending. How are these “reverse tax burdens” distributed?
- Fairness: Ways of defining it + how should it be defined?
- Short run: How and for whom does GOP plan to change tax burden?
- Long run: How should/will burden be shared?
- What changes to tax fairness would Americans accept?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Principles: The 5 principles of a good tax system = Equity, adequacy, simplicity, exportability, and neutrality. Very short and recommended.
- Public opinion on taxes/spending is plain nuts:
- ACA repeal: Why GOP must repeal Obamacare’s taxes to make room for future tax cuts.
NEXT WEEK: Which moral standards should we use for judging historical figures?
In tax policy, taxes are “progressive” if payers contribute more as a proportion of their income than they do lower income payers. Liberals like a progressive tax structure because they believe wealthier people (1) can afford the burden more, and (2) generally benefit more from the pubic goods that government supplies (like public universities and property right protections).
How progressive is the American tax system? Not very! Yes, federal taxes are fairly (albeit not highly) progressive, as this chart shows.
So, leftwing paradise? Wrong. First, note only some federal taxes are progressive (especially income and estate taxes). Payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare burden working people the most because they don’t apply above a certain level of income. Payroll taxes comprise almost ½ of all federal taxes paid (not shown on chart).
More importantly, about 1/3 of all taxes are paid to state and local governments. When they are included – so, all taxes at all levels – the burden of paying for government in America is basically flat as a share of income. This is because state/local taxes like sales and sin (tobacco, alcohol) taxes are highly regressive, so much so that every one of the 50 states has a regressive overall tax burden. Even California. In seven states, the poorest 20% of people pay more than four times the rate the richest 1% pay!
This chart that includes all taxes at all levels shows the flatness.
It breaks Americans into five income groups, from the bottom-earning 20% to the top 20%. It also breaks the top 20% down into the top 10%, next 5%, next 4%, and finally the top 1%. For each quintile and very top, a pair of bars compares the share of total income each group earns to its share of total taxes paid at all levels. Note how closely what most groups pay is to what they, on average, earn. The richest pay a little more than their “fair share” when measured this way, and the bottom 40% pay a bit less.
There is more to tax fairness than what I have described. And, fairness is not the only thing that matters in a tax system. More on this stuff later.
The chaos of the first 5 weeks of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy can’t continue indefinitely, can it?
It absolutely could, and for all the reasons people cite. Trump knows little about the world and nothing at all about U.S. foreign policy and he doesn’t seem inclined to learn. Key foreign affairs agencies like the State Department and the intelligence agencies are unstaffed and/or being marginalized. Trump keeps insulting foreign governments and contradicting long-established U.S. foreign policy positions. Then there’s the Russian influence scandal, his business conflicts of interest, etc. Oy.
Or, maybe this won’t happen. After a shakeout period we might end up with a more or less conventional and at least minimally stable conservative Republican foreign policy. For good or ill. I think Trump’s instincts on foreign affairs – a bellicose nationalism – are a lot closer to today’s “centrist” GOP foreign policy canon than a lot of people are willing to admit. But YMMV. Alternatively, maybe U.S. foreign policy is so strongly based on eternal and unchanging national interests (also for good or ill) that even Trump and his crew could not fundamentally alter it.
Still, I think it’s entirely appropriate to ask whether U.S. global leadership is at risk going forward, for two reasons. First, chaos aside Trump has proposed some real roll-the-dice policy stuff. I will go over some of his big ideas in my little opening presentation on Monday. Maybe U.S. foreign policy needed shaking up and/or a more nakedly self-interested and transactional approach. But these proposals are huge departures from 60 years of post-WWII consensus, and a lot of people are worried they could cause or accelerate a decline in U.S. influence.
Worse, some of Trump’s most trusted advisors and perhaps Trump himself may have a genuinely radical vision for America’s global role. Steve Bannon, in particular, has been described as seeking a kind of global alliance of far right-wing Western political parties and governments. Call it “White Internationalism” united to oppose our “true” enemies, like China and Islam. That’s not going to happen, of course. But even trying to bring it about could quickly pole-axe trust in American leadership.
Second, the global system and our position at the apex of it were deemed fragile long before Donald Trump decided he would look good as president. We have talked before about the possibility of declining U.S. global influence and whether the entire 60 year-old global liberal democratic order that is at risk. So, we have some good substance to cover. Trump has in some ways enunciated a coherent worldview, plus we can revisit the declinism debate in light of our new chief executive.
Here are the usual broad discussion questions and some background readings.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Decline? Was a less U.S.-centric world order emerging before Trump’s rise? Why?
–> Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
–> What should we have been doing to stop it or shape it?
- Trump: How does he see our international problems and what solutions did he promise?
–> What vision and theory of power are behind them?
–> How accurate and how radical is it? à How committed/flexible is he on this stuff?
- Reaction: Will Congress, the bureaucracy, and the public support Trump’s ideas? How will the world react: Allies + adversaries?
- Results: What’s likely to be happen? Will transnational alliances/loyalties be remixed? Will global problems be neglected?
–> How will we know if U.S. leadership is less respected and our power reduced?
–> Any benefits to us from this?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Was global order at risk before Trump?
- Yep, it’s dying.
Trump’s foreign policy vision –
- A 19th century foreign policy. Recommended.
- One that’s allied with and identical to those of the European far right-wing. Recommended.
- An “Alpha Male foreign policy.”
- Or: A more realistic and pro-American foreign policy. Semi pro-Trump POV.
Its Consequences –
- It will end the American century. Recommended.
- “The Return of Self-help.” Other nations will have to rely more on themselves and each other. Recommended.
- Trump’s budget would gut funds that support U.S. soft power, making war more likely. (h/t Aaron)
- Will Trump blunder us into a major war?
Alternatives beyond the status quo ante –
- Rebuild Americans’ trust in foreign policy by making it work for them.
NEXT WEEK: Economism: The misuses of “pop economics.”
We haven’t done a meeting on religion in a while, so I thought a topic on religion’s role in politics would make for a nice, wide-ranging discussion. It also gives us a partial reprieve from the constant bombardment of Trump Administration news. (Partial because he is rolling out many policies that are favorites of the religious Right and that could alter the role of organized religion in politics in substantial ways.)
Obviously, for lots of reasons religion has always been very intimate with politics in the United States and is going to stay that way. Almost two-thirds of Americans say religion is either important or very important in their daily lives. By placing limits on any particular sect’s political power, the 1st Amendment arguably encourages healthy competition among religious POVs for political influence. Our high (until now!) immigration levels ensure religion stays popular and vibrant. Voters are going to keep rewarding politicians that affirm their piety and justify policies in religious terms, and people of faith will keep boldly organizing to see their values represented in politics.
Still, might this be changing in the 21st century? As you know secularism is on the rise, especially among young Americans. About one in five U.S. adults say religion is not important to them, a three-fold increase in just 20 years. Public support for explicitly faith-based politics/policies has been trending (very slowly) downward. The religious Right is not what it used to be, and the religious Left never seems to organize effectively.
On the other hand, religious conservatives are the foot soldiers of the Republican Party. They voted in droves for Donald Trump and are about to be rewarded handsomely for helping to put the GOP in complete control of the federal government and of 33 state governments. Trump’s outrages may be energizing religious progressives. They are especially outraged over his immigration policies and – maybe – they can unite to oppose the coming large cuts to the social safety net.
The following discussion questions are among the things we could discuss on Monday. I will start us off by summarizing the major changes Trump is making to appease the religious Right. Some are big deals. Then, we can debate any of my discussion questions or anything else related to the role religion does or should play in our political system.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Public: What role does religion play in forming Americans’ political beliefs and influencing their votes and political participation? à What role “should” it play? à Is religion’s influence over our politics waxing or waning?
- Partisans: How powerful and comparable are the religious Right and Left these days?
- Politicians & Policies: How big a role does religion play in politicians’ decision-making and policymaking?
- Issues: What are big current issues re
- Free exercise / religious liberty?
- Govt establishment of / support for religion?
- Discrimination against, for, or by religious Americans?
- Specific policy areas; e.g., repro rights, health care, immigration, education, foreign policy?
- Future: Will religion’s role in our politics decline or increase? Why/so what?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The Public, religion, and politics –
- The political leanings of major U.S. religious groups.
- Americans hear lots of political opinions from the pulpit. Recommended.
Religious Right and Left movements –
- Religious conservatives were being consistent in backing Trump! But backing him will kill off the religious Right. Recommended.
- No, the religious Right is here to stay.
- Can the religious Left lead a Democratic revival? Dems need them (long, Lefty).
Trump and hot issues –
- His planned executive order on religious freedom is celebrated by religious Right, hated by Dems. Recommended.
- Johnson Amendment: Repealing it same + it’s a huge deal. Recommended.
- In defense of religious liberty. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Is U.S. global leadership collapsing?
Leonardo had a good question last week. Is Monday’s topic on resisting Trump about how big D Democrats or small d democrats should do it? I kind of envisioned a “where to now” discussion of issues facing the Democratic Party. CivCon usually avoid partisan strategy topics, since cable news supplies plenty of it. But, I thought this one was too important to avoid.
Now Leo, I’m not so sure we should limit the scope. It’s not just Democrats anymore that peer out from the wreckage of Trump’s first month and see a genuine threat to our constitutional democracy. Maybe our topic – and Dems’ strategy in general – should be to focus on finding ways to rally all of the other small d Republicans and independents American institutions to stand together to restore a functioning govt and oppose Trump’s movements towards strongman rule. Even if you disagree with this characterization of our new President and worry that any effort to unite elites against him would itself endanger democracy, Democrats have pretty much united around a strategy of total resistance to Trump.
For CivCon, I think that leaves us with three big questions to mull over at this meeting. (Four, if you want to debate whether Trump really poses an existential threat to our democracy). First, who and what exactly should we be resisting; everything Trump says/does or just the damages democracy/checks ‘n balances stuff? If Democrat self-limit this way, will they find any allies in the GOP and in other institutions, like the Media, the courts and the bureaucracy? Would it be worth the costs?
Second, does any bigger-than-usual opposition extend to congressional Republicans and their entire agenda? Progressives think some of them endanger our democracy all by themselves by tilting the electoral system towards permanent one party rule: Restricting voting rights, removing all remaining restrictions on campaign finance, crippling labor unions, and welcoming authoritarian White nationalists into the fold. Maybe this is overblown. Yet, Democrats bitterly oppose it all, as well as GOP plans to transform practically every area of national policy, like taxes, immigration, health care, the social safety net, and education.
Third , how specifically can resistance be implemented and maintained? Where’s the plan, the decision makers, the priorities, the resources, etc.? A large-scale resistance has sprung up quickly. How can it be used to maximum benefit in the months and years ahead? How can it translate into a revived Democratic Party?
My expertise is in federal-level policy and institutions, not activism. So, I will open our meeting with a few quick comments on where the opportunities will come in the near future (budget process, nominations, special elections, etc.) to stop or dilute the Trump/Republican agenda. Then, in discussion I hope to learn from our more activist-type members what they think The Plan is, and from our more conservative members.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Is he really so different as to merit total “resistance?”
- Do Dems have areas of agreement with him? If so, should they cooperate w/him, even if it normalizes him?
- Where should Democrats draw the line? Rhetoric? Personnel? Policy? Foreign policy? Anti-democratic actions?
- Resist to the max everything they do, like they did to Obama? Or, horse trade on highest priorities?
- What are those top priorities and which will resonate with the voters?
- Resisters: Who will do this resisting? Who’ll make the decisions? Federal versus state and local level Democrats.
- Resistance: What strategy and tactics might work? How can you plug into the movement/get involved?
- Pro-Trump/conservatives: How should your leaders respond to Dem “resistance” and how should you defend him/GOP?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Is there hope for Democrats?
- Yes, because Trump is so unpopular and can be made more unpopular.
- Yes, because 2020 is the election that really matters and Dems are likely to win it. Recommended
- Why did trump win? An honest assessment of Dems’ mistakes. Recommended.
- A basic, 10-step strategy. Recommended.
- Resisting autocracy:
- The 25th Amendment option, explained.
- GOP: How to resist the GOP agenda since fighting Trump is not enough.
- Maybe stop calling it a “resistance.”
Republican/conservative POVs –
- The GOP Congress should do what it was elected to do – without overreaching. Recommended.
- Democrats should oppose within normal limits but not “resist.” Opposition should be inclusive not further divide us.
NEXT WEEK: What is religion’s proper role in politics?
We did this topic once before, way back in 2007, pre-website. I don’t exactly remember what we talked about. But, a decade later I am kind of at a loss. Yes, we have mostly recovered from the 2008 financial meltdown and Great Recession, and some social and economic trends are moving in the right direction no matter you’re your political affiliation is. But in other respects, God help us. We are sure to spend many a Monday night in the next few years talking about problem after problem.
Yet, I really think we need to appreciate the good news in our country, too. Millions of Americans appear to share our new president’s dark vision of “American carnage” besieged on all sides and a shell of its former greatness. But, millions more do not. A little optimism not only steels us for the fights ahead and reminds us of our country’s ability to bounce back. But, looking at the good – and understanding its limits – also might help us to understand our fellow Americans’ abject pessimism.
Where to look? To politics? Maybe a little, depending on your POV, of course. To the economy, with its low unemployment rate and (slowly) rising wages? Science and technology? Cultural changes? Crime and punishment? Education? Foreign relations? Religion? The younger generations? I will leave the choice up to you in discussion.
I’ll just open with some jokes (funny, I swear). Then, how about this for a change of pace:
YOUR HOMEWORK –
- Be ready to name at least one thing that’s going right in America today.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING (hard to find – a bad sign??) –
- Relax. Long term, America is fine or at least is resilient. But we must fix our broken political system . Written before Trump, so oy vey.
- Americans are pretty safe and secure, all things considered.
- 2016 good news (!):
- Some “good news only” websites:
NEXT WEEK: Should Democrats cooperate or resist Trump and the GOP?
Several members of our Meetup group asked what I had in mind by “elites.” I deliberately left it undefined to make a point. Americans have some very different ways of defining the horrible, no good elite that everyone supposedly voted to overthrow. In fact, I think vast differences in the way we define our elites lay at the core of our political polarization even before we elected Donald Trump president.
Trump’s populism claims to be a call to arms to overthrow the “Washington establishment” and its collaborators here and abroad. As he said in his inaugural address (in between the talk of carnage and despair):
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. “
Trump’s parasitic elite seems to be our national governing elite, the establishment politicians and the permanent “deep state” that they command. His Hellish vision of a collapsing America sold out by its own elite is pretty stark, that’s for sure.
But, how specific is it, and how accurate? Who exactly are these quislings and what did they do, and to whom? Maybe history helps. When CivCon discussed modern American populism last June, I noted that populist movements everywhere share a basic characteristic. They identify some despicable, self-dealing elite that exploits the virtuous but powerless masses. The elite is not only privileged; it is unfairly privileged. The elite can be a real or imagined; Its victims all of “the people” or just a subset.
Moreover, Right and Left populist movements in U.S. history usually pick a different elite to resent and not quite the same “We, the people” to champion. Left-wing populism’s villain is concentrated private power, like the Robber Barons and their trusts or today’s giant corporations and the 1% that help them rig the game for plutocracy’s sake. Its victims are everybody else (well, except people of color, until recently), but especially the lower classes and the poor. In contrast, right-wing populism has tended to see a conspiracy of both the top and the bottom against the middle. Its corrupt overlords are government insiders helping an undeserving underclass and/or foreigners redistribute wealth and cultural prestige away from hard-working real Americans.
I’m not trying to dismiss this whole topic nor one side’s POV. Quite the contrary. I feel confident in saying that elites have failed the country, as do large majorities of Americans in poll after poll going back years. But, I am pretty knowledgeable about this stuff. I believe I can connect our country’s worst problems to specific failures by the people with all of the power and influence. I picked this topic so we can explore why just about everyone else thinks the same – even though they seem t disagree about who the elites are and what they are doing wrong and why.
We have plenty to talk about on Monday. Here are some discussion ideas and readings.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Who are America’s elites? Are there multiple elites with different interests and power sources, such as…
- Economic class versus social/cultural elites.
- Racial and ethnic elites?
- Educated and regional/cosmopolitan elites.
- Do our elites perpetuate power unfairly, or are they a meritocracy?
- Why is everybody so mad at elites? Do Americans agree on who to be mad at and why?
- Are elites indeed responsible for the mess we are in? Why?
- Is Trump just scapegoating? What should/could be done to reduce the power of American elites?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- It happens: In many countries corrupt elites use “extractive institutions” to enrich/perpetuate themselves and immiserate everybody else.
- Liberal hatred of elites versus conservatives’ hatred of elitism. Recommended.
- Short: Economic inequality always leads to political inequality.
Long: Politicians deliberately created our “Robin Hood economy.”
- Conservative POV:
NEXT WEEK: A change of pace – What’s going right in the USA these days?
President Trump has all but declared war, at least a cold one, on Islam. So far, it’s just a rhetorical war, and the man’s actual foreign policy is harder to predict than his domestic policies, which was our focus last week.
Regardless of our constant obsession with every minor action and utterance of our new president…
[Update Sunday night – You all know I usually try to keep us from wandering too far for too long off-topic. But, how can we fixate on Turkish politics at a time like this, given the worldwide reaction to Trump’s EO on refugees? Let’s start with that before we get into our topic. BTW, this Administration’s immigration policies might all by themselves have some influence on the future of political Islam.]
…the rest of the world hasn’t gone away. Never has. Never will. About 40 of the 200 countries in the world are Muslim-majority nations. Many of them, especially the 22 Arab nations, are in the early stages of what promises to be a decades-long or centuries-long transition from authoritarian, one-party dictatorships to…well, to something else. Possible outcomes in these countries for the next few decades range from a painless move to liberal democracy (very unlikely, I’ve read) to a tragic region of failed states and all-against-all civil wars like Syria, Libya, and Iraq have endured (less likely, but nightmarish). Where in between they end up and how awful the road getting there will be are some of the most important questions of the 21st century.
That’s why I wanted us to discuss what’s going on in Turkey. Turkey? Well, as you may be aware since 2002 Turkey has been run by an “Islamist” political party known as the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. This 15 years is far longer than any other Islamist party has been allowed to rule anywhere else. Under its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP won democratic elections a half-dozen times and survived a military coup attempt last July. Just a few years ago Turkey’s AKP was hailed as the world’s only successful model of a liberal Islamist political movement that accepted the rules and limits of democracy.
Boom. Splat. If you follow the news, you know this has all been blown up. Erdogan has steadily moved Turkey downhill towards authoritarianism and tyranny for a few years now. He has used the coup to finish off democracy, crushing the opposition parties, the military, and the courts that stood as the last major roadblocks to Turkey becoming just another Arab thugocracy.
Does Turkey’s downfall mean that hope for a moderate version of political Islam was an illusion all along? If so, many (albeit not all – e.g., India) of those 40 Muslim-majority countries may have to kiss democracy goodbye for a long, long time, since Islamism is far more publicly popular in these very conservative countries than liberalism is.
I’ve been reading a lot on this subject lately, including this book and this book and some journal articles. So, I will open our meeting on Monday with a brief description of what has been happening in Turkey and why it matters. Also, I will identify several of the major arguments we will be working with concerning whether moderate Islamism is/is not sustainable and is/isn’t compatible with democracy.
- Turkey – Why do recent events in Turkey matter? — A brief history of modern Turkey and its version of Islamism. — Why did people used to say the AKP was a model for moderate Islamism? — Why has Erdogan dismantled Turkish democracy and become a tyrant?
- Islamism – What is Islamism, anyway? What separates moderate Islamists from the radical/revolutionary and/or violent ones?
- Lessons: What should the West learn from Turkey’s failure re:
- Whether Islamist movements can be trusted to accept democracy?
- How badly past/present Arab dictators (Mubarak, Assad, Saddam, Kaddafi, etc.) screwed up their countries and make democracy so hard?
- The future of the region?
- USA: What can/should we do about any of this (Turkey, Syria, ME, etc.)? [Hint: Trump’s “take their oil” since “to victors belong the spoils” gets an F.]
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- What’s happened and why: Short version Good.
- Better, deeper: Long version.
- More on the USA-based Gulen movement.
Islamism and liberal democracy –
- A short history of Islamism.
- Islam and democracy are incompatible for foreseeable future, but all is not lost. I loved his book.
- A Tunisian Islamist disagrees.
- The limits of the “Islamic” label. Fareed Zakaria.
- The Middle East’s worst problem in one map. You see the point.
USA Policies –
- We need to call out the zealots and support reformers in the Middle East. Conservative POV, kind of.
- Donald Trump resembles an authoritarian Middle Eastern leader.
NEXT WEEK: Have America’s Elites Failed Us?