Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Limits of Bi-Partisanship

One of the reasons that John McCain is unlikely to win this election is that he has no coherent or realistic plan for actually accomplishing anything that he is proposing. (In addition to that, his ideas aren't all that popular with most people, but that is another subject.) Somebody should press John McCain about how he expects to get any of his proposals passed into law given that the Congress will most likely be overwhelmingly Democratic. McCain would no doubt give his usual answer about how he has a history of reaching out to the opposition party to pass campaign finance reform and reach agreement on other issues, but since his move to the right over the last few years in preparation for running for president, he has a lot less ability to do that. John McCain was never even that popular in his own party, and would face hostility from both sides of the aisle given the divisive nature of his campaign.

So McCain can talk all he wants about not raising taxes on the rich, but the reality is that the Bush tax cuts expire next year, and he would need a majority of the Congress to vote to extend them. That would not be likely to happen. McCain can talk about his plan to move health care away from an employer-based system, to some kind of partially-subsidized individual system, but a majority of Congress is never going to pass any such thing. McCain can talk about staying the course in Iraq, but even the government of Iraq is not going to agree to a permanent US presence in that country, and Congress would not fund it.

We focus so much on the Presidential race, and neglect the importance of Congress, that we forget that the President does not really control the government, especially on domestic issues, unless he has substantial support in Congress. In most democracies in the world, the government cannot even function at all unless they can assemble a working parliamentary majority. Our government is designed to operate even if the Congress and President are from different parties, but it certainly doesn't produce the results that the President wants if the Congress is hostile.

So while McCain tries to scare people by raising the spectre of an unholy Obama-Pelosi-Reid troika, the reality is that a Democratic-controlled Congress and Executive branch will actually be able to put a coherent program into place; while on the other hand a McCain led government is a recipe for gridlock. McCain cannot promise anything better than that.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Joe the Plumber

Joe, who is not even a licensed plumber, does not really understand Obama's tax plan, but mistakenly believes that it will adversely affect him. He became famous after Obama tried to explain to Joe on videotape that even if Joe were to find himself making over $250,000 per year, he should not be too upset about having to pay 39% of his income in taxes instead of 36% because that is fair. But Joe is not buying that explanation because he has bought into the Republican mythology that taxes are always bad, and that even middle class people should be against taxes because they might be rich some day.

Joe should be thinking about whether it is really smart to finance the US government by excessive borrowing instead of taxes, which will mean that his grandchildren will have to pay these debts back with interest. He should be thinking about whether the recession which has been exacerbated by Republican policies of lax bank regulation may be more harmful to his business than any proposed Democratic tax increases. He should be educated on how the economy almost always grows faster under Democratic administrations than Republican administrations. But instead he is afraid of the tax bogeyman that the Republicans always use to scare voters, and he is seduced by the phony promises of the Republicans that we are going to be able to cut everyone's taxes and we will never have to pay for those tax cuts. Voters like Joe have allowed the Republicans to cut the taxes of the rich by enormous amounts in exchange for a pittance in tax cuts, which end up being outweighed by job and income losses, and by government service cuts that harm people like Joe the plumber the most.

Joe the plumber's story therefore does not even support the McCain program, but since Joe is deluded enough to buy what the Republicans have been selling, the McCain camp is cynically using him to falsely claim that Obama's economic plan is bad for the average Joe. Notice that they never talk about the actual facts of Joe's situation, and in fact protest when the media has attempted to investigate the facts. Instead they are relying on a character who simply thinks he will be hurt by the Democratic program, without regard to the truth. The Joe the plumber that McCain keeps talking about is therefore no more real than the Harry and Louise commercials that were used to defeat Clinton's health care plan in the 90's. But the big lie has worked before, so McCain hopes it will work again this year.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Presidents and taxes

The parts of the presidential debates I find the most disheartening occur when the candidates try to out-do each other on who will cut taxes the most. These promises can get the candidates in trouble later (as most famously happened to the first president Bush) if they have to reverse themselves and support tax increases. They also ignore some obvious limitations on the President's power to cut taxes. The first is that the Constitution places the responsibility for raising taxes on the House of Representatives, not the President. The president can submit a budget to Congress, but the President's budget is just a suggestion, and can be completely ignored. So for a presidential candidate to say that he will cut taxes is like saying that he will ask the House Ways and Means Committee to disregard its own Constitutional responsibilities and submit to the President's will. If this kind of formulation is just shorthand for saying that the President will propose tax cuts to the Congress, or will threaten to veto tax increases by Congress, it is still a dangerous kind of shorthand, as it perpetuates the idea that governmental power is all concentrated in the President's office, and that the President is some kind of ruler over Congress.

The power to cut taxes is also constrained by external forces. The only way the government can continue to cut taxes is if it retains the ability to borrow the necessary sums of money to maintain the level of government spending that we all seem to want. If the investors who buy Treasury bills find a better investment, or become worried by the dangerous levels of borrowing that the government is engaged in, then we will find ourselves maxed out on the national credit card. We seem to be headed for that kind of limitation. When the government is no longer able to borrow the sums needed for these approved levels of spending, as happened to New York City in the 1970's, it has only two choices: raise taxes or reduce services. More likely it will have to do both.

It would be preferable for the candidates to focus more on the costs and benefits of the programs they support, and when they do address taxes, to focus more on the fairness issues in the various kinds of taxes (progressivity, income vs. sales tax, corporate and capital gains taxes, payroll taxes, etc.) Whether we overall cut or raise taxes only becomes a concern after we have addressed both these issues first, and should be addressed only as a question of the desirability as a matter of fiscal policy of maintaining deficit or surplus to whatever extent. Talking about cutting taxes, before addressing what programs should be eliminated or reduced to make up for those tax cuts, or before talking responsibly about how large a deficit we should run, is putting the cart before the horse.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Health Care is a Right.

One of the best questions from the debate last night was whether health care is a right or a responsibility. This is where Barack Obama clearly differentiated himself from John McCain. John McCain is not comfortable with the whole idea of entitlements. He thinks Social Security is a disgrace. He would like to cut way back on Medicare and Medicaid. And he has no interest in creating a rational system for health insurance for the rest of us. He'll just give everyone another $5000 tax cut and then tell us we're all on our own for obtaining health insurance. So he refused to recognize that health care is a right, and wants to keep the government out of the health insurance business, even though he has benefited from government-sponsored health insurance his entire life.

To say that health insurance is a right, as Barack Obama had no hesitation in doing, is not to say that we all don't have to pay for it. But it is a recognition that we all have to pay for it collectively in a way that adequately takes care of everyone in this society. In other words, once health care is recognized as a right, then society collectively has to assume responsibility for paying for it, and insurance companies can spend less time and money avoiding the responsibility of paying for coverage. We have already accepted this collective responsibility for seniors, for poor people, and for veterans. Now we have to replace the crazy patchwork system for the rest of us with universal coverage.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Anti-Intellectualism in American Politics

Sarah Palin represents but the latest manifestation of the long history of anti-intellectualism in American politics. Why is it that Americans are distrustful of candidates with strong academic credentials, and who have a deep understanding of political or philosophical issues? In Europe for the most part successful, serious candidates for high office are expected to be knowledgeable and well-spoken. But in the US, a significant portion of the electorate would just as soon that their candidates display no more than a high school understanding of the issues.

Repeatedly during the vice-presidential debate, Palin demonstrated that she has no idea what she is talking about. She completely ducked a question about bankruptcy law, seeming to indicate that she has little knowledge of the changes recently enacted by Congress. (Her ignorance caused her to miss an opportunity to attack Biden for supporting legislation that was deeply desired by his constituents in the credit card industry centered in Delaware.) Palin kept talking about rooting out corruption and fraud on Wall Street, but gave not a hint of how she thought the government should do that. She seemed not to understand the constitutional position of the vice-president, or to have given much thought to whether Dick Cheney has abused the office, or whether she would govern in the same secretive manner he has. And beyond talking about how much she loves Israel, she has shown no comprehension of the complicated issues that have blocked peace in the Middle East for decades, or no idea of how she would advance the process.

McCain-Palin supporters complain that the media has been too harsh in attacking Palin's frequent inability to answer questions. I think they have been much too kind. It should be the media's job to encourage the public to respect candidates who have given some serious thought to serious issues. Instead, the media encourages the same kind of superficial thinking that has made Sarah Palin a star. The only encouraging news is that while many of the TV talking heads wanted to score the debate a tie, most of the public seemed to think that Biden won decisively. Could it be that most of the electorate this year may be grown-up enough to see through the simplistic answers of a C student of politics, and may instead be looking for something more substantive?