Author Archive: DavidG

Monday’s Mtg: The Constitution – Not Democratic Enough or Too Democratic?

As befits a discussion group devoted to politics, philosophy, and other public issues, CivCon has done a lot of topics on the Constitution.  Oddly though, we have never looked explicitly at how democratic our founding document was and (as amended and interpreted) is. I phrased the topic as a normative question, since is begs the question of ought. It also might make for a livelier discussion and prompt us to make the political preferences behind our opinions more explicit.

I see more than one way to approach our pondering, too. We could focus more on the standard (but important) stuff, like looking at the basic structures and functions the Constitution sets up. As Jim Z. noted last week, the whole document is in some ways “rigged” against pure democracy; e.g., the Electoral College, two senators per state regardless of size, an unelected judiciary, vetoes and supermajorities requirements, etc. College students spend a lot of hours reading classic books on this topic, some of which are referenced in the links. We definitely should discuss why the Founders did this and whether it’s too little or too much democracy for the 21st century (or for our tastes).

A second approach would be to look at the Bill of Rights. These rights are fundamental to protecting democracy. Are they being enforced today as designed, and is that sufficiently democratic? I’m thinking campaign finance as free speech, curtailment of civil liberties in the War on Terror, and conservatives’ religious freedom initiative (bakeries and gay weddings) might come up in this part of the meeting.

Thirdly, we could take a strict result-oriented approach. How responsive is our national government to the will of the people? Whose interests does our constitutional system represent and who does it not listen to? Some big studies have tried to quantify that in recent years. Their conclusions are sobering.

Here are some guiding discussion questions and suggested readings/skimmings.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Was/Is: What are the major anti-democratic (or at least non-majoritarian) features of the Constitution?   Why did the Founders include them? What key components of democracy were left out and why?
    –>  Which of these have survived unchanged to today and why?
  2. Ought: What is “too much” or “too little” democracy? Upside/downside of both?
  3. Rights: Which rights (speech/religion, voting, property, etc.) matter the most? Are any rights under assault or overly-broad now?
  4. Results: How responsive is our constitutional system to the will of the people? Which people? Evidence?
    –>  Is un-accountability self-correcting via elections?
  5. Future: What are your biggest concerns about our constitutional democracy going forward?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Not democratic enough –

Bad consequences –

No, too MUCH democracy is our problem –

NEXT WEEK: Fascism, Part II – Is a global movement emerging?

Monday’s Mtg: Is An American Fascism Possible?

Fascism fearfulness is everywhere these days. Serious people are worried that the sudden rise of right-wing authoritarian political movements all over the democratic West may be more than ephemeral. A new era of extremist politics may be emerging, including fascism. I thought we would consider this proposition in two meetings. We will focus on the global rise of fascism/authoritarianism at our May 1st meeting (on May Day – ha, ha.) Monday’s meeting is about the rise of illiberal right-wing authoritarianism in the United States.

Many observers think worries that something resembling fascism could take hold in America are overblown. The public’s commitment to a democratic ethos is too strong. Our Constitutional system distributes power (checks and balances, civilian control of the military, and federalism) too widely, and civil society institutions are too resilient. It can’t happen here, they say, even with an authoritarian character like Donald Trump as president. Trump cannot destroy American democracy even if he wants to.

Maybe. Probably, even. But I look at the whole debate a little differently. I don’t see fascism is an all or nothing possibility. We don’t just have a choice of full-blown dictatorship or pluralistic liberal democracy. As we discussed last year regarding Russia’s crypto-fascist lurch, authoritarian systems and even fascisms vary widely in form and degree. Fascism takes on the characteristics of each country it infests: Anti-Semitic and revanchist in Germany, highly religious and anti-modern in Spain, kleptocratic and anti-Western in Russia.

Moreover, a descent into a more than we dreamed possible degree of authoritarianism doesn’t have to happen overnight, or due to one president’s election. Consider these (albeit debatable) points.

  • U.S. politics has always had authoritarian tendencies – and moments. We had 100 years of Jim Crow, brutal wartime crackdowns on dissent (like in WWI), state violence against striking workers, and Red Scares. Not fascism for everyone, certainly, but authoritarianism for some.
  • Large majorities of Americans express no confidence at all in the government or in conventional politics. President Trump was contemptuous of liberal democracy on the campaign trail and all but campaigned as a wannabe strongman. He got 46% of the vote and he’s president for the next four years.
  • A true far right-wing movement (“Alt-Right”) may become a permanent, influential wing of the GOP. To me, this is not a big stretch. I have long argued that the entire Republican Party has grown increasingly authoritarian over the last 10-20 years.
  • The middle class may further hollow out in the next decade or two, for reasons we have discussed before. If this happens, non-college educated Americans outside of the major cities will be hardest hit. They voted for Trump.
  • Fascism feeds off of emergencies and war. Think of our response to 9/11. How do you think Trump and his top advisors would react to a major terrorist attack or war threat?

So, yes, American democracy is very resilient. But it has failed us before, at least temporarily. Trump may be either too ideologically mushy or incompetent to be our Mussolini. (Or, I could just be all wrong about him.)  But, could he and the people who support him move the USA quite a distance along the continuum of authoritarianism?

It’s all worth discussing on a Monday, I think. I will have a brief opening that leaves us plenty of time for Civilized Conversation.

(A note on links: A million of them, so pick and choose. Except for link #1 and some Krugman I tried to find ones you are unlikely to have encountered.)

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Fascism and Trump –

Is U.S. democracy really at risk?

It’s not just about one man’s character –

Conservative Voices –

NEXT WEEK: Is the Constitution too democratic or not democratic enough?

Monday’s Mtg: The Jewish People – Religion, Ethnicity, Culture, or Nation?

Happy Passover! Monday’s Jewish holiday seems like a good night to pose Aaron’s topic question: What does it mean to be Jewish today? Aaron said that he wanted us to consider in particular how the two most dramatic and disruptive events of the 20th century changed Judaism and Jewish identity.

Of course, sharing historical events – no matter how harrowing or horrible – is not the only shaper of a people’s identity. We also could discuss what modern Judaism “is.” Is Jewishness a religion? In some ways no. As one of the links explains, the idea that Judaism is a “religion” like Methodism or Lutheranism is a modern notion. To my father’s father, being a Jew was who he was. Judaism wasn’t just a sect to which he belonged. Plus, in America, less than one-half of Jews say they believe in God.

Are Jews a nationality or ethnicity? They have no common language nor geographic origin and most of them don’t live in Israel. Israel’s Rabbinate defines who is a Jew pretty narrowly, too, and for the moment (changing it has been proposed) Israel is not formally a “Jewish state.” Is Jewishness its own culture? American Jews do tend to share common moral and political values, but not a lot of day-to-day cultural practices. Maybe we’re a People, whatever that means.

As a half-Jew on my father’s side I’m not sure what being Jewish means, either. It’s a great discussion idea, especially since we have a few Jewish (or perhaps, “Jewish”) group regulars.

Below are some optional readings on Jewish identity. The first ones are some analyses of survey results, so at least we have some idea of what American Jews think about their Jewishness. I added some think pieces on Jewish identity including several focused on the role of the Holocaust and the creation of Israel in Jewish identity.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK: Is an American Fascism Possible?

Monday’s Mtg: Which moral standards should we use to judge historical figures?

We love to talk about the lessons of history in this group.  Searching our website I count half a dozen meetings on the “lessons of” some particular historical event. We have had meetings on judging the successes and failures of various U.S. presidents, and we discussed which were the best and worst ones.  (I think we may have to update the Worst list pretty soon.)  We even spent an evening asking “how will future historians judge us.” I always enjoy these meetings.

Monday’s topic is about historical judgment, too.  But, it is a little more challenging, I think. By asking us which moral standards we should be using to render historical judgments, the topic asks us to judge ourselves as well as the past. It compels us to make explicit the moral values that always lie behind our historical judgments, even if they usually are left unspoken. History only has lessons (and heroes and villains) if we supply the moral metric.

Also, there’s a sub-field of philosophy that wrestles with issues like what history is, to what uses it can be put, and how the present colors our perceptions of the past. It’s called the “philosophy of history.” I believe. I will try to learn a little bit about the field’s basic concepts and use it on Monday to guide our discussion. I think the true art of the meeting will be if we can learn to think about this stuff in different ways.

I will also make a short list of historically-controversial people and events and ask the group about them as needed (e.g.; Jefferson, the Confederacy, Truman/Hiroshima, Malcolm X, etc.).

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Jewishness – Faith, ethnicity, culture, or nationality?

Monday’s Mtg, Part 4: Where our tax dollars go.

Most of you know the broad outlines of this.  Here is a pie chart showing where the federal govt (2/3 of taxes go there) spends our tax dollars.  It is from the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.  For a breakdown of state and local spending in California go here.  For CA it’s basically 75% goes to five major activities: Education 25% + health care 20% + 10% prisons + 10% public safety + 10% welfare.  In most other states the pie chart looks about the same.

e USG Spending Pie Chart - CBPP

Monday’s Mtg, Part 3: GOP Tax Plans’ Impact on Tax Fairness

Now that Trumpcare is dead, he and the congressional GOP say they will move on to tax reform.   Tax reform could take many forms and end up quite different from the plans proposed by Trump and other Republican leadership, if it happens at all.  (And, again, who pays how much or saves how much is not the only thing that matters about taxes.)

Still, the Tax Policy Center (a think thank) estimated how the total tax burden would change under the Trump and House GOP tax reform plans, based on what was known n February 2017.  I can’t get the charts to paste into this post.  So, please see this NPR summary of the main findings here.

As you would expect, even though almost all American households would see some reduction in taxes under either proposal, the rich get much, much more tax relief.  According to the TPC analysis, the bottom 40% of households would get about a 1%-2% increase in after-tax income, while the top 1% of households would get a 13%-17% boost.

[Sunday key update:  Trump’s tax plan contains many, many hidden windfalls for the wealthiest earners and could raise taxes on millions of families, including via the corporate tax.   I’m sorry to pour it on, but truth is truth.]

And, this analysis does not even include the effects of the GOP’s proposed cut in the corporate tax rate or a “border adjustment tax.”  Off the top of my head, I would guess that since a BAT would be a lot like a sales tax on imported goods, it probably would hit working people the hardest, at least in the short run before trade patterns and exchange rates adjust.  To Trump, I imagine a BAT’s main appeal is that it privileges exports over imports.  But, to the House GOP members tentatively supporting it, a BAT’s main appeal is that it would raise enough revenue help make room for the other  tax cuts.  Corporate taxes tend to be passed through to consumers, so I’m not sure reducing them would change the overall tax burden much.  We’ll find out.

I’ll do one more quick post tomorrow with pie charts on what the federal government spends our tax money on.

Monday’s Mtg Part 2: How progressive is the U.S. tax system?

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.

Progressivity of USG taxes - all

[Source]

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.

Taxes paid and income earned by quintile 2016 - CTJ

[Source]

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.

Monday’s Mtg, Part 1: What Is a Fair Burden of Taxation?

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 –

  1. 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?
  2. Spending: Biggest programs and who benefits? Biggest misconceptions?
  3. Loopholes like the mortgage interest deduction are equivalent to spending. How are these “reverse tax burdens” distributed?
  4. Fairness: Ways of defining it + how should it be defined?
  5. Future:
    1. Short run: How and for whom does GOP plan to change tax burden?
    2. Long run: How should/will burden be shared?
    3. What changes to tax fairness would Americans accept?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK: Which moral standards should we use for judging historical figures?

Monday’s Mtg: Which beliefs have you changed since you were young and why?

Gale came up with this idea. I like it partly because it lets us get off the hamster wheel of reading and intellectualizing over politics, philosophy, history, and the like. But, I also like the topic because it basically asks each of us how much of what we have experienced and learned has really mattered – enough to make us change our opinions.

What people learn from experience is heavily influenced by what they want to believe a priori, of course. Still, as this week’s handful of background readings discuss, our beliefs do evolve throughout our lives as we gain experience and perspective. About what have you changed your opinion? God/religion, politics, personal ethics, marriage and children? What did it for you? Marriage and kids, church, school, career choices?  How hard was it to evolve?

After my 45 minute opening lecture (Note: KIDDING), I am really interested in hearing what you all, with all of your decades and decades and decades (sorry) of wisdom have to say. Have a nice weekend and I’ll see you on Monday evening.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK: What is a “fair” burden of taxation?

Monday’s Mtg: The Uses and Abuses of “Pop Economics.”

Rich suggested this topic. I wish I had, because I think it is one of our most important topics in years. The way basic, introductory-level economics has been abused to make bad national policy has been a pet peeve of mine for many years.

Sure, all rhetoric in politics is kept sound bite and bumper sticker-friendly. (Not to a fourth grade level like Trump’s rhetoric, perhaps, but still.) And, everybody does it. “Our borders are unguarded/open.” Liberals aren’t patriotic. Neoconservatives love war.

But, when it comes to rhetoric –and policy, too – concerning economics, something much, much more pernicious goes on. It has been called the problem of “Econ 101ism” or “Economism.” Economism, to quote the coiner of the term, is “the misleading application of basic lessons from Economics 101 to real-world problems, creating the illusion of consensus and reducing a complex topic to a simple, open-and-shut case.” For years I’ve seen way too many politicians (and their pundit and journalist enablers) use over-simplified – and thus often inaccurate – Econ 101ism as a kind of Gospel that fully explains how the world really works. They use its “lessons” to show what correct government policy has to be and anybody that disagrees doesn’t understand economics.

Everybody does Economism sometimes. Liberals sometimes indulge in it when thinking and talking about international trade and, less often IMO, about macroeconomics (govt spending levels). But, as the articles below explain better than I will on Monday, there is something about Econ 101’s easy, breezy, oversimplified analysis of how markets work that easily seduces conservatives.  All those pretty supply and demand curves leading to ideal equilibriums without ever a need for government interference.

Again, I don’t mean this topic to be about economic polices and rhetoric that I think are wrong.  I mean it to be about those that are wrong for one particular reason: They are based on a belief that the highly simplified textbook explanations of how markets work should tell us all we need to know about what policies should be.  Econ 101ism, to me, is too often a shield for preferences that based on other things, like ideology and moral beliefs. .

I’ve tried to keep the linked readings fairly easy and, well, breezy. They oversimplify, too, but get the idea across.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What does Econ 101 teach about how markets and govt interference in markets work? What important things does it gloss over?
  2. In what big ways can well-meaning political advocates misinterpret the lessons of Econ 101?
  3. How do the lessons of Econ 101 get misused by politicians; i.e., what is Economism?
  4. What are some good examples of Economism in action on the Right and Left?
    –> In tax policy? Financial regulation? Trade? Wages and labor markets? Health care? Education?
  5. How can seductive rhetoric based on Economism be effectively countered?
  6. What’s the “other side” POV here? Is Econ 11ism not a big thing?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Conservative use of Econ 101ism

Liberals use of Econ 101ism –

Special Topics in Econ 101ism –

NEXT WEEK: What beliefs have you changed since you were young?