Friday, April 18, 2014

The invisible primary clarifies everything

I learned this concept from Jonathan Bernstein, the only political commentator who has stayed interesting to me. (Others, like Josh Barro, seem great, but it only lasts for a short time.)

The invisible primary is the contest before the presidential primaries start. It consists of potential or declared candidates visiting early primary states, talking, occasionally staking out positions, occasionally attacking one another, wooing donors, and most of all wooing the important party players who have influence on swathes of voters, usually within one state.

I've learned a lot about the Republican invisible primary, but not so much about the Democratic version. Maybe in 2020 it will be in play, but 2016 isn't looking too likely.

Here are links to some of good posts on the invisible primary. If you don't know this concept yet, you have a wonderful learning experience in store:

  • Bernstein on watching the developing party agenda.
  • Long but great article about the GOP invisible primary. Very readable.
  • How someone decides to jump in.
  • Related to Rand Paul.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Who pays taxes?

Do lower income people pay their fair share of taxes? Look at this graph from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank:


Wow, the lowest 20% of earners pay almost nothing in taxes. The top 20% bear, let's see, 69% of the tax burden. How horribly unfair.

Until you look at this graph:


Here we see that the top 20% may pay 69% of taxes, but they also suck up 50% of all the income. The richest fifth get half of the pie. How much of the pie do the lowest fifth get? Just 3%. How much of the tax burden should we expect them to bear?

Before you complain about how little some folks pay into the system, look at how little is paid to them.

Old question: Who benefited the most from tax cuts?

Back in 2012, one of the issues was who benefited the most from the Bush tax cuts. Dems said the rich did. Repubs said it was everyone. Now, finally, here's a graph that shows who benefited: (Click on the graph to enlarge.)


Look at the left-most 10% of the graph and see that rates declined much more steeply for higher incomes than for lower. This graph is based on effective tax rate and includes payroll taxes.

Low-wage workers are more affected by changes in payroll taxes and much less by income tax rate cuts. It's the opposite for high-income earners. Since the Bush tax cuts lower income taxes, but not payroll taxes, low-income workers saw little benefit. This was also shown by figures on how the end of the tax cuts would affect different earners. Again, lower-income workers would see less of an increase by percent (about 4%). Higher income earners would see a 8% increase.

Here's another interesting tax-related graph: Who gains from tax breaks--those credits, deductions, and exclusions that lower our tax bills. This graph shows the actual shares of these tax breaks and how much accrues to different segments from the lowest 20% to the highest 0.1%. The biggest winners (in light blue) are the 80-99% of top earners. However, look at the share that the top 0.1% (in dark blue) get. An excellent aspect of the graph is that the areas (dark brown, tan, light blue, etc.) directly represent the actual share of the money. You could imagine them as stacks of bills given to the groups.


However, this isn't just a give-away of tax dollars to the well-off. Higher earners pay much more of taxes than do lower earner. They also pay marginal rates (currently running 38%) that are much higher than tax rates on lower earners. If exclusions came down, marginal rates probably should too.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The political history of the Supreme Court

I'm not a great student of American history. The last American history course I took was, embarrassingly, in high school. There is one surprising advantage to not having studied a lot of American history--I haven't formed a lot of prejudices that are set in stone. I have a superficial knowledge, but I know it's only superficial, so I'm ready to question all those standard theories that float around.

So, what is the real history of the Supreme Court? I started wondering because of suggestions (among liberals) that the GOP might not confirm a Supreme Court nominee for the rest of Obama's term. Looking back at information about the Supreme Court (mostly from Wikipedia), I saw a number of interesting trends.

FDR through Nixon

Supreme court nominees used to be much closer to the president and much more political. For example, Hugo Black was a senator. Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) tapped him because he was young, from the south, and a strong legislative supporter. Luckily he was also a great fit for the job. He was extremely interested in constitutional questions and developed "textualism," a conservative school of thought on how to interpret the Constitution. This is almost all news to me, and quite fascinating.

Another interesting factoid is that president always tried to push the court toward their political side. FDR did it big time because his first New Deal programs were struck down by a conservative court. FDR made a lot of appointments to the court over his 13 years as president, and he was successful in his goal. The court was fairly liberal due to his selections. Eisenhower wanted to reverse this trend, but his choices weren't so effective. He aimed for conservative (but presumably not Jim Crow conservative), but ended up with Earl Warren.

So even after Eisenhower, the court was fairly liberal. Kennedy and Johnson together appointed four judges, but two resigned after a few years. The balance on the court didn't move much because of their presidencies. Nixon, like Eisenhower, wanted a more conservative court yet didn't get what he hoped from his appointees except for his last appointee, William Rehnquist.


By the time Reagan was president, the conservatives in the country were quite fed up with the liberal slant of the court. Per my memory, the biggest complaints were over abortion legalization, the end of school prayer, and limitations on evidence collection and police tactics. However, Reagan didn't give the conservatives what they wanted immediately. For the first vacancy, Reagan nominated the first woman on the court, Sandra Day O'Connor. I wonder how angry his conservative supporters were over that.

His next appointee, Antonin Scalia, probably pleased the conservatives mightily. For the next vacancy, Reagan went with the ultra-conservative Robert Bork. In doing this, Reagan ignored all the buzz that this was going too far. This is just speculation, but I'm guessing that in 1987 (the year of the nomination), Reagan was no longer fully in control of his decision-making. The choice backfired. Democrats were successful in painting Bork as too conservative. The replacement nominee, John Paul Stevens, was considerably less conservative, to the chagrin of the conservatives.

Reagan's legacy on the Supreme Court were two swing justices and only one solid conservative. The anger and disappointment of conservative must have been huge. George H.W. Bush had two appointees--another mixed bag of one swing vote and one solid conservative. Clinton, following the established pattern, appointed two liberal-leaning justices.

21st Century - Fully Political

With George Bush II, the conservatives finally got more than lip service. Bush II appointed two solid conservatives. Obama has appointed two solid liberals. At this point, there is barely a swing vote on the Court. Occasionally Anthony Kennedy sides with the liberals, but generally there are five conservative votes.

What I learned in all this:
  • Presidents have always tried to nudge the Court into their corner. 
  • Conservative presidents have often failed to get conservative judgments out of their appointees. I wish I understood why this happened so often. 
  • The pressure to appoint clearly conservative or clearly liberal justices has grown. Both sides dearly want to own the majority on the Court. This may indicate that the Court has become ever more important in political outcomes in the country.
  • Professional experience as a judge became more important after Johnson and Nixon--due to some embarrassing nominees and appointees. This allowed the presidents to pretend that they were nominating someone neutral. However, this veneer of neutrality is a sham--nominees fulfill political goals. They aren't neutral legal arbiters, as most judges are supposed to be. 
  • The sham is still active and seems to be demanded of both politicians and nominees, so it will continue.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Short: A story in pictures

First, who voted for Romney versus who voted for Obama:

A Democratic convention crowd:

A Republican convention crowd:

Images, full story:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Grouches at National Review strike again

How big a deal is it that Stephen Colbert is taking over for Letterman on the CBS's late show? I can well imagine that his Comedy Central fans will miss his pointy political satire. Lots of people wonder what his personality is. Outside of his parody (a take-off of Bill O'Reilly's pomposity), do we have the faintest idea who he is? We don't know whether he can carry a late night talk show.

But the old grouches among the conservatives have a vastly different concern. They see another major slap at the heartland of the US. At least that was Rush Limbaugh's response-- though that's moderate for him. Limbaugh might have railed against Colbert for roughly a minute, much less than law student Sandra Fluke got.

So why does National Review need three posts letting their curmudgeons sound off about Colbert being an unfunny liberal replacing yet another unfunny liberal?  Because National Review basically don't have thoughtful critique from a conservative viewpoint anymore. Instead, it's cut and slash against everything Dem and liberal. This is the longest post, giving the old grouches the most place to wheeze about "his perverted version of a conservative character."

I realized earlier this year that I had to stop reading National Review so often. The low point was the flaying of Pete Seeger on the occasion of his death. Seeger wasn't the singer of "Puff the Magic Dragon" to them. Instead he was a bagman for Stalin.

So Stephen Colbert may be a traitor in the war on the heartland, but at least he didn't work for Stalin.


Extra. Ben Shapiro (creep-in-chief of Breitbart) writes a creepy post comparing Colbert to blackface comedy. There's something ironic (meaning hypocritical) about the editor of Breitbart complaining about the worst aspects of conservatives being lampooned. So does that mean parts of Limbaugh's show are vile blackface comedy riffing off liberals? (Hat-tip to The Atlantic Wire. National Review didn't link to it because it makes conservatives look pretty bad.)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

How far to take this disagreement?

Some people, like me and most people I know, support marriage equality that permits marriage regardless of gender or sexual orientation. I write about this a lot because I love being married, and I know many people for whom this bond is the best part of life. So I want anyone to be able to share in this blessing.

What about the people who disagree? I've written about my respect for those who sincerely believe that same-sex sexual relationships are wrong or that same-sex marriage is wrong. I've also written that those against marriage equality should stop objecting and stop denying the civil rights of others.

Am I totally confused? I hope not. I see a big picture with lots of people in it. Most of the people are good and have honest intentions, yet they often end up disagreeing. I'm not going to demonize a good person just for holding a belief I find mistaken. For a loud, obnoxious person, I'm going to disagree a lot more loudly.

Theory in practice

So, what kind of person is Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozilla who just resigned under a cloud due to his contribution in favor of an anti-marriage-equality proposition in California?

I don't know what kind of person he is. In my research, I didn't find that he's been a vocal opponent of marriage equality. He was a co-founder of Mozilla, and has worked for years in the open source software movement. As far as we know, he didn't harass gay coworkers and he didn't broadcast his political views through the workplace.

So what did he do that was offensive, harassing, or unacceptable? Some are saying that his financial support for Prop 8 in California is over the line. Software developers, including this one, joined together to begin a boycott. Not because Eich just made the contribution (it was five years ago), or because he just started working for Mozilla, or because he was just promoted to CEO. They started the boycott because they wanted an apology, and he refused to give it. So he was forced to resign.

It's hard for me to see this as anything but intolerant, thought-police-like tactics. His choices were to recant his beliefs or go. Do we want such a binary choice presented to our teachers, writers, broadcasters, doctors, nurses, X-ray technicians? Should I refuse service from a waitress who holds different political views, or can we please just have a limited unfraught transaction?

Armed camps

I don't want to have the entire country carved into pro- and anti- camps. I don't have to know the politics of the CEO of the company that made this computer or that made the couch I'm sitting on. The taint of Brendan Eich's contribution didn't seep into Firefox, which I used for years. It doesn't ruin Thunderbird now. Two years ago, a breast cancer charity tried to purge itself of any connection to Planned Parenthood, even though Planned Parenthood helps with breast cancer screenings. It was stupid to think a breast cancer charity needed to be completely pure on the unrelated issue of abortion, yet some people want to force this kind of purity on charities, or businesses, or what have you. It doesn't work--it's crazy or coercive to implement. Is this what we want in our society--litmus tests wherever you turn?

Let's remember--good people can disagree. Many moral, ethical, and policy questions aren't so clear cut that we absolutely know which is the right answer. When there's a way to live and let live, let's do it. I'm not so infallible that I'm going to condemn those who don't agree with me. What happened to other people, the ones who are so sure,  who will condemn, expel, and purge? Do they no longer want a world with diversity? Wasn't that the goal?