The Democrats Lost Because They Spent Too Much Energy Fighting the Culture War

As I repeatedly checked social media last night and throughout the day today, somehow proving myself a glutton for punishment and wallowing in the depression and despair of my fellow liberals, a common theme in the posts I saw was thinking about all the people who would endure very real suffering in a Trump-Pence administration, the Mexican immigrants who would face deportation, the Muslims who would face ratcheted-up xenophobia, the young people who would lose their health insurance if Obamacare was scrapped without any meaningful replacement, the young unmarried women who could not only lose their access to contraception and other needed care but could see Roe v. Wade itself scrapped by a newly re-energized conservative Supreme Court majority, the gays and lesbians whose right to marry could also be scrapped by said majority, the transgender people that could see efforts like North Carolina’s bathroom law made the law of the land, and many others besides who could lose all the progress made during the Obama era if not before.

Obviously, if you’re an immigrant, Muslim, unemployed young person, sexually active unmarried woman, a member of the LGBT community, or a bleeding heart liberal who cares about all these groups, all these issues matter to you a great deal, but clearly they don’t matter enough to a large portion of the country to move them to vote for Hillary Clinton. What mattered to them was “draining the swamp” in Washington, “taking their country back”, and doing something about their perceived economic malaise. While the left wanted to take on Wall Street, lower the gap between the 99% and the 1%, and generally improve the economic life of the nation, until Bernie Sanders came along the closest they came to actually doing anything about it was a brief flowering of aimless protests known as Occupy Wall Street that quickly fizzled into nothingness. Instead the left spent the Obama era making life better for all those marginalized groups, especially the LGBT community, by shaming states that passed particularly anti-LGBT or anti-immigrant bills and supporting gay marriage efforts leading to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. In retrospect, it was the biggest mistake they could have made.

On the eve of the 2008 election, I said that after the abuses of the Bush years, the Democrats had a chance to give themselves a blank check for a generation. They have had only mixed success, and one of their biggest failings was the inability to improve the fortunes of middle America. To be sure, focusing on LGBT rights and the rights of other marginalized groups didn’t have monied interests like Wall Street and oil companies allayed against them, and often those groups were actually on the left’s side on those issues, so taking on those monied interests would have been much harder in the short run. But had Obama led eight years of increasing peace, prosperity, and palpable improvement in the fortunes of the middle and working class, it would have given much of the country reason to trust the Democrats on everything else, making it easier for the left to make life easier for those marginalized groups. Instead, middle America got the sense that things were getting better for all the Others but that they themselves were treading water at best, which led them to grow resentful of the “liberal elite” leading the country in a direction that they perceived would leave them behind, dashing the left’s hopes of electoral success and making it harder to implement the rest of their agenda, or of keeping the gains they did make.

Again, calling last night a victory for hatred, misogyny, and intolerance, as I’ve seen many on the left do, is probably overstating things; I’m of the opinion that last night can be explained in two words, the economy and “change”. Given the left’s victories everywhere except control of federal offices, it’s clear that most Americans broadly agree on the left’s agenda, but when it comes to federal office, the people on which the election hinges care only about those two things (and as a result, I’m now convinced Sanders would have crushed Trump in a landslide). By not properly focusing on the economy, though, the left accidentally stoked resentment towards what they were doing, allowing that hatred and intolerance to come to the fore, while the left didn’t recognize the predicament they had placed themselves in or its severity until it was too late.

Donald Trump and the Crisis of American Democracy

Our long national nightmare is, one might hope, almost over. Hopefully it does not prove to be just beginning… and hopefully it does not prove to be a precursor of bigger and longer nightmares to come.

We are, at long last, coming to the end of one of the most bitter, divisive, and depressing presidential elections in recent memory, between the two most disliked candidates on record, and it would be fruitful at this time to stop and figure out how we got here. What does Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican party mean for the party and the nation? How is it that one of the two major parties’ nominees for President came to be a bloviating gasbag with policy proposals that thinking people almost unanimously agree portend disaster and who showed every sign of being the closest America has come to electing Hitler himself, how did the Republican elites show so much impotence in the face of his movement, and how did the prospect of his election prove to be a terrifyingly real, if somewhat distant, possibility even in the weekend before the election? Is it a party’s base wresting control of the party away from the elites and going against every modicum of common sense the elites try to warn them about? Is it the natural conclusion of those same elites feeding that same base a steady diet of racism and xenophobia, creating a monster they don’t deserve any sympathy for losing control over? Is it the result of a bipartisan revolt over the influence of money in politics that’s attracted Republicans to a man rich enough not to need to be bought and Democrats to the people-powered campaign of a Bernie Sanders, or is it simply a group of Americans falling in love with a charismatic strongman?

The truth is, as completely unexpected as the rise of Donald Trump may have been at the time, in many ways it is but the culmination of the trends rendering our democracy increasingly dysfunctional over the past decade and a half. It is the result of the increasing polarization of the country during the Bush era, creating two sides increasingly unable to speak to one another and increasingly punishing their own respective parties for not being sufficiently devoted to the cause, rendering it increasingly impossible to get elected as anything other than a complete ideologue, resulting in the complete gridlock of the Obama era, where it takes control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and 60% of the Senate to get anything done, and as proven by the fate of Obamacare, even that might not be enough if one house is only barely in control, and without it America lurches to the edge of crisis after crisis before Congress finally agrees to do the bare minimum to keep the country afloat (or in some cases, the President unilaterally sidesteps Congress and issues executive orders to get his way). Our Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ vision suffers as all sides look to exploit every loophole they can to get their way or prevent the other side from getting theirs. The only way for anything to change is if one has the resources to push it through by brute force, meaning monied interests’ control over the system has only deepened, and the Presidency gains more and more power as presidents use executive orders to do what Congress won’t do for them. Whether Donald Trump is the ultimate expression of the Republican base’s desires, or simply the result of people demanding a commanding presence to break through the gridlock, it is the natural evolution of this state of affairs, and it suggests that Trump is not necessarily a unique phenomenon but something that will only get worse if nothing is done to stop it.

In a way, what we’re seeing is the realization of a major flaw inherent in our Constitution, one foreseen by the Founding Fathers and whose escape from being quite so obvious as now is nothing short of miraculous (and partly rooted in some of the darker ghosts of American history). The Founding Fathers did not intend for political parties to form at all. They distrusted political parties and “factionalism” as a destabilizing force and believed people should vote for the person, not the party. As political science was almost nonexistent at the time, though, they had no real grasp of the forces that lead to the creation of parties and ended up forming parties almost literally before the ink was dry on the Constitution, over, somewhat ironically, the adoption of the Constitution itself.

The Founders were also, somewhat surprisingly, distrustful of too much democracy, fearing that it would lead to the outbreak of “mob rule” of the sort the French Revolution would soon seem to provide. At the time, most states restricted the right to vote to white male landowners, and partly out of a desire to keep the states primary to the federal government, the Founders restricted even their participation in the workings of the federal government. Only the House of Representatives was directly elected by the people; for over a century Senators were chosen by state legislatures, who also determined for themselves how members of the Electoral College to select the President would be chosen. Our modern-day commitment to democracy uber alles for as much of the adult population as possible is at odds with the values underlying the Constitution. The system of checks and balances underlying our government doesn’t work as the Founders intended when the President, the House, and the Senate are all chosen by the people.

That shift has direct consequences for our current malaise. Yale political scientist Juan Linz spent much of his career arguing that the great difference between dysfunctional Latin American democracies and relatively stable European ones had nothing to do with any cultural differences between them and everything to do with the form their respective governments took. European nations tend to have parliamentary systems where the prime minister is elected by the Parliament and so must have Parliament’s support; if the prime minister loses that support, the governing coalition either elects a new prime minister, forms a new coalition, or potentially holds a new election. Latin American systems, by contrast, tend to be modeled on the American system of a directly elected President separate from the Congress, meaning when the President and Congress disagree they can both claim to have the backing of the people and there is no obvious principle with which to resolve the dispute that would be terribly convincing. (Not for nothing were the democracies set up following and since World War II, often installed by America itself, usually parliamentary systems.)

The obvious exception to Linz’s analysis was the United States itself, which seemed to be a model of stability with its presidential system, but Linz’s theory was that America’s success could be chalked up to the diffuse, “big-tent” nature of American political parties that could accommodate many different ideologies under the same roof, something that frustrated many political scientists for many years as they looked wistfully at Britain’s ideologically-coherent parties without recognizing what a disaster it would be in America’s system of checks, balances, and separation of powers. In the American context, though, ideologically diffuse parties meant individual congressmen and Senators could vote their conscience and control of any branch of government by either party didn’t actually mean much – parties were themselves coalitions, and each caucus in each house had enough of a diversity of ideologies that coalitions could form that could keep the government more or less stable and moving in a single direction across the legislative and executive branches. This is no longer the case, and the result is providing chilling evidence for Linz’s theories.

That it was the case for so long, preventing the Founders’ fears about the impact of political parties from being realized, can be chalked up to three dark undercurrents of American history: corruption, race, and voter apathy. The party system that emerged after the Founding generation left power, by the time Electoral College members became largely determined by popular vote, was centered more around people’s feelings about Andrew Jackson than any actual issues, and the main issue dominating American politics was the slavery issue and the main fault line was the Mason-Dixon Line, and both parties tried to appeal to voters on both sides of the line. Although the Republican Party was founded around opposition to slavery, by the time Reconstruction was over both parties were increasingly dominated by the spoils system Jackson had started, and American politics was dominated by political machines who turned out the vote for their respective parties, whose ranks were mostly filled by people hoping to gain patronage positions if their side won. In other words, for most of the nineteenth century American politics had little to do with ideology; both sides may have stuck close by their own team, but actual issues were all but irrelevant in the post-Reconstruction era. It also helped that until Woodrow Wilson and World War I came along, the power of the Presidency was rather limited, and Congress was arguably more powerful; as in a parliamentary system, Congress could act on behalf of the people without conflict, especially once the Seventeenth Amendment provided for the direct election of Senators.

After World War II, race again began muddying the boundaries between the parties as the civil rights movement rose to prominence. The one constant of post-Civil War politics was Southern whites’ distrust of the party of Lincoln, but as integrationists became more and more prominent in the Democratic Party, it became increasingly fragmented, to the point that Southerners twice ran rival presidential tickets upon deciding the official Democratic nominee wasn’t sufficiently pro-segregation. Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy in 1968 created the final break between the South and the Democrats, turning the “Solid South” into today’s Republican stronghold. At about the same time, the modern primary system began to take shape, as the people, having already taken control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress, proceeded to wrench control over the selection of nominees for President away from party bosses. Before small cabals in “smoke-filled rooms” decided amongst themselves who the best candidate would be that could strike a balance between serving their interests and getting elected, meaning even after the post-Wilson expansion of presidential power the President still operated at some level of remove from pure popular will. Now the President had to appeal to a subset of the people from the very start – and more, the people were now engaged in every level of the process, becoming the underlying force behind the parties themselves rather than simply taking what the parties gave them, and pressuring parties and politicians to adopt their favored positions. The thorough democratization of American politics was complete, and the parties inevitably became levers for two different factions of the popular will, utterly ideologically opposed to one another, trying to pull the country in opposite directions.

In the popular imagination, our problems have obvious, commonsense solutions that don’t get enacted solely because corrupt politicians don’t enact them. Democrats think they’re in fealty to big business and other rich contributors; Republicans think they’re too addicted to power and big government. It escapes partisans on both sides that one side’s “commonsense solution” is another’s unacceptable giveaway to special interests. Democrats dismiss Republicans’ concerns as the result of being misled by big corporations and blinded by the culture war and a relentless message of patriotism, too stupid to realize that Republican policies are only keeping them down; Republicans dismiss Democrats’ concerns as being misled by the “liberal media” and ivory-tower elites and looking for a handout, too selfish to realize that Democratic policies only hold the country back. Only on Capitol Hill do people from each side of each issue meet and understand where each side is coming from, or even acknowledge that the other side exists. (Theoretically, the same could happen for party bases on the Internet, but it hasn’t happened and human psychology makes it unlikely to happen, and believe me I’ve tried.) Once they come down from the hill and present the result to the partisans back in the cave, they risk being accused of “selling out their principles” and replaced with someone less “corrupt”. It’s a truism that people don’t like Congress but like their own congressperson. What’s not as recognized is that the inverse is true: a congressperson that tries to do what’s necessary to improve the working of Congress as a whole finds their constituents turning against them. People agree that Congress does nothing, but don’t agree on what they should be doing – and prefer doing nothing to doing anything that the other side wants. The hard truth is that getting what you want means throwing some bones to what the other side wants, but people don’t believe there’s anyone legitimate or worth appeasing on the other side at all.

The result is that gridlock is now entrenched in our system. No longer torn between the party on one hand and the base on the other, today they are one and the same. Further fueled by cable news, talk radio, and ideological web sites, and increasingly distant from those on the other side as the parties increasingly reflect racial and urban-vs-rural divides and as congressmen get fewer opportunities to form relationships across the aisle, each side sees their positions as the only acceptable, even the only American positions, and that the other side is corrupt and their followers are deluded. For each side, compromise is unacceptable, and anyone who dares to vote for anything floated by the other side is a traitor – meaning any position that doesn’t conform to the two great forces doesn’t even get any sort of hearing to begin with, because any moderate gets swiftly weeded out, doomed to defeat in the primaries. If either side has any power to stop the other from getting their way, even a mere 40 votes in the Senate, then nothing whatsoever will get done as both sides dig in. The problem is compounded by the loss of the tools once used by party elites to compel votes, the earmarks, patronage, and lack of transparency so dismissed as hallmarks of corruption but which haven’t been replaced by any mechanism to stop small groups of congressmen, or even a single Senator, to grandstand for the sake of impressing their base or furthering their own political advancement. If there were a multitude of parties this might not be so big a problem – any ideology that might have relevant ideas would have a seat at the table, and without two parties on exact opposite ends of one another it would be easier to find common ground – but our system effectively precludes that, for reasons obvious to anyone who followed the 2000 election. So our democracy lurches ever forward to the brink, and if nothing is done to correct its course the result will either be the election of a Trump-esque strongman, one who will set out to push whatever their side wants no matter who gets trampled underfoot in the process, or all-out civil war, if not both – and either would likely be the death of the Republic.

All this would play out exactly as the Founders feared – the rise of factions resulting in the dissolution of the Republic – and we would do well to recall their wisdom. We no longer believe there is such a thing as “too much” democracy and have come to accept the advent of parties as inevitable, things our Constitution is not designed for. If we are to keep our democracy from plunging into the abyss, we must remember their wisdom while reflecting today’s values.

I urge my fellow Americans concerned about the direction of the country to call for a constitutional convention to update the structure of our government to reclaim the Founders’ wisdom while reflecting our values – crafting a government designed from the start under the assumption that the people will determine as many of its members as possible and recognizing the inevitability of parties, encouraging compromise between factions while strengthening the system of checks and balances for today’s society – or short of that, to form a movement to demand reforms to our democracy within the Constitution to better encourage compromise and finding the best ideas to move the country forward.

I don’t know what shape such a revitalized government would take, and I’m not confident that anyone selected to attend the convention would have anywhere near as much wisdom as the Founders, especially considering the concerning likelihood that anyone with such wisdom would be cast aside in favor of groups with axes to grind hoping to engrave their favored positions in the Constitution, but the necessity to at least confront the problem is undeniable, and I hope that by stating the issue in this way I can invite concerned Americans on both sides of the aisle, all of which consider themselves concerned about America’s well-being, to confront the issue and work together to start working towards a solution. Over the next few days and weeks I will present some specific ideas about flaws in the system and ways to resolve them – even without a convention, though some modification to the Constitution may still be warranted in order for those changes to be as effective as one would hope.

In 1787 the Founders saw an America in crisis – disrespected by the great world powers, unable to raise money to pay its debts, unable to do anything to ease squabbling between the states – and realized that large-scale reform would be needed for the republic to survive, for the Revolution to prove to be more than a Pyrrhic victory. We now find ourselves facing a crisis that may be every bit as big a threat to the survival of the Republic as what the Founders faced, and however we choose to solve it, we need people from left, right, center, and elsewhere to rise to the occasion and find solutions to the great challenge of our time, no matter what that might entail.

Ensuring a #CommActUpdate for the Twenty-First Century

The Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee has been collecting input for a comprehensive update of the Communications Act for over a year now, with an eye towards a “technology-neutral” law that avoids placing different technologies in different regulatory “silos” and instead treats equivalent technologies equivalently. Towards that end, it has been issuing a series of white papers on issues surrounding the effort, and the most recent one concerns an issue that, perhaps even more than net neutrality, illustrates how much this effort is desperately needed: the video marketplace.

I sent in my thoughts on the state of the video marketplace and on the more general question of what I would like to see in a technology-neutral Communications Act, which you can see here. You may also want to read the comments I sent to the FCC on its ownership review and on a la carte television, assuming the FCC site is up.

Will Three Million Comments in Favor of Net Neutrality Sway the FCC – and Should They?

Over the past few months, the FCC has seen a level of public participation unprecedented in the agency’s history. Largely spurred on by John Oliver (not to give short shrift to numerous consumer groups mobilizing the masses), over three million comments were filed in the FCC’s net neutrality proceeding, many by people who couldn’t name more than one or two commissioners and who only knew the name of chairman Tom Wheeler because Oliver told them. The overwhelming majority of those three million comments begged the FCC to preserve net neutrality and an open Internet and not to adopt “paid prioritization” rules that would undermine the concept of net neutrality, with the only comments in favor of paid prioritization being cable companies and people paid off by cable companies.

With so many people weighing in on the issue, surely the FCC will bow to the will of the people and pass real net neutrality, right? According to Seeta Peña Gangadharan writing in Slate, and drawing on his experiences with the 2002 and 2006 ownership reviews when the FCC ignored the input of hundreds of thousands of comments from ordinary Americans, the answer is a resounding no. Depending on how cynical you are, that may not be surprising; what may surprise you is what Gangadharan says are the reasons why, something that he says “points to a much larger tension between federal agencies and the public—and one that we must address if we want our agencies to help restore trust in government and strengthen their civic purpose.”

According to the FCC commissioners and staffers Gangadharan spoke to, the public has a misconception that the comment process is like a vote, when it’s actually “more like a court proceeding” where “systematic, reliable evidence, not emotional expressions” win the day. They considered the many comments filed in the ownership proceeding by people who probably never filed comments to the FCC any other time as “emotional and superficial content”, “prone to error” and “lack[ing] truthfulness”. As one staffer put it, not “usually very deep or analytical or, you know, substantiated by evidence, documentary or otherwise. They’re usually expressions of opinion.” Another went so far as to say some of the comments they received were downright “hilarious” because “you know you’re reading something, and you know it’s not true. And you’re guessing, you know, the person is hallucinating.” As a result, many comments don’t even make it very far in the commission’s bureaucracy, because in the eyes of staffers, “they [don’t] need to”. As Gangadharan puts it, to sway the commission you need to “become a lawyer, economist, or researcher and meet the commission’s expectations for what reasoned input really means.”

If the majority of comments from ordinary citizens to the FCC fail to “meet the commission’s expectations for what reasoned input really means”, perhaps that’s because they aren’t “reasoned input” by anyone’s expectations, and if they consider those comments “emotional and superficial content”, perhaps that’s because they are. By and large, when “ordinary citizens” file comments to the FCC they not only tend not to be all that well-argued, resorting to “emotional and superficial” appeals, they often are riddled with spelling, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation errors. The Sunlight Foundation characterized “at least” 60% of the 800,000 net neutrality comments the FCC had received at that time as “form letters written by organized campaigns”, in other words, letters written by people who were able to cogently and coherently articulate their position but which got repeated over and over by numerous people. The fact that a bunch of people were able to submit the same comment over and over and each get counted suggests the commissioners and staffers are not far off in thinking most people, even those that should know better, see the comment process as a “vote”; if the comment process is supposed to be a battle of rational arguments, those numerous repeated comments shouldn’t even count towards the total, but should simply be listed as signatures on a single petition. Otherwise, it’s what people who disagree with their position can dismiss as astroturfing. What does that leave? Here’s a not-quite-random assortment of some of the comments from the remaining 40% – some of which may out to be form letters! – that were posted to the FCC’s site right before the Internet Slowdown protests resulted in a surge of form letters, all of them reprinted in their entirety:

Please do not change the current laws regarding net neutrality. Even under the current laws, ISPs in America are oligopolies in the best cases and monopolies in many rural and suburban areas, and abolishing net neutrality would give them an even stronger stranglehold on the market. The Internet in its current form is a precious resource and should not be sold out for the sake of the bottom line of a hand-full of companies who just so happen to be some of the richest lobbyists in Washington. At the very least, please honestly consider the repercussions of abolishing net neutrality before acting to protect the interests of Big Cable.Daniel McArtor

Net neutrality is the First Amendment of the Internet, the principle that Internet service providers (ISPs) treat all data equally. As an Internet user, net neutrality is vitally important to me. The FCC should use its Title II authority to protect

I believe in the free accessibility of the internet for all people. The internet is a right that should not be filtered or throttled by corporations or governments. Please defend the free internet by maintaining net neutrality.Stephen Winter

Based on my knowledge internet was invented by research organizations and then given to public to bring the whole world closer. Verizon or comcast do not have any right over it just because they own the hardware which facilitates the internet. These companies precisely understand the importance of the internet, how everyone is dependent on it, and it is just a scam to make more money on one of the basic commodities in this country. I oppose the plea by comcast and verzion primarily for the following reason: It is not wrong for these companies to provide faster service to companies who would want to pay more, but my concern is how it will affect other companies/people who cannot afford the speed. I work with entrepreneurs who work on internet start ups, who hardly have any money or they are usually on a strict budget, but our projects sometimes compete with bigger companies. My biggest concern is as it is start ups face uneven field to start off. Now, on top of that if internet provider companies start providing faster service for the rich companies then the field gets even more uneven making it harder for small companies, startups, small businesses to compete with their rich counterparts. Last but not the least, I have a comment on Comcast. Comcast which is the largest internet provider.Gansh Soms

Stop the corporate greed, you stupid twats.  The public actually cares about this issue.  Baaaaaaaaaa.Common Sense

The FCC should amend its rules to ensure continued net neutrality.  The pending proposal does not do that.  Instead, it allows an already heavily concentrated industry to gain even greater control over public access to information by selling rights to a “fast lane.”  It also puts businesses, particularly new entrants in the market and those with less capital, at a clear competitive disadvantage.  This will harm the economy in the long term.  The proposed rule is poor public policy and should be rejected, and replaced by a rule that treats these corporate behemoths like the common carriers they are, as a practical matter.  Thank you for considering my comments.Darrell Murray

When people speak of the greatest inventions of mankind we speak of things like soap (combating bacteria and disease), steel (providing strength to structures our mind can conceive of), and the printing press (allowing the common man the chance to learn to read). Prior to the printing press and the Gutenberg Bible, literacy was solely for the church and the very few. The internet, in its current iteration is available for all and  the greatest tool to spread information. Please do not move forward with the Net Neutrality act. There is NOTHING to be gained by the people who use the internet if this is to go forward. Thank you, Charles Schoenherr

KEEP NET NEUTRALITY! KEEP NET NEUTRALITY! KEEP NET NEUTRALITY! I don’t want the cable companies bending me over my work table and @*!X#$ me up my nether regions. The internet doesn’t need a no move lane and laser speed limousine lane. Fire Wheeler. Putting him in charge of the FCC is like hiring a convicted child molester to baby sit your kids!Edward Mosle

Please protect net neutrality. The Internet and its use by regular consumers has advanced far enough that internet/broadband service providers should be treated as any other telecommunications service provider and regulated as such. Competition is good, and consumers should have multiple choices, but for a provider to interfere with the speed of data reaching the consumer or charging unfair prices by creating “fast lanes” is not fair to the consumers.Anahit

I favor HS Internet but I favor more competition among vendors for the consumer & retain the Tier pay plans for users alone & to regulate ISPs as Utility IE Information Utility alone can do much to expand Internet. Pricing should be competitive for consumers esp small business & home users. CUT regulations that deter this from marketplace. CUT any FCC bureaucracy that can impact Net neutrality alone BUT expand FCC enforcement div alone. & one should be able to change users for HS Internet like one can with mobile phones. Hate the mobile phone contracts anyway, consider wireless phone carriers as a Utility like Pacific Bell was years ago.Stephen Russell

Former Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, who were on the commission for the 2002 and 2006 proceedings, have “argued that labeling the input of all ordinary citizens as worthless and emotional is misguided”, that the stories they tell “spoke to the failings of a consolidated media marketplace.” Going off their comments, Gangadharan calls on the FCC to “concede that personal experience can be substantive, too”, just as agencies do with consumer complaints, and set a precedent for all agencies to “treat[] rulemaking as a genuine democratic process, that value[s] peoples’ voice, history, and context”. But court proceedings, and other big decision-making processes, are not supposed to make decisions based on anecdotal evidence, but on actual data – especially since most ordinary people don’t have any concrete anecdotes that would argue against net neutrality. If there is a “much larger tension between federal agencies and the public”, it’s even deeper than Gangadharan indicates, because if people are simply sending in their personal anecdotes it’s because that’s what sways ordinary people like themselves, so if there is anything wrong with government agencies it’s in expecting human nature to be anything different from what it actually is. In any case, most of the above comments aren’t even anecdotes; at best they’re just parroting the talking points from the numerous places covering the issue. The commission shouldn’t make their decision based simply on how many comments come in on one side of the issue if the vast majority of them are irrelevant crap that add nothing to the debate (especially those coming from the Internet trolls Oliver specifically called on to comment), and if they do, it will be more out of consideration of the PR consequences, a recognition of the sheer number of people aware of the issue and their reaction to the FCC’s proposals, than anything else.

I filed my own comments to the FCC earlier this month on the current ownership review, which does not seem to have attracted the same intense interest as the ones Gangadharan references (perhaps because the commission is proposing more tightening of regulations than loosening this time around), and read through the rounds of comments that had already been submitted as part of my research for it, and as such I feel I have a good sense of the sorts of comments the commission is actually looking for. Assuming even those comments that do “meet the commission’s expectations for reasoned input” make any impact on the commissioners, as opposed to their minds already being made up for whatever reason on most issues (many of the comments on Gangadharan’s piece point to money being more of a motivating factor than quality of comments in the Commission’s decisions – see Wheeler’s cable-industry-lobbyist background), I think ordinary Americans can get their comments noticed by the FCC if they have a solid understanding of the issue and the arguments being thrown around about them, and at least a basic college-level understanding of rhetoric and argument. I invite you to look at my comments on the ownership review; they’re not perfect (I cite Wikipedia multiple times, including at least one thing that may be just plain wrong, and may be wrong about other things), but at 20 pages and with copious citations, as well as actually confronting the stakeholders’ arguments on the issues I address, I’d like to think it at least provides a framework for ordinary citizens to at least try to compete on a level playing field with the big corporations.

Ultimately, I think the real problem is that the things the FCC does just don’t get much attention from the media, except when it comes to super-obvious things like net neutrality, even though the things the FCC does affect every American. Of course, the big media companies probably don’t want anti-consolidation citizens weighing in on proposals that affect them, but even blogs don’t cover the FCC on a regular basis, focusing on a few big issues like net neutrality or the big cable company mergers with obvious impact on the consumer, without any appreciation of the larger context surrounding the debate on those issues (or even a nuanced discussion beyond the talking points), and mostly when the FCC’s proposals are things they hate (the sports blackout rule notwithstanding). There’s been little coverage of the incentive auction or the general issue of spectrum management (and those that are aware of it tend to support giving more spectrum to wireless companies, unless they’re specifically interested in the state of broadcasting, even though preserving and supporting broadcast TV is vital to preserving net neutrality in the long term), or of the ownership review, or of issues surrounding retransmission consent and a la carte, or of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee’s Republican leadership soliciting input on a proposed update of communications legislation. These are things that could have as much or more impact on the lives of Americans as the issues that get all the attention, but they tend to go under the radar. Having an FCC that works for the people may be more important than with any other agency, because preserving net neutrality and a diversity of voices in general has the overall effect of strengthening our democracy and ensuring the rest of the government works for the people as well, and thus keeping an eye on the FCC is more important than with any other agency as well.

What is the Sports Blackout Rule the FCC Just Repealed?

On Tuesday the FCC voted unanimously to repeal its 40-year-old sports blackout rule, a move that means a lot less than its coverage in the media has made it look like. This is not, in itself, the rule that prohibits the broadcasting of NFL games that don’t sell out or the rule that frustrates MLB Extra Innings subscribers so much, but it is related to the former. As this Awful Announcing piece explains, the blackout rule essentially provides a backstop for the NFL’s blackout rule by prohibiting cable providers from airing games blacked out on local broadcast stations. (It technically applies to all leagues, but the NFL is both the only league with a blackout policy this would apply to and the only league that hasn’t seen virtually all its games migrate to cable anyway in recent decades.) It was never particularly a matter of good policy, with the FCC putting a foot on the scales of private enterprise, but its weird specificity (which betrays its vintage from an almost unthinkably different time not only in the NFL, but in the cable business and the television business more generally) dulls its effect enough that it’s hard to see its repeal changing anything, at least in the near term, given the NFL’s existing contracts.

Despite this, AA itself has inflated the rule’s importance in subsequent reporting on the debates on the issue, and the NFL warned that repealing the rule could force the league to abandon broadcast television and move to cable. It’s hard to see how a rule that keeps games from airing on broadcast, one the NFL could easily repeal its end of tomorrow and obviate the effect of the repeal of the FCC rule, is protecting the presence of games on broadcast, but the FCC’s response, noting the league’s current contracts run through 2022, is worrisome to me, because it doesn’t cover what happens after that, given cable’s unfair advantages, or the fact that the Big Four networks have made clear they would abandon over-the-air television themselves if they could.

Could cable providers air games the NFL has blacked out on local stations? Maybe, but if such isn’t covered by the NFL’s exclusive deal with DirecTV for Sunday Ticket the NFL could still police it, with a potential last resort of holding NFL Network and NFL RedZone over their heads. It may or may not affect DirecTV’s own ability to show blacked-out games, assuming DirecTV blacks out games on Sunday Ticket that are blacked out on the local station, but if so it’s likely that’s guaranteed in their contract as well and the league could continue to police it. The repeal of the FCC’s rule might change the economic incentives for the league going forward, but again the prospect of blacked-out games airing on cable undermining their presence on broadcast is a problem of the league’s own making through their imposition of the blackout rule in the first place. If the NFL declares in their next TV contract – and I’m assuming the impossible, that by the end of this decade the content landscape is exactly as it is today – that the repeal of the FCC rule is forcing them to abandon their commitment to broadcast TV and move their games to cable, it would call into question their motivations for making that commitment to begin with. Protecting gate attendance, no matter what way you slice it, seems to have little to do with protecting the league’s presence on broadcast television, and anyone who thinks there’s a serious prospect of the league eventually abandoning broadcast should be paying more attention to the broken economics of the television industry and the prospect of broadcast being permanently if not terminally crippled by the upcoming incentive auctions. All told, the repeal of the FCC’s blackout rule is a purely symbolic gesture not worth the ink spilled on it, but it does give some indication that the FCC is willing to stand on the side of the consumer and good policy – at least, if they can also stand on the side of the cable companies and against broadcasting at the same time.

Is There a Place for Common Sense in Supreme Court Decisions?

The Supreme Court Wednesday ruled 6-3 against Aereo, declaring the start-up’s array of miniature antennas available for rent to consumers in violation of copyright law. Astoundingly, the three dissenters were Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, three of the court’s more conservative members. If you had to pick one person to symbolize the modern Supreme Court’s tendency to favor moneyed interests over ordinary Americans, the law, intent of the Constitution, and precedent be damned, it would probably be Scalia, followed by Thomas, then Alito and Chief Justice Roberts neck-in-neck. I would never have expected the conservatives to actually believe what they say they do enough to stand with the consumer and the scrappy, innovative start-up at the expense of the big, multi-national conglomerates, and as much as Democratic politicians may be in bed with Hollywood, I never would have expected every last one of the liberal justices to stand with the big corporations against the ordinary American. I know President Obama’s Justice Department filed a brief supporting broadcasters, but that was widely seen as disappointing, not sadly expected; I suspect this is an issue on which the Democratic decision-makers are well out of step with their rank and file. Maybe I’m just naïve (support in Congress and opposition among the public to SOPA was, after all, largely bipartisan), but it would be hard for me to deal with it if this turned out to be an issue on which I stand with conservatives and against Democrats.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Rather, I want to talk about the tendency for pro-Aereo corners of the blogosphere (as well as Aereo itself) to decry the decision as being obviously wrong, to gloss over the sketchier elements of what Aereo was trying to do, take its own description of it at face value, and dismiss the majority’s reasoning as the “looks-like-a-duck test“, to speak of Aereo’s setup being designed to follow the law as opposed to “going around” it as though that were more than a semantic distinction. One of the things Americans don’t like about the legal system is the tendency to create overly complicated documents written in horrendously obtuse language with no resemblance to anything ordinary Americans could recognize so that people can get off on obscure technicalities. But when the Supreme Court finally looks past the technicalities and boils things down to what they actually are, but we happen to be on the side that wanted to take advantage of those technicalities, suddenly we want the court to follow the obtuse legal language, ignore what we’re actually trying to do, and let us skirt through the loophole?

I personally felt that, while Aereo was clearly trying to take advantage of a loophole in the law, it was the place of Congress, not the Supreme Court, to close it, and it sounds like the commenters on (the very liberal) Daily Kos agree with me. But I don’t think we’re giving the position the majority accepted enough credit. Leaving aside the technicalities of how it all works, what Aereo was selling was the ability to watch broadcast television stations, regardless of whether you had the ability to view them at your current location if you had an antenna, indeed without you needing to worry about having an antenna or where it was located. You, the viewer, don’t see where Aereo’s antenna is and don’t even necessarily know anything about where Aereo is getting the signals from. All you know is that you are giving Aereo money and they are supplying you with a bunch of television channels you may or may not be able to receive otherwise. Boiled down to those facts, there really is very little difference between Aereo and basic cable service (and some of the things Aereo had said about potentially carrying cable channels didn’t really help their case).

What this shows is that our communications and copyright laws are woefully outdated and rooted in assumptions that don’t hold water, that failed to anticipate technological developments that rendered the technological distinctions encoded in the law obsolete. The entire Aereo affair had a company resorting to technological contortions to provide a fairly basic service there was a clear demand for and broadcasters being undermined by the very nature of, and wanting to be rid of, their own nominal method of delivery, their own neglect of which helped create the demand for Aereo in the first place (and while they’ve won this battle, they may ultimately lose the war). The court said that if Aereo wanted relief they should go to Congress when they should have said that to the broadcasters, not only because that would have been the right approach but because the broadcasters would likely have been more able to get that relief. But putting the onus on Aereo does give Congress incentive to clear up a regulatory framework that assumes the primacy of the obsolete technology of cable television and undermines the potential of broadcasting, while creating perverse and unintentional disincentives for maximizing the distribution of content.

An Open Letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

To: Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler
CC: Other FCC commissioners, the United States Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, the House Energy Subcommittee on Communications and Technology (and any other interested members of the House of Representatives), the National Association of Broadcasters, and all concerned citizens reading on

Read moreAn Open Letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Bruce et al v. Gore and Al Jazeera: Why the sale of Current is undeniably a good thing for any neutral observer

Imagine my surprise when I checked Twitter last night to find that “Al Gore” was trending, considering I happen to follow him and he hadn’t really tweeted all day. Then imagine my surprise to click it and find the headline:

Al-Jazeera in talks to buy Current TV

“Huh”, I think. “That’s interesting, and makes a bit of sense. It’s not too different from when Al Gore bought the old NWI network in the first place – effectively inheriting existing distribution deals. Al Jazeera has made zero inroads at penetrating the American market, while beIN Sport has been more successful, for certain definitions of “successful” (scroll about halfway down), suggesting their reputation might not necessarily be a deal-breaker given the right circumstances. It’d be interesting to see what sort of a splash Current could make with Al Jazeera’s financial and journalistic resources.”

Then I see the actual tweets:

I wonder how @algore is going to spend all his oil money he received from selling Current?

Is it me or does it seems like prominent climate activists (Matt Damon & Al Gore) seem very happy to take money from oil rich Arab nations.

Inconvenient Truth: Environmentalist Al Gore sold out to oil money, did so just in time to take advantage of tax benefits for the very rich

Al Gore is trending because he just made 100 million dollars from the oil he’s been railing against for the last couple decades.

Needless to say, this pretty much mirrors the reaction of the conservative blogosphere (along with accusing Gore of trying to push a deal through before tax hikes kicked in, ignoring the larger liberal justification for high taxes on the upper classes).

Alright, let’s set the record straight here. Oversimplifying Al Jazeera to “oil money” sells them short quite a bit, and accusing Gore of cashing out without regard for his principles seems to overlook the broader picture. First of all, on a basic and obvious level, Al Jazeera first became a dirty word for Americans with their release of Osama bin Laden’s tapes, so they have a history of running afoul of Republicans, making them and Al Gore good bedfellows. But more broadly, it highlights a sort of journalism it’s impossible to imagine today’s American “journalists” ever pulling off. As much as simply hearing the name (or even the “Al” followed by a word that triggers spell check) can cause some Americans to instinctively retch, Al Jazeera’s record really is top-notch; specifically, it’s clear that Al Jazeera isn’t a lapdog for Arab oil sheiks, given their record of reporting on the Arab Spring and other rebellions in the region, suggesting the prospect of a surprisingly smooth transition for Current, as Gore would himself point out. Given the state of American “journalism” these days, perhaps we could use Al Jazeera to show everyone how it’s really done.

It’s true that Al Jazeera is in fact owned by an Arab oil sheikh on behalf of the ruler of Qatar, but that brings us to the next point: as much as the oil-rich nations of the Gulf get rich off of selling us the fuel we need to power our cars, and as much as OPEC tries to make sure we continue to do so, they’re also well aware the oil river won’t run forever and have invested heavily in developing their countries to be economic powers even beyond their oil production, which news-watchers saw hints of in the Twitter-fueled response to the disputed 2008 Iranian election, and later in the more tech-savvy elements of the Arab Spring. In Qatar’s case in particular, said ruler has presided over, besides the launch of Al Jazeera, the institution of women’s suffrage, legalization of labor unions, and the introduction of a written constitution and Christianity; it’s hard to find another Arab nation quite so Westernized, certainly not one that hasn’t had Americans push “regime change” on them. (They’re still too small and hot to host a World Cup, though.) Admittedly, it has long been the single most polluting nation per capita in the world, but it’s easy to see that dropping faster than most other Arab nations.

It’s also true that Al Jazeera will be shuttering Current’s current (heh) format in favor of more of a straight news channel, bolstering the image of Gore abandoning his principles when someone comes calling with a multi-billion-dollar check. But it’s worth noting that since Gore bought NWI, MSNBC has become the liberal news channel Gore originally hoped to build, rendering Current superfluous; Current essentially lucked into taking up Gore’s original vision when MSNBC fired Keith Olbermann, but it was never going to measure up to MSNBC, certainly not after firing Olbermann itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gore had eventually sold Current to someone else for less. If anything, while Al Jazeera’s apparent plans to create another clone of its usual operations are noble, they might well betray a lack of understanding of the American news market, where people would rather hear people complain, preach, and bicker about the news than actually report it. At the very least, I’d strongly urge them to avoid the “Al Jazeera” name, which might well still be a poison pill for most Americans, if not for the name itself then certainly for its “foreign” connotations. (There’s a reason BBC News has a very limited American presence; indeed upon learning of the deal, Time Warner Cable couldn’t drop the channel fast enough.)

Discounting such questions on the wisdom and practicality of the matter, this court finds the prospect of a somewhat widely distributed network run by Al Jazeera to be a cause for unbridled hope for those fearful for the state of journalism on American television, assuming Al Jazeera can properly appeal to the American market. Given this, and given the long-term prospects of Current in its current form considering the rest of the marketplace, the court finds that despite unsavory appearances, there is no reason to believe that Gore’s sale of Current was done without regard to his own stated and personal principles, but rather was done out of genuine appreciation of their vision for the channel, and indeed the court suspects Gore would actually prefer their vision but was pessimistic about its practicality when he originally made noise about a liberal news channel. While he cannot be let completely off the hook for effectively selling to the ruler of one of the dirtiest countries in the world, the court has reason to believe that Gore can justifiably claim that it is not a betrayal of his own cause. This court rules in favor of Al Gore and Al Jazeera, with some reservations, including serious lingering ones regarding the timing of the matter vis-a-vis new tax rules.

Occupying the Republican Party

I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up, because it’s looked like it before, but I’m starting to wonder if the 2012 election may mark the start of us climbing out of our long national delusion.

A common post-mortem from all sides of the aisle in the aftermath of the election, starting even on election night, has been hand-wringing over the future of the Republican Party. I’m not going to read too much into the Republican Party’s inability to defeat President Obama with the worst unemployment to get a president re-elected since FDR; this just so happens to be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and people still pin the blame for it on the Republicans. Still, it’s incredible to follow the arc of the Republican Party over the last decade-plus.

Back in 2008, I suggested that the abuses of the Bush administration had so tainted the image of the Republicans that an Obama administration would either pave the way for a serious third-party or independent run in 2012, or give the Democrats a blank check for a generation. What I didn’t anticipate was the complete re-brand of the Republican party that the Tea Party constituted, as the complete antithesis of everything the Bush administration amounted to, whether or not it actually practiced what it preached. Nor did I anticipate that the Tea Party would completely hollow out the Republican Party before flaming out, effectively forcing it into a substandard candidate – running as a moderate four years after running as the conservative – because he was the least crazy of the bunch. (Meanwhile, the Tea Party’s godfather, Ron Paul, for some reason barely did better than in 2008, which probably says a lot about the honesty of the Tea Party’s position.)

Nor did I anticipate that by the time it was through, the Tea Party would leave the Republican party in shambles anyway, the last flameout of a group of old, crusty baby-boomers unwilling to face up to the fact that their power is inexorably waning. Now it’s hard to see where the party’s future realistically lies. They’ve spent years antagonizing minorities when the country is soon to become a majority-minority nation, including the Hispanic community that might have otherwise seemed to be their future base, not to mention women, who are only half the country’s population, and the cities, where the population will continue to concentrate, and when everyone lives in global-warming-induced hell they’ll remember that it was the Republicans who closed people’s eyes to it even as it was happening. Perhaps most worryingly, while the last four years have hardly been sufficient to give the Democrats a blank check for a generation, no one in my generation will ever in their right mind identify as a Republican. It’s entirely possible that going forward, 300 electoral votes will be the bare minimum for a Democratic presidential candidate against a Republican opponent.

This isn’t a recipe for good government. It’s a recipe for some pretty bad people ending up in positions of high government and, were it not for the Democratic propensity for hand-wringing even when they have the numbers to ramrod any bill they want through Congress, the remaking of the country to fit a particular political agenda, even when that agenda might be wrong. The Republican party has been a force in politics for over 150 years, longer than any other opposition party to the Democrats and indeed well over half the entire history of the two-party system, but now it may well be in bad enough shape that it’s in the twilight of its power and influence. The two-party system is bad enough, but the country cannot long stand as a one-party system. If the Republicans are falling away, we’re going to need a new party as a replacement.

What is needed is a political party that can defend the principles of small government and the free market while still being rooted in reality, that isn’t blinded by ideology but can actually propose sensible solutions that doesn’t increase reliance on government or strangle the economy, taking over for Republicans as they wane and standing up to Democrats where they’re strong. To the Tea Party, it can position itself as the true defender of small government, abstaining from blindly throwing several times more money at defense than we actually need; to the Occupiers, it can position itself as the true defender of the people, making sure that corporate oppression isn’t merely replaced by government dependence. Perhaps that can involve a takeover of an existing political party, though as above I don’t see anyone of my generation swallowing their pride and becoming a Republican anytime soon. Perhaps people can flock to a third party, though those tend to be filled with extremists once you dig far enough into their positions, since all the sensible people are working within the two-party system, and they’re not likely to compromise their principles. Or perhaps it’s time for a brand-new political party that can bring balance and common sense into politics.

Whatever the case, if we are witnessing the twilight of the Republican Party, it’s imperative that we get to work building its replacement, and building its rise through the halls of power, in the hope that a reset political landscape can bring the American political discourse back to sanity and reality.

The Occupy Tea Party Platform, Part V: Balancing the Budget

It’s not hard to figure out why the government has so much trouble balancing the budget and why the national debt keeps ballooning. Americans like their taxes low and their government services high. Democrats fancy themselves Robin Hood, taxing the rich to play for government services for the poor; Republicans want to cut services so they can lower taxes, and both parties are generally only successful at making things worse for the government, but not before wasting a lot of time arguing about it.

The debt ceiling, last year’s “crisis” should have made clear, is wholly ineffective at forcing the government to keep spending down. A balanced budget amendment isn’t the answer; states have balanced budget requirements and lose massive amounts of money anyway because of the use of Stupid Accounting Tricks to hide gazillions of dollars in expenditures off-budget, and in any case such an amendment would rob the government of flexibility during war or recession. What’s needed is to encourage the government not to overspend or undertax during the strong years.

We had a surplus during the Clinton years, when a Democratic president, a Republican Congress, and a strong economy collided to wipe out the budget as a problem. We’ve seen some elements of the solution – bringing defense spending more in line with what America actually needs, for example, and if health care reform works it should actually increase government revenues as health care’s drag on the economy is reduced and the government recoups savings from waste – and we’ll examine more specific points of spending in future posts. In this post, however, we’ll look at more general principles of budget management and taxation.

First, let’s consider how the Republicans claim they can have their cake and eat it too, the Laffer Curve. It seems simple, even obvious: If the government collects tax at a rate of 0%, obviously, they won’t collect anything. On the flip side, if it collects tax at a rate of 100%, no one will be left with any reason to do anything, and the government still won’t collect tax. Hence, it is possible to actually increase government revenues by lowering taxes.

But it doesn’t take long to find problems with it. For one, it seems to rely on an overly rational view of human nature. The Laffer Curve came to prominence during the Reagan years and the 100% tax rate was said to represent what happened in the Soviet Union… except the Soviet Union seemed to work just fine for around 70 years. Most people will do things for reasons other than monetary gain, whether because they’re forced to or they just like the work; I’ve been working on Da Blog for over five and a half years and have barely seen a dime from it.

On the flip side, both the theory and practice of capitalism suggest that people will attempt to squeeze out every last penny they can for themselves. I can’t imagine why the sort of person basic economics proposes, living under a 99% tax rate, wouldn’t still try to do as much work as they could in order to squeeze out that one percent. Granted, this wouldn’t leave people with much money to spend on keeping the economy (and themselves) running, but the government itself could still contribute at least a little to the economy, even if not very well (as in the Soviet case), and both of these still seem to suggest a peak in the Laffer curve somewhere greater than 50%, possibly substantially greater. Right now, the highest marginal income tax rate the United States government levies is a measly 35%.

Until the Reagan years the highest marginal tax rate was 70%. During much of the 50s and until 1965 it was as high as 90%. From the 50s until the Reagan years the top 1% represented less than 10% of all income before taxes, probably closer to 5%; now it’s upwards of 20%. You think maybe there might be a connection there? What if I told you that the lowest marginal tax rate was 10%, not much lower than 35%?

The Tea Party’s counterargument to this is to question the premise of taxing the rich more than the poor at all, which smacks of penalizing the rich for success, stealing their presumably-legitimately-earned money, and implicitly demonizing them. For all that they attack them, after all, the vast majority of “the 99%” would trade places with the 1% in a heartbeat. Many Tea Partiers would rather do away with the progressive income tax entirely, in favor of one of a number of flat tax schemes, and cut back heavily on government services for the poor that provide less incentive to advance to a higher class, and thus less incentive to work. The left, they argue, think that the rich shouldn’t have any advantages over the poor, when that would defeat the purpose of work in the first place. There’s not really any reason for the government to be in the business of redistributing the wealth, and it’s not clear that there’s much economic benefit either; in fact, the rich are more likely to invest their money because the poor have to spend it on their needs, and the former is ultimately better for the economy, since it actually builds the engine instead of just running it.

It’s not an argument that should be dismissed out of hand, though the answers to the questions raised by the “Horatio Alger argument” are mostly out of the scope of this post. We should first mention, however, that to my knowledge, in our tax system no one ends up with less money by making more money. I referred to marginal tax rates earlier; that means that those tax rates only apply to the next dollar you spend. All the income you make within a previous tax bracket is taxed at the rate of that tax bracket. There is no “jumping” from the government taking 10% of your money at one level to 15% of it on the next. By the same token, no one would dare take 80% of a poor person’s money, even if a rich person is also being taxed at 80%.

For now, let’s shift our focus away from communistic “he has more than me and that’s wrong” questions and focus on the question of whether people have enough. Let’s shift the discussion away from “the 99%” and “the 1%” and towards “the 15%” of people that met the Census Bureau’s definition of poverty in 2010 (incidentally, the highest rate since Clinton took office). This could simply refer to people with a lot less money than the super-rich. Or it could refer to people who spend all their money on keeping themselves alive with nothing to spend on anything else, and not necessarily doing a good job of that, so that they end up spending a lot of money on junk food. It could refer to people who live in poorly-constructed houses or apartments, possibly in intense filth and squalor and near sites of pollution, if they have a home at all. It could refer to places where people have so little that gangs arise to protect what they do have and drugs become rampant to take one’s mind off their condition, leading to mass imprisonment.

It may not be clear that redistributing the wealth is within government’s purview, but reducing poverty surely is, at least indirectly, allowing the government to spend less on prisons, the health system, police, and the drug war. If nothing else I could argue for the provision of basic income or negative income tax, a compromise whereby the Tea Party gets their flat income tax (perhaps in the 20-50% range), but the government also pays a flat amount to every citizen in the United States. This wouldn’t be enough to allow or encourage people to stop working en masse, but it would be enough to keep people alive and give them a place to live; I’d imagine it would be at least as much as a part-time minimum wage job, perhaps the amount of the federal poverty level. That might allow for the dismantling of most welfare programs, as well as cuts in other programs such as Social Security, which might mean the government comes out ahead in the long run.

(The FairTax proposal advanced by some within the Tea Party contains elements of this, replacing the income tax component with a sales tax that has the added effect of encouraging investment, though relative to current tax policies it would hit the middle class harder than the wealthy, and such a tax (probably more than double current state sales taxes, close to triple) could result in massive evasion.)

We’ll see in later posts how, Horatio Alger aside, the rich tend to have advantages that mean their children are far more likely to stay rich than poorer children are to become rich; for example, investment is not only better for the economy, but it also ends up returning money back to the investor, allowing the rich to get even richer. There are probably better ways to correct this imbalance than simply taxing the rich more, but I do have a problem with lowering or repealing the capital gains tax, as it smacks of opening a loophole in the income tax system (I’d support making the capital gains tax equivalent to the income tax), and I’m actually a bit mystified as to why anyone who supposedly believes in the ideal of Horatio Alger would oppose the estate tax, as it lessens the “Paris Hilton effect” of simply having daddy’s fortune plop into someone’s lap without doing any work. Since land isn’t something you actually work for, but rather is something that’s just there, I could also see the argument for a Georgist tax on land value, which could also have environmental benefits.

By raising taxes on the wealthy and/or reforming and simplifying the tax code, combined with finding a way to curb pork, unnecessary and harmful subsidies, and wasteful spending, and enacting reforms in other areas of government, we can create a streamlined, efficient government that works for everyone and still makes headway on the national debt. That’s a vision of the government that everyone can get behind.