A Selection of Stuff You’d Rather Not Read About

Four articles that made an impression this week, from least to most depressing, that didn’t even mention Jerusalem, Puerto Rico, healthcare or starving polar bears.

One hundred and eighty-seven people are facing felony charges for participating in a demonstration in Washington D.C. that turned violent. The demonstration was on the day Trump was inaugurated. A trial is now underway. The depressing aspect of this story is that none of the six defendants are accused of doing anything aside from being there:

What jurors haven’t heard, and prosecutors don’t intend to offer, is evidence that any of the six individuals currently on trial … actually engaged in any property damage or violence. Under the government’s theory of the case, in which anyone arrested in the group is part of a conspiracy and is responsible for any actions taken by others, the lack of individualized wrongdoing doesn’t matter.

Maybe the jury will have the sense to acquit everyone and convince the government to stop these prosecutions.

Elsewhere in Washington, Republicans from the House and Senate are trying to reconcile the terrible tax bills they’ve recently passed. Could any of them read this article from The New York Times and say they were proud of their efforts so far?

… for the first time since the United States adopted an income tax, a higher rate would be applied to employee wages and salaries than to income earned by proprietors, partnerships and closely held corporations….

“We’ve never had a tax system where wage earners were substantially penalized” relative to other types of income earners, said … a former Treasury Department official….

Indeed, economists and tax experts across the political spectrum warn that the proposed system would invite tax avoidance. The more the tax code distinguishes among types of earnings, personal characteristics or economic activities, the greater the incentive to label income artificially, restructure or switch categories in a hunt for lower rates….

“The more you look at any of the major rules, the more ambiguities, glitches, clearly unintended consequences and tax planning opportunities you see,” said Michael L. Schler, a lawyer in the tax department of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. He has written a 50-page summary of the more glaring problems …

From Georgia Southern University, a professor named Jared Yates Sexton, who grew up in the South, writes about the fascism that runs in his family.

Eventually I left for college and found my own people who didn’t express such fascist and ignorant beliefs. I visited for the occasional holiday, kept in decent enough touch, but I felt confident knowing that people like my family would never be in charge of the country they understood so poorly….

They hoard weapons, supplies, and daydream about the day the government will fall and they’ll be free to remake the country as they see fit.

I cannot say they are fascists, but I can definitely say they hold fascist ideas. This is why they hardly blink when Donald Trump quickly erodes the normal order of the government, why they’re not concerned when he undermines the Freedom of the Press or cozies up to authoritarian leaders. They love it when he tells policemen to be rough on suspects. They want someone who plays nuclear chicken with a despot while the lives of hundreds of million innocent people lie in the balance.

Finally, speaking of nuclear chicken, Jeffrey Lewis, a “scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies”, shares some really scary thoughts in The Washington Post. He imagines how a confrontation between North and South Korea might escalate, helped along by a morning tweet from the president, into nuclear war.

And so, facing what he believed was a massive American military invasion, Kim gave the order. The thread of history winds along on twists of fate, like Archduke Ferdinand’s driver missing a turn…

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency would later say this was a sign that the system had worked well, downing about a third of the missiles — although experts would argue that the low intercept rate resulted from problems that the Los Angeles Times had reported in 2017…. It seemed more likely, the experts said, that five of the missiles had simply broken up as they reentered the earth’s atmosphere.

The remaining seven nuclear warheads landed in the United States. These missiles were no more accurate than the others — but with 200-kiloton warheads, 10 times the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, close was enough to count in most cases.

I told you so.

If They Wanted Real Tax Reform

The big story in Washington this week is the Senate Republicans scrambling to pass a major tax bill that nobody but their donors and other members of the plutocracy likes. Assuming something like it eventually becomes law, it will give a temporary tax cut to most members of the middle class and raise taxes for others, while giving a permanent tax cut to rich people and corporations. It will also add more than a trillion dollars to the deficit while requiring billions of dollars to be cut from programs like Medicare. (There is a nice summary of the giant con here.)

Republicans and even some journalists are calling it “tax reform”, even though it will make our system of taxation worse than it already is.

Wondering what real reform would look like, I read a book called A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer and More Efficient Tax System. It’s by a journalist named T. R. Reid. After a lot of research and conversations with tax experts around the world, he reached the same conclusion most experts have. The simplest, fairest and most efficient system of taxation is based on the “Broad Base, Low Rate” (BBLR) model.

The BBLR idea is that countries should tax as much as possible while keeping rates as low as possible. So, in the case of income tax, it’s best to tax all kinds of income at the same low rate. That means getting rid of deductions, exemptions and credits, many of which benefit people with the highest incomes, while categorizing things like health insurance benefits from your employer as personal income. That’s the “broad base” part. Once you’ve broadened the base and made more income subject to taxation, you can then lower everyone’s rates (that, obviously, is the “low rate” part).

The BBLR approach has a number of benefits. Filing and auditing tax returns is far simpler. Since rates are low and everyone’s income is treated the same, fewer people are tempted to avoid or evade taxes. Also, decisions about things like buying a house or building a factory tend to be made on the merits, not on the basis of tax considerations.

Reid also thinks the U.S. should institute a Value Added Tax (VAT). It’s a kind of sales tax, but one that is applied at every step of the manufacturing or distribution process, i.e. whenever money changes hands. We are the only rich country in the world that doesn’t have a VAT. Since it’s a tax on consumption, not income or savings, a VAT apparently has beneficial effects on a nation’s economy. It’s also difficult to evade. That’s why everyone else has one.

Another change Reid recommends is to reduce taxes on corporations. The U.S. has a high corporate tax rate, which results in corporations devoting a lot of effort to reducing or even eliminating their taxes. He thinks it would be better if all of the income people receive from corporations, especially dividends and capital gains, were subject to the same tax rate as other income (today, supposedly in order to foster investment, that income is taxed at a lower rate, which again mainly helps the wealthy). In fact, in a very interesting article in The Washington Post earlier this month, Reid advocated eliminating the corporate tax altogether, since it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

What surprised me most about A Fine Mess, however, was that some of the ideas Reid endorses are included in the Republican tax bill. (Seriously, it doesn’t happen very often that there is overlap between “Republican policy” and “good idea”.) For instance, the Republicans have talked about getting rid of the deductions for medical expenses, state and local taxes and interest on mortgages. They would try to offset the disappearance of those deductions by increasing the standard deduction and lowering everyone’s rates. The result would be that more income would be taxed, but at a lower rate (that’s BBLR). Another result, not so beneficial, would be that millions of average taxpayers, for example, those who have major medical expenses or live in states with high taxes or who have big mortgages, would get a tax increase, even if their tax rates were lowered.

Unfortunately, the Republicans want to combine their few good ideas with many bad ones. For example, they want to get rid of the estate tax, which only affects the truly wealthy, and give more favorable treatment to certain kinds of business income (it’s been said that the Republican tax plan could have been written by Trump’s accountant). They also want to reduce taxes on the rich so much that they’ll have to cut social programs like Medicare, while adding more than a trillion dollars to the deficit.

Reid points out that Congress tends to produce a major tax bill every 32 years. The last one was in 1986. Congress worked on it for two years. The bill had bipartisan support and actually deserved being called “tax reform”. This year, the Republicans are trying to pass their bill in a matter of weeks, without hearings and without input from the Democrats. That indicates how screwed up our government is and how far away we are from getting actual reform.

This, That and the Other Thing

There are few places as forlorn as a resort town on a chilly, cloudy, damp, out of season weekday afternoon. Thus, Virginia Beach, Virginia, last week:

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But let’s move on.

Paul Waldman writes about “The GOP’s Baffling Decision to Raise Taxes on Millions of Americans” at The Week.

If there’s one thing we thought we could count on in this crazy world, it’s that Republicans will never, ever, ever support a tax increase. It wasn’t always this way — Ronald Reagan, who to hear some people tell it practically walked the Earth without sin, actually raised taxes multiple times — but today there may be no more foundational belief to the GOP than the principle that taxes must come down, everywhere and always.

Nevertheless, “the GOP is right now rallying around a bill that will raise taxes on tens of millions of Americans.” It certainly is strange. One part of the explanation, however, is that Republicans aren’t very good at this governing thing. Another part is that they’re so eager to cut taxes for rich people and corporations, they’re willing to antagonize millions of voters and lie about what they’re doing.

As a partial antidote to the above, consider reading all about “The Relentless Honesty of Ludwig Wittgenstein”. Ian Ground presents an excellent overview of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, both early and late, at The Times Literary Supplement.

What’s Their Deal With Health Insurance Anyway?

It feels odd to write about anything else now that a senseless, malevolent being has taken control of the White House, but here goes anyway:

Four years ago, Dr. Ben Carson, who is expected to be the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the new administration, compared the Affordable Care Act to slavery:

“You know, Obamacare is really I think the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” Carson … said … in remarks at the Values Voter Summit in Washington. “And it is in a way, it is slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control…”

“And why did [the Obama administration] want to pass it so badly? Well, as I said the other night on television, Vladimir Lenin … said that socialized medicine is the keystone to the establishment of a socialist state.”

As we might expect, there is no evidence that Lenin said any such thing. The “socialized medicine” quote attributed to him by Carson and others was fabricated for a 1949 brochure issued by the American Medical Association. That’s back when the AMA was fighting President Truman’s proposal for national health insurance (and years before they opposed Medicare). But Carson telling that tall tale helps explain why the Republican Party is so opposed to the Affordable Care Act.

The ACA requires individuals to have health insurance (or pay more income tax) and employers of a certain size to offer health insurance to their employees (or pay more income tax). It also requires that health insurance plans meet specific requirements in order to qualify as health insurance for purposes of the law. So that’s one reason Republicans want to repeal the ACA. The law requires that we do something for our own benefit or for the benefit of others. It limits our freedom to do whatever the hell we want. That makes it a prime example of government overreach, or what the right-wing calls the “Nanny State”.

But since Republicans are forced to buy insurance for their houses and cars without making a fuss (let alone bringing up slavery or Nazi Germany), being forced to buy insurance for their bodies (or their employees’ bodies) can’t be the only reason they’re against the ACA.

A second reason is simply political. After decades of trying, a Democratic President finally got a bill passed that takes us closer to universal health insurance. But whatever Obama was for, the Republicans were against. They immediately labeled the ACA as “Obamacare” to help convince right-wingers to oppose the law, even if they didn’t know what the law did (and even if the law would improve their own lives). 

That’s despite the fact that the ACA adopted the conservative approach to universal healthcare that Republicans had been advocating since the 1970s. It’s pretty amazing. A letter to the editor in The Chicago Tribune tells the disheartening story:

Obamacare is virtually the same privatized mandate plan [the Republican Party] pushed since President Richard Nixon first proposed the National Health Strategy in 1971, then again in 1974. Then the GOP revived its privatized mandate plan again in 1993 with … the [HEART] act … an alternative to the [Clinton] single-payer plan… 

Obama — as a compromise to have basic health reform passed — used this same GOP blueprint with one significant change: adding a public option alongside the GOP’s privatized mandate plan … 

Eventually the public option was stripped out of the 2010 ACA bill as a further compromise to attract bipartisan support for the bill, leaving in its place the very plan that the GOP wanted and pushed for decades. Unfortunately, the ACA did not receive a single vote from the Republican Party that created the plan’s primary concepts as an alternative to a single-payer — “Medicare for all” — type of system.

No wonder the Republicans have had so much trouble coming up with a replacement for “Obamacare”. The law they’re so against is the law they used to be for.

A third reason the Republicans oppose the ACA is that it’s the kind of Robin Hood economic redistribution Republicans hate. It takes from the rich and gives to the poor. Paul Krugman explains in a blog post called “Health Care Fundamentals”:

Providing health care to those previously denied it is, necessarily, a matter of redistributing from the lucky to the unlucky. And, of course, reversing a policy that expanded health care is redistribution in reverse. You can’t make this reality go away.

Left to its own devices, a market economy won’t care for the sick unless they can pay for it; insurance can help up to a point, but insurance companies have no interest in covering people they suspect will get sick. So unfettered markets mean that health care goes only to those who are wealthy and/or healthy enough that they won’t need it often, and hence can get insurance….

The thing is, however, that guaranteeing health care comes with a cost. You can tell insurance companies that they can’t discriminate based on medical history, but that means higher premiums for the healthy — and you also create an incentive to stay uninsured until … you get sick, which pushes premiums even higher. So you have to regulate individuals as well as insurers, requiring that everyone sign up — the mandate. And since some people won’t be able to obey such a mandate, you need subsidies, which must be paid for out of taxes…

What [the Republicans] are left with is … voodoo: they’ll invoke the magic of the market to somehow provide insurance so cheap that everyone will be able to afford it whatever their income and medical status. This is obvious nonsense [but] it’s all they’ve got.

The redistribution is related to a fourth reason they’re against the ACA and it might be their biggest reason of all. Not only did the ACA impose fines in the form of tax increases on taxpayers who wouldn’t buy health insurance, it included a separate, relatively large tax increase on the richest Americans. As everyone knows, that‘s anathema to Republican politicians. Repealing the ACA, therefore, would mean a big tax cut for the Republicans’ favorite people. From Slate:

One of the core, very simple things [the ACA] did was raise taxes on the wealthy in order to fund subsidized health care for more Americans. Couples earning more than $250,000 saw a 0.9 percent increase in their top Medicare tax rate, as well as a new, 3.8 percent Medicare surtax on investment income.

If Republicans have their way and successfully repeal the Affordable Care Act, those two taxes will be toast—which will mean a substantial break for some of the country’s wealthiest families. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that millionaires would see 80 percent of the benefits from those tax reductions. Based on the most recent IRS data, the think tank roughly projects that the 400 highest income households—which earned an average of more than $300 million each in 2014—would see a $2.8 billion annual tax cut, worth about $7 million on average per filer.

So that’s at least four reasons why Republicans want to scrap the Affordable Care Act:

1) It’s what they call the “Nanny State” in action. 

2) It was an important Obama accomplishment.

3) It’s the kind of redistribution Robin Hood was for and the bad guys were against.

4) It raised taxes, especially for the rich.

In conclusion, Republicans don’t necessarily want millions of Americans suffering and dying without medical treatment. Being concerned about that kind of thing is simply low on their list of priorities.