Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Brookings Has Us Covered Re: Iraq Progress

Last time I believe I was saying something about using quantitative data to track progress in Iraq . . . turns out the Brookings Institution's been doing that for years now. What I can't figure out is why people don't cite their reports more often; they encapsulate the state of Operation Iraqi Freedom better than anything else I've yet seen. I've reproduced four informative graphs from their semi-weekly updated Iraq Index that exemplify what I was talking about in my last post, but you really should check out the whole thing.

First up, troop deaths since March '03:

As you can see, not very encouraging. Mountainous terrain on a graph never looks good when we're talking about people's lives. Better than a steady slope upward, obviously, but certainly nothing that indicates that our job is anywhere close to complete. On to car bombs:

Ooh, that's not good. I guess you could extrapolate from May forward that we're on the verge of an extended downward slide, which would be great, but as it is we're nowhere near the lows of last summer. Next we have electricity output:

Now this one's a bit tougher to interpret at first glance, but compare the estimated prewar megawattage to the August 2005 output level and you'll see that we're just about breaking even after well over two years. Add that to the fact that "inadequate electricity" was by far the most-cited problem in a survey (included in the Index) asking Iraqis about the issues that affect them most, and it's clear that we're nowhere near where we need to be in this area.

Finally, oil export revenue:

I'm no shill, so I'll give credit where credit is due: revenues have been climbing steadily since the war began. But the real questions here concern where that money is going: infrastructure? Native Iraqi business investment? Or into the pockets of tribal and other partisan interests? Will the Iraqis ever be able to agree on how to share the money fairly given that "many [oil-dependent states] stagnate economically and deteriorate politically, or even worse, become engulfed in vicious armed conflicts?" What we see in the above graph is a good start, but it's worthless unless accompanied by strong investments in oil production facilities and real policy work on fabricating a revenue distribution system that all three ethnic groups can reliably support.

And there you have it: the next time you hear someone complaining that the left-wing American MSM isn't reporting all the great stuff going on in Iraq, point 'em to the Iraq Index. Brookings is one of the nation's oldest and most respected think tanks, with a tradition of first-rate scholarship untrammeled by partisan concerns. Scattered wire reports and noisy talking heads can't give us a clear picture of where Iraq is headed; nothing less than Brookings-esque empirical research can.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Most Revelatory Sentence I've Ever Read on Iraq

. . . comes from that recent Foreign Affairs article everyone's talking about, and it goes like this:
Without a clear strategy in Iraq, moreover, there is no good way to gauge progress.
Yeah, I know it seems pretty obvious, but allow me to explain. Hawks love to talk about how the media downplay everything that's going "right" in Iraq at the expense of the gory, eyeball-drawing details. They chalk this perspective up not only to liberal bias but also to "disaster bias"--the overarching journalistic tendency to focus on failures, destruction, and death over successes, which mostly consist of people not dying and property not getting blown up. So they look to sources like Chris Hitchens, Arthur Chrenkoff, and assorted National Review pundits for counterbalance. Meanwhile, doves and other war opponents have to look no further than the mainstream media and anti-war Democrats like Dick Durbin and Max Cleland for confirmation that the whole adventure is turning out a quagmire, just like they said it would in the beginning.

And thus the controversy thrashes, week in and week out, without ever getting anywhere. For each new negative factoid the doves fire off, the hawks retaliate with a positive counterfactoid, and the end result amounts to little more than a disorganized heap of mixed data. But what if instead of using individual data points as ideological ammo, we had a specific set of goals to plug each bit of info into? These goals could include "reducing the number of American and Iraqi casualties per month," "reducing the number of car bombings per month," "increasing electricity production," and "increasing the amount of potable water to the civilian populace." Then we could look at the data available on each goal to see how we're moving toward them. For example, steadily declining numbers of troop deaths over a period of months would indicate progress and vindicate current strategies, while increasing or erratic numbers would suggest changing strategies.

The Bush administration could help us out by publicizing empirical goals like these so that we could keep track of their advancement. But Bush has found that most rank-and-file war supporters are satisfied with the simple amorphousness of the word "progress," so he has little political incentive to stop using it. Besides, operationalizing progress significantly increases demand for success, because poor numbers stir up calls for accountability and, if they're bad enough for long enough, ouster. So the goals are kept as vague as possible, to the point that even the military's top brass admit that they don't know what they're working toward.

It should go without saying that that's a huge problem. And I'd never before considered just how crucial it is to define one's goals quantitatively when prosecuting a war. If you want to win, you have to have both a detailed picture in black and white of what winning will look like as well as an equally detailed strategy for actually winning. If you don't, you're just flushing valuable lives and money down the toilet.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Quick: Define 'Untenable'.

The only 'drugs' in which I indulge are alcohol and caffeine, the latter only on occasion. But I firmly oppose the government's War on Drugs, mainly because of the severely logic-impaired arguments drug war proponents insist on advancing. Two very recent examples come from NYT columnist John Tierney and the Rocky Mountain News (via Amygdala). Tierney's column starts off talking about federal efforts to stonewall scientific marijuana use, and then segues into a more general vignette-fueled attack against the government's anti-pot prejudices. The DEA, it seems, is not above prosecuting well-respected scientists and dying cancer patients who use pot outside the agency's extremely narrow official strictures. The familiar "gateway drug" justification has been exposed as a canard, but even if it was valid, it wouldn't apply to medical or scientific cases anyway.

The RMN story covers a Denver ballot initiative scheduled for November that would legalize adult use of small amounts of marijuana. Even if it passes, users could still be held culpable under state and federal law. But the following quote really drives home the drug warriors' deep-rooted anti-intellectualist streak:

"This initiative shouldn't even be here at the local level," said Councilman Michael Hancock, one of the measure's most vocal critics. "I've seen the devastating effects of drugs in our urban city.

"I have no tolerance for these kinds of discussions. It has no place in the public dialogue."

Two rhetorical elements jump out at me here. We'll start with the second one: drug policy debates have "no place in the public dialogue?" The way "let's take out Chavez" has no place in the public dialogue? There's a pretty big difference between saying you don't agree with a proposed idea and saying you don't think it should be discussed at all. I think the value of gay civil unions, for example, is abundantly clear already, but if others disagree, let each side try to recruit majorities to their respective stances through discussion. This nation is still a nominal democracy, after all.

It's also noteworthy that our stalwart drug warrior knows well "the devastating effects of drugs in our urban city." In accepting the government's conceptual frame of "drugs" as a monolithic catch-all category, he's blinded himself to crucial typological distinctions that could save millions in public money and wasted effort, not to mention countless lives and livelihoods. For Councilman Hancock, there is no issue to debate: drugs are bad. Period. This triumph of dogma over empiricism may help anti-drug advocates sleep at night, but Tierney's column lays bare its fatal flaws.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Stewart vs. Hitchens

Pretty entertaining. Via Crooks & Liars.

The thing that kills me most about these heartfelt war defenses is that most supporters probably would proclaimed imminently necessary whatever post-9/11 international strategy Bush chose, just so long as it involved kicking some Middle Eastern ass. Like Alan Jackson, most of America can't even locate Iraq on a map, much less explain why invading it would make more sense from a GWOT (excuse me, GSAVE) perspective than chasing down Bin Laden, staying the course in Afghanistan, ratcheting up diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia, or countless other foreign policy alternatives. The American people wanted their national guns pointed at Muslims; it didn't much matter exactly who they were or whether they had anything to do with 9/11. It's just like religion: the dogmatic particulars people subscribe to are usually determined by forces outside their control (e.g. accident of birth), but they'll defend their faith passionately as the one true way nonetheless. Completely ridiculous.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Praxywatch: Batty Brits vs. the PNAC

I have a show to play tonight, so I'll present this bit of British far-left moonbattery without much commentary. It's visually striking, provocative, and almost completely free of supporting evidence. I really could've done without the apologia for the 9/11 hijackers though.

Edit: Apparently I'm way behind the times and this thing is really old, so apologies to everyone who was more on the ball than me when this thing came out.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The ONDCP Still Sucks

I'm a bit slow on the uptake for this one, but a couple days ago Mark Kleiman drew my attention to a welcome development--the ONDCP (the federal department behind all the "My Anti-Drug" spots, among others) actually making some goddamn sense for a change. Or are they? Have a look:

For several years the White House has focused the national antidrug strategy on marijuana, arguing that it is the most widely used drug, particularly among high school students, and can be a gateway to more serious drug use. Officials have continued to emphasize that in recent months, even as law enforcement officials across the country pleaded for more help fighting meth, a drug made using chemicals commonly found in cold medicine or on farms.

But local officials and members of Congress from both parties have argued increasingly loudly that meth, which is highly addictive, is the real problem. They say the administration has virtually ignored the problem despite the devastation it has caused in many parts of the middle of the country - increasing crime, crowding jails and leaving more children neglected or abandoned.

The federal officials here Thursday insisted that no drug took precedence.

Credible commitment or administration lip service? Kleiman seems optimistic, but I'm not so sure. According to the article, the ONDCP has focused its efforts disproportionately against marijuana consumption at the expense of efforts against more dangerous drugs, "local officials and members of Congress from both parties have argued." Drug czar John Walters insists his department can "walk and chew gum at the same time" and that "[the ONDCP is] concerned about substance abuse generally," but since meth is now widely considered America's most dangerous drug, a sea change is definitely in order.

Some in the administration resist such a shift ". . . because there are about 15 million users of [marijuana], compared with about 1 million users of meth." This has gotta be the lamest argument I've run across since FairTax. If the drug's effects weren't that serious, what would it matter how many users there were? But the deeper issue here concerns how the ONDCP portrays the blanket category of "drugs." Marijuana is only a problem if two conditions prevail: (1) it has significant negative health effects and (2) lots of people use it and perceive that such use isn't a big deal. That's why the only two rhetorical targets the ONDCP discusses in its ads are pot and "drugs" as an amorphous category. But if the organization were to start talking about meth's true effects, it would undercut its own rationale for having focused for so many years on something as comparatively harmless as pot.

The ONDCP knows that critical analysis is propaganda's natural enemy, which is why the department's ads paint such simplistic pictures. As long as we know that weed is bad and everything else is worse, they feel they've done their job. But what would happen if the ONDCP were to allow its ad audiences to compare what meth typically does to a person to what weed does? What if they started presenting stats on meth-related crime, job loss, health detriments, and child neglect? It would really take the wind out of the sails of those who are hell-bent on convincing us that marijuana is a terrible, life-ruining substance. And the people who staked their entire careers on focusing ONDCP's efforts primarily against pot just can't abide that.

So don't expect to see any major anti-meth propaganda campaigns emerging anytime soon. And while all the White House Drug Policy bureaucrats sit around indulging in weed-fueled cognitive dissonance, a real epidemic will continue to go unaddressed by the federal government.

Saturday, August 20, 2005


Just for fun--this is the photo Al-Jazeera chose to run in an article about the Pope's recent exhortation to Muslims to fight terrorism. Not very flattering, but is it exactly propaganda? I'm not Catholic; maybe he looks like that all the time. Maybe there's no way to get a flattering shot of anyone at the age of 78. I mean, who's to say, right?

OMG Missing Nonwhite Woman on FoxNews!

Amazing--FoxNews puts the story of a missing black woman on the web equivalent of A1. I guess this can be considered progress of a sort, in that minority desaparecidas are starting to receive the same treatment as their white counterparts, but I still question the value of this entire genre of news. In the words of Gruff Rhys, "How will all this affect me now?"

Edit: Oh shit, CNN too. I can think of about a dozen better things to run front-and-center on slow news days: Darfur? Afghanistan? Maybe something on the gathering strength of alternative tax schemes, or the fact that Scotland Yard isn't revising their "shoot-to-kill" policy? But I guess my lofty expectations are misplaced. According to Thursday's post, I should focus my indignation on the fact that most Americans expect the news to entertain and titillate rather than educate, but now I'm starting to see Stewart's motivation--big media's such a prominent, inviting target . . . !

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Stewart's Lament

One of the things people love about the Daily Show is how "hip" Jon Stewart is. His fake-news-show-host persona brilliantly sends up the stodgy, white, impassive talking-head stereotype that every news station in America follows to the letter. But there is at least one respect in which Stewart is hopelessly old-fashioned: his Jeffersonian ideal of the press as some kind of selfless public service whose only goal is to help people better understand the issues that shape our world. In the following quote, transcribed from the audiobook version of America: The Book, Stewart phrases this opinion with unequivocal profanity:
A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy. It serves to inform the voting public on matters relevant to its well-being. Why they've stopped doing that is a mystery. I mean, 300 camera crews outside a courthouse to see what Kobe Bryant is wearing when the judge sets his hearing date while false information used to send our country to war goes unchecked . . . what the fuck happened? These spineless cowards in the press have finally gone too far, they have violated a trust . . . "Was the president successful in convincing the country?" Who gives a shit? Why not tell us if what he said was true? And the excuses, my god, the excuses! "Hey, we just give the people what they want. What can we do? This administration is secretive. Uhh, but the last season of Friends really is news!" The unmitigated gall of these weak-willed--you're supposed to be helping us! You indecent piles of shit, I--Fuck it, just fuck it!
As you can see, Jon Stewart is very, very angry at the US news media. He manages to hide it fairly well underneath a thick coating of really funny satire, but this quote gives us a rare glimpse beyond the veil into his real opinion of the state of the press today (as did his infamous fit of brutal candor on Crossfire last year). On his show every weeknight Stewart does his best to stem the tide of the media's panderous excesses, but I'm afraid he's fighting a losing battle.

The problem, as usual, is money. In a national media environment dominated by free enterprise, it's not surprising that pluralism would manifest itself in a kind of race to the bottom as CEOs realize that holding people's attention spans is more important than providing quality journalism. Jon blames "spineless" reporting, but he should save his harshest invective for the people who keep swallowing it and thus legitimate the media's market-driven priorities.

Of course, his criticisms are neither unfounded nor original. Stewart no doubt looks back fondly on the days of Watergate and groundbreaking, unflinching Vietnam War coverage, a time when a fiercely independent press bucked government priorities and audience expectations to tell "the real story." So what's changed? Several things, most notably media consolidation and an ever-expanding battle between content providers for American attention. Both of these forces work to deprioritize whatever doesn't sell in favor of whatever does, even if quality journalism falls in the former category.

Large corporations including Gannett, News Corp., Clearchannel, and AOL/Time Warner have made it their imperative to snap up as many little papers, radio stations, and TV outlets as possible. This assimilationist business model almost of necessity entails tailoring media content to fit viewers' and listeners' preexisting preferences and prejudices as closely as possible to maximize profits. Since the 1970s, staffs have been slashed, use of wire reports has increased, local coverage has decreased, and the remaining content has been homogenized. Plus, the American attention span is more hotly coveted today than ever: the news media now have to contend with the web, video games, instant messaging, mobile phones, and Tivo for a share of it. The upshot of all this is that the current state of the media seems an almost inevitable consequence of the laws of the free market. So much for laissez-faire capitalism always automatically producing the best of all possible worlds.

It doesn't have to be this way, however. The UK is home to one of the world's most highly-regarded news sources, the BBC, which is funded not through advertising but by annual television license payments. Because it is controlled by neither the government nor a profit-driven company, it is theoretically free to operate according to purer journalistic principles untainted by special interests. And the proof is in the pudding: I don't have the empirical studies to back this up, but when was the last time you saw a "missing white girl" story on the Beeb's front page? Plus, its international coverage stands head and shoulders above the best the US has to offer, and it rarely hesitates to deviate from the official line if things smell fishy.

The BBC's closest American equivalent is NPR, which draws well under half of its income from taxes: most of the rest comes from corporate underwriting and member station contributions paid voluntarily by the public. NPR is also significantly smaller than the BBC, which testifies to America's enduring belief that the individual should be the ultimate arbiter of all things. Viewed from this perspective, Stewart's lament looks pretty elitist: if the people want to hear about Tom Cruise, Natalee Holloway and Jacko on the news, who is he to say that's wrong? That's what democracy is all about, after all. I happen to agree with Jon on the merits of his grievances, but I believe that the focus needs to be on educating the populace in responsible citizenship while they're young rather than taking potshots at the media for not dictating to adults what they ought to care about. Under a media setup like ours, the latter plan is doomed to failure.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Demolishing the FairTax (for the last time)

Now don't get me wrong: I'm a huge fan of substantive debate. I really do enjoy it, but this is a blog about propaganda, not policy. So after this post, I'm gonna stop responding to all arguments regarding the FairTax that are not phrased as one-sentence talking points. The reasoning behind this is twofold: one, it saves me time; and two, arguments played out in talking point form more closely mirror the national debate than finely detailed discussions. Besides, it'll be highly stylized and fun, I think. So here we go, last time around: today on the chopping block is commenter Merrill Bender, who took exception to several points I made in my rebuttal to Neal Boortz's response. To wit:
I think the facts, The Research section, the FAQ section, the Rebuttal section provide detailed economic data up to a PhD level in support of the Fair Tax.

. . .

Also check out the link on the left to the "Economists Letter" where 75 nationally known Economists and Economic professors from Harvard, Stanford, Rice, Boston and more come out square in support of this Tax Reform plan.
I don't have the exact citation handy, but the authors of Death by a Thousand Cuts contend that economics is an inexact enough science that lining up experts to support or oppose any given measure is child's play. Now I don't mean to downplay the validity of economics as a science; rather my point is that the debate is best joined on the moral/philosophical level, since all those economists are basing their support around theory and projections rather than proven, prosperous real-world examples.

Besides, fancy figures and quantitative analyses won't convince Middle America because most of them know very little about economics. I'd rather pit narrative against narrative and let the people decide which sounds best to them.

My Biggest reason for support is not hatred of the IRS but in how this can truly untax the working poor. No other proposal eliminates the Payroll tax which is the highest tax that working poor families and many middle class families have to pay.
A noble goal, to be sure. But there are plenty of ways to achieve it, from exempting all wage earners below the poverty line to abolishing Social Security. Not that I necessarily advocate either; I'm just saying it's not like the FairTax is the only game in town for low-income tax relief. And besides that, if the poor are going to receive SS eventually, it's only fair that they should pay something into the system, even if it is just a pittance (unless they're literally struggling to survive).
There are two Governments that are are ranked 15th and 19th in Economic GDP that rely almost solely on Sales or consumption Taxes to fund all Government operations. Florida and Texas.
Well now, here's where things get interesting. Let's begin with Florida: according to Wikipedia, the Sunshine State earns most of its GDP from tourism. What that means is that non-residents, who wouldn't contribute to the tax base under an income tax scheme, provide a significant portion (perhaps even a majority) of Florida's tax revenues when they go there on vacation. Thus the state can easily subsist without an income tax due to its generous coastline and proximity to the equator, but these characteristics obviously don't apply to the US as a whole.

Poking around Wikipedia further on the subject, I ran across another curious factoid: a list of nations that don't levy income taxes (toward the bottom). Not surprisingly, it's rather short, consisting in its entirety of Andorra, the Bahamas, Brunei, Kuwait, and Monaco. What do all these nations have in common? Well, for one thing, they've all got tiny populations (Kuwait is by far the largest at 2.3 million, and the rest all have well under a million), and none are major powers. Beyond that they break down into two categories: tourist traps and rentier states.

Andorra, the Bahamas, and Monaco, like Florida, rely primarily on tourism to support their economies. Thus, the same argument I advanced in reference to the state also applies to those nations. Brunei and Kuwait are what are known in poli-sci circles as rentier states, nations whose governments derive nearly all of their revenue from natural resources and keep the populace essentially disenfranchised with minimal taxation and extensive welfare services. Because the citizens of rentier states pay so little in taxes (actually, individual citizens in Kuwait and Brunei pay no taxes whatsoever), they have no grounds to demand that the government respond to their needs, and political development stagnates.

So, that takes care of Florida and every other income-tax averse nation in the world; on to the glorious state of Texas. The Lone Star State has a diversified economy that's grown steadily over the past 15 years, so I can't use the same tack I took against Florida. But I'll deflate the Texas defense with two observations. The first is that the Texas state government uses more than just sales taxes to fill its coffers: a brief look at RAND Texas' state expenditures page reveals that it also draws money from, among other sources, a state lottery, natural resource taxes, property taxes, "sin" taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, inheritance taxes, and federal funds (like every other state). The second observation involves the significant number of services the federal government provides that state governments don't. In case you're feeling unimaginative, here's a sampling: the branches of the military, the intelligence agencies, the State department, the census department, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the treasury . . . need I continue? (And if you want to argue that there are certain services states provide that the feds don't, such as drivers' licenses and police, feel free--the feds still come out far ahead in the final analysis.)

All of that is to say that the argument that "it works for the states, so it'll work for the federal government" is poorly founded.

And finally, we come to the following piece of silliness:
Even a cursory study of history shows that nation/states that relied on consumption taxes flourished and prospered, supported democracies/republics, had expanding economies, and high levels of civil rights for their citizens. The exact opposite is true for empires that relied on income/poll/head taxes. These taxes were used to support despots, eventually collapsed the economies in which they were applied, and sundered civil rights.
Oh, come on. This line of argument is the rhetorical equivalent of taping a "Kick Me" sign to your own back. Let's take a couple of examples: Sweden taxes its citizens to death by libertarian standards with both income taxes and VATs yet boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world. Hell, the US has had its income tax on the books for 92 years--an era that saw our ascent to the top of the world's economic powers. So how long does the eventual decline take, anyway? And what nations exactly are you talking about that rely only on consumption taxes? A couple miniscule resort states with fewer residents than a mid-size US town? We've already established that those are all that exist in the present day, so if the consumption tax is such a commonsense notion that automatically makes nations prosperous, why hasn't anyone else caught on yet? The other arguments weren't that great, but the appeal to history is just laughable. Income taxes per se a primary cause of despotism and economic collapse? Try governmental profligacy, corruption, and excessive deficit spending, which can occur under any tax system.

But even if all the arguments presented pro the FairTax weren't so weak, I'd still oppose it on principle. Not a single supporter has been able to counter my assertion that every wage earner in this nation owes a portion of his/her paycheck to the government to subsidize the maintenance of civil society. I think of it as a "membership fee" for this great nation that's drawn directly from the living it safeguards your ability to make. And to my mind, abstractly, no tax scheme could be fairer. That's not to say that the current income tax system doesn't need reform, but I'm not wavering from my basic support of an income tax as the backbone of US government revenue. Does that make me a dogmatic income-tax booster? Yeah, kinda. But the FairTax supporters are going to have to work much harder to show how taxing consumption is "fairer" in principle than taxing income if they want my endorsement.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Not that I think this will accomplish much, but just in case any of you are spamming manually: you're wasting your time. No one reads this site, okay? It's just me and a few friends and family, all of whom know well enough not to encourage spam. Go ruin the comment threads on some larger site where you might actually get a few idiot takers, and leave me and my little space alone.

Just as an aside, I think spam/junk mail/telemarketing just might be my single biggest gripe about capitalism. You people are all parasites of the lowest stripe. Parasites!

Monday, August 15, 2005

Parry and Thrust (big ups to NB)

I'd like to start today's post by offering my sincerest thanks to Mr. Neal Boortz. It's not every day that something I've written is addressed by such a major political commentator as yourself. I feel truly honored to be able to rebut your response, and I really mean that. Thanks also to the Boortz brigade for commenting; though I would request that if you're going to criticize me, please refrain from ad hominem or strawmen arguments. But feel free to get as snarky as you please. Thanks!

Let's begin, shall we?
The first thing that you will notice is that most of these people who are sounding the alarm about the FairTax don't really have a clue as to just what the FairTax is.
Well, I can't speak for the commenters, but if the jacket points don't at least give us an idea, whose fault is that?
Search through the postings and you will see that these leftists believe that federal taxes should only be paid by the wealthiest Americans, and that the rest should pay nothing at all.
While this assertion is by no means the consensus view of the commenters, Boortz may be referring to the following comment, which I agree is pretty wacky:
[We should s]hift the tax burden of the country "onto the backs of the rich" with a steeply progressive income tax, one that features rates as high as 50-75% on the highest incomes (for billionaires).

We Democrats should be proposing that wealthy Americans pay for all of the government's expenses because (1) they can afford it, and (2) doing so would impose no material sacrifice whatsoever on them (see )
This guy's off his rocker. While I do believe in the basic concept of progressive taxation, skimming over 50% off the highest tax brackets is simply un-American, I'm sorry. Wealth inequality is an inherent aspect of capitalism, and trying to eliminate the former while keeping the latter is a fool's errand. Some redistribution is necessary and warranted, but 50-75% is just too much. So yeah, Neal, this guy's a moonbat--but everybody wasn't advocating that. Back to Boortz:
Furthermore, they're very upset that the impact of the death tax has been lessened. They don't like the idea that people can pass off their wealth to their children one little bit.
Oh come on, Neal, no one's making this argument. Do you really think the reason we oppose estate tax repeal is that we're irrationally opposed to the concept of inheritance? Get serious. I just happen to think it's a good way of raising gov't revenue without running roughshod over working families, and I grant that it could have used some major reforms.
Thus far I haven't seen a message on this board that accurately describes the impact that the FairTax would have on the poor ... that the poor would be completely relieved of the responsibility for paying any federal taxes whatsoever, and that includes Social Security and Medicare taxes.
A libertarian concerned about the poor?! Alert the media! But seriously, folks . . . let's rap for a second about another "accurate impact," namely, the massive black market that's gonna open up for every commodity. You thought income tax evasion was widespread? What's gonna happen when people start undercutting the FairTax by selling everything from diapers to donuts out of the trunks of their cars? Can you say "unenforceable"? And these are the people who claim to "get" human nature so well?
And what's the big deal about progressivity anyway. These people aren't concerned about the impact of tax policy on our economy. They aren't concerned about whether or not the FairTax would fund our government at its current levels.
Here's the crux of the issue, Neal: I'm sure you've done all sorts of economic projections and accounted for every imaginable scenario for your little scheme, but the fact remains that you have no empirical data to speak of. This plan has never been tried before. Anywhere. So by adopting it, we'd be taking an enormous gamble on our economy's well-being. And I do love you guys, but frankly, I just don't trust you that much. Our current system may not be perfect, but it's worked pretty well for 92 years and that's a sterling historical endorsement if you ask me.
They view the tax structure as a way to reward and punish behavior; and the behavior they most want to punish is individual excellence and achievement.
Liberals hate making money and love mediocrity and failure, you see; that's the origin of the term 'limousine liberal'. Oh, wait . . . Do you people even listen to yourselves? Don't you think there must be a more plausible explanation, like maybe we view progressive taxation as the least objectionable option among many? Contrary to popular belief on the right, we do not have a tax fetish; we just don't think the poor should used as chattel. And if it takes tax dollars and government regulation to ensure against that scenario, so be it. If the captains of industry would exercise a little self-control now and again, all that might not be necessary.

Well, it looks like Neal has pretty much gone off the deep end, so I'll end this rebuttal with the following quote:
These government-educated myrmidons
Would that it were so, Neal, would that it were so. If we truly were the conformist sheeple you paint us as, we'd be able to mount a much more formidable opposition! United in our quest to redistribute equally all of America's hard-earned cash, we would take on the right with a singlemindedness not seen since Invasion of the Body Snatchers! Yes, you really should consider yourself lucky that we are such squabbling free-thinkers, Neal; it's the only thing that's keeping us from taking over.

Whew, that was fun! Let's do this again sometime. But ease up on the personal attacks next time, kthxbyee! ~DÆN

They Noticed!

Whoa, looks like Neil Boortz caught wind of my little screed against the "FairTax" and decided to fire back. I'm truly honored. Although I'm not nearly as learned a man as he, I'll do my best to respond to his responses, probably later tonight or tomorrow.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Praxywatch: The National Guard vs. America's Youth

Found this little gem emblazoned across the top of my screen while looking up bands on the All Music Guide:

First things first: freedom doesn't 'rock'. AC/DC rocks. Led Zeppelin rocks. That is to say, freedom is not a discretionary aspect of an artistic subculture, it is an absolutely integral ingredient for every functional democracy. Somehow, the tagline "freedom rocks" doesn't quite manage to capture that gravitas. I'm not even going to go into the irony of abridging one's own personal freedom (by enlisting in the military) to protect everyone else's.

Now that that's out of the way, let's have a look at those material incentives over on the right. Let's see here, we have money . . . money . . . money . . . and swag. Not to mention hot chicks and fun-loving dudes. If you'd asked me to estimate when this ad was released, I'd probably have guessed it was from the 90s, a time when we weren't sending Nat'l Guardspeople in droves to die overseas. The blithe, lithe cadets-to-be in the ad look completely unaware that there's a war going on, and that there's a high probability they might get shipped out to help prosecute that war. Are these the kind of morons I'd be rubbing elbows with if I joined the Guard today?

I wonder how many of the people who've signed up for military service since April 2003 did so for the economic benefits. Assuming that basically everyone in America knows there's a war on, my guess would run pretty close to zero. I do wish the armed forces would stop insulting America's collective intelligence and give potential guardspeople the straight story about, for example, how likely it is that they'll actually go to Iraq if they sign up, and whether it's possible to enlist while excluding oneself from service in active warzones. If I were an impressionable stripling considering serving my country, I'd X-off the National Guard on principle just for putting out such a glib and unrealistic ad.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Praxywatch: Progress for America for John Roberts

John Roberts, you beautiful bastard. You've given me more than enough propaganda fodder to last the rest of the month, and you've hardly done anything at all. Since enough toner and airtime has already been spent discussing the much-denounced NARAL anti-Roberts commercial (which I'll gladly go on record to disown), I'll focus on a Progress for America ad supporting the surprisingly non-controversial SCOTUS nominee.

The Progress spot is pretty straightforward, highlighting his Harvard education, service to past presidents, ABA honors, and peer accolades against dissolving judicially-themed background graphics. It ends with the question "shouldn't a fair judge be treated fairly?" followed by an exhortation to the Senate to "give John Roberts a fair up or down vote." I don't know if PfA thinks Roberts is an appellate nominee or what, but I haven't seen a single Democrat try to stonewall his nomination yet, so I'm at a loss to figure out who they're trying to convince. Maybe this is all some kind of preemptive strike against a possible Democratic filibuster, but the agreement reached by the Senate 14 ruled out that tactic in May, so it looks like PfA might have wasted their money.

I'm also noticing that conservatives have been driving the word "fair" into the ground recently. Seems like you can't look at a newspaper, blog, or TV news show these days without running across some right-winger carrying on about the "fair tax," a "fair up-or-down vote," or the "unfairness" of the estate tax. This particular tactic looks to be a winner: the estate tax is down and nearly out, the most egregious of the appellate nominees got voted in, and the FairTax book is sitting pretty at #1 on the NYT's non-fiction bestseller list. But the real question seems to be: under what circumstances do invocations of fairness work and when do they backfire? In other words, why is it that discussions of fair taxes and votes frequently get people fired up, but talk of fairness in trade and elections is so often met with indifference or even outright hostility?

Phrased that way, the answer becomes clear: most people only seem to care about fairness when they're the ones being treated unfairly. They find it difficult to empathize with fairness questions that don't affect them directly. We can see this pattern in questions of affirmative action, redistributive taxation, and international employment standards. Liberals can use the power of the fairness doctrine to their advantage, but evidence suggests it works best when tied to situations their audiences can readily identify with. Sometimes that's not easy, especially with respect to international issues, but finding a way to bring the issue home (e.g. tying the unfair overseas employment practices of American multinationals to outsourcing) might make a big difference in the final opinion the audience ends up forming.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Battle's Already Joined, So Where Are Your Arms?

Glancing over the shoulder of the passenger ahead of me as we flew westward across the Atlantic yesterday, I saw something disturbing. He was looking over USA Today's bestseller list, and my blood curdled a little as my eyes focused on #3, a new entry for this week: Neal Boortz and John Linder's FairTax Book. Now ordinarily I probably wouldn't have thought much of it, but over my vacation I just happened to have finished reading Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro's Death By a Thousand Cuts, which in its final chapter predicts the preeminence of income tax repeal on the conservative agenda. As of right now, Amazon ranks FairTax at #4 in sales, a development that caught me off guard even considering that I'd been emphatically apprised of it only days earlier.

Maybe it's Boortz's legions of right-wing radio fans driving the sales surge, or perhaps the shipments are moving disproportionately to Representative Linder's Georgia district, but it would be foolhardy to assume so. After all, as Graetz and Shapiro remind us, liberals took a similarly cavalier attitude toward estate tax repeal in the early '90s, which gave conservative repeal advocates a rhetorical advantage that they colorfully dub "pushing against an empty door." I even find myself tempted to counter Boortz and Linder's seemingly quixotic quest to take down the income tax with nothing more than tossed-off derision, but right-wing success against the estate tax shows that not taking them seriously may have dire consequences for the nation.

FairTax's 208 pages undoubtedly lay out an elaborate set of arguments as to why we should scrap the IRS and adopt a completely voluntary tax scheme, but the main thesis of DBATC suggests that the finer points may count for less than broad moral arguments that can easily be summarized in memorable sound bites such as "double taxation" and "we shouldn't be punishing the best people." One of the few posts in the liberal blogosphere I found on The FairTax Book (by no more than a humble TPMCafe reader) only mentions the issue very briefly, and the comment thread is littered with all manner of long-winded, esoteric, 'numerically supported' arguments pro and con. I'm going to put this simply, so that all you libs and cons get it: You're wasting your time. All of you. These kinds of battles aren't won by citing numbers from CATO or CAP; they're won by circulating talking points that are simple enough for average Americans to understand and share with each other. The old adage that "when you're explaining, you're losing" has countless vindicating examples, of which estate tax repeal is only one.

To clarify what I'm talking about, here are a few jacket points pulled from The FairTax Book's Amazon page, along with equally pithy rejoinders crafted by moi. Boortz and Linder claim that their "fair tax" will allow you, as an American, to:
Keep all the money in your paycheck
Government, at its most basic level, is what allows you to earn your paycheck without fear of someone coming along and taking it all away at gunpoint. You owe a certain percentage of your earnings to the organization that secures civil society for all of us.
Pay taxes on what you spend, not what you earn
How is this any more "fair" than an income tax? It's not fair to allow people to choose whether or not they want to fund non-excludable public goods like the military. This tax would allow stingy Americans to freeride like welfare recipients on government services paid for by the rest of us.
[E]liminate all the fraud, hassle, and waste of our current system
The fraud is perpetrated by people trying to evade their income taxes. Are you saying we should switch to a new system simply because the old one is too hard to enforce? And does the fact that it may be a 'hassle' mean it needs immediate replacement? As for waste, if the new system is truly revenue-neutral (which isn't certain at all), how will it ensure that the government stewards our money any better than it does now?
Make America's tax code truly voluntary, without reducing revenue
And why should the tax code be voluntary? Sure, taxation sucks, but we're all in this society together--so we should all be required to pay for it. Plus, it's probably impossible for a tax system to be both revenue-neutral and completely voluntary at the same time--do Boortz and Linder claim to accurately forsee the long-term spending habits of 300 million Americans?

Some of the above counterpoints are better than others (in fact, they should all probably be shortened), but my point is to demonstrate how to play the rhetorical game in a nation of policy laypeople. Graetz and Shapiro are right: economic populism didn't save us from estate tax repeal and it won't save us from this "fair" tax plan. What we need is simple, cogent, numbers-free philosophical arguments that neutralize the right at its own level. So hurry up and get cracking; we're already behind.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Orthopraxy Lives!

That's right praxy-fans; I'm back from the land of the Scots and ready to take on pro- and anti-John Roberts ads, that Fair Tax Book that's currently #3 on USA Today's bestseller list, Death By A Thousand Cuts, and whatever the fuck else I feel like bloviating about.

Tomorrow. Because right now I can barelky type struiaight. You get the idea. I shall return, again/.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

UK Vacation

I'm outta here dudes as of tomorrow . . . off to the lovely United Kingdom for nine days of blood-pressure-raising travel stress with my brother, the only person in my immediate family with less sense than me. I'll probably resume posting on the 12th, the day after I get back, but I guess there's a slight chance I may post something from over there. One way or another, I shall return.