Fix the Institutions

Great essay from Lawrence Lessig.  Just read it.  Seriously.  Okay, here’s a snippet:

And I realized then just how hard it was going to be to get people to understand what cross-partisan must mean. It does not mean compromising on substantive issues. It does not mean finding the middle between Left and Right. It does not mean the incoherent “bipartisanship” that too often takes over DC — giving us the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war on drugs, and the sort of justice system that executes Troy Davis.

It means instead a constitutional cross-partisanship: The recognition that however much we disagree about substantive issues, we have to be able to agree about the system within which we work out those substantive disagreements. That however much we disagree as Democrats and Republicans, there has to be a foundation of agreement as citizens — about at the very least the system within which disagreement gets resolved…

That enemy is the corruption of Congress. The single fact that most all of us agree about is that our Congress is bought, and our politics, corrupted. Not the buying of quid pro quo bribery. Congress is not criminal. But you don’t have to be a criminal to be corrupt. The corruption that is our Congress is in plain sight. It is legal, indeed, protected by the First Amendment. It is the bending and contorting to feed the fundraising frenzy that occupies the majority of the life of too many in Congress. And everyone — from Bill O’Reilly to Jon Stewart (really, watch) — should be able to agree that this corruption is at the root of the problems facing this Republic. And that until we remedy this corruption, this Republic will remain lost.

Lessig just wrote a book about the corrupting influence of money in politics.  I think he’s largely right, but there’s more.  For that, we turn to Kevin Drum:

Like Brooks, I’m pretty disgusted with politics most of the time. But it’s not really conflicts over values that are at fault, it’s the fact that our institutions have become unable to deal with them. Partly this is because one of our major parties has dived head first into a rabbit hole and doesn’t look ready to come out anytime soon.   But mainly it’s because our political structure has evolved into a weird hybrid that has the tight party discipline of a parliamentary system contained within the institutional framework of a presidential system that was specifically designed to work best without any party machinery at all. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Yep.  E) All of the above, I’d say.  Short version, we need to fix the ability of our political institutions to deal with our nations’ problems.  Part of it may be money and surely part of it is institutions that are simply not designed for how modern American political parties (especially the GOP) operate.

Chart of the day

Somebody put together a nice series of charts (and some other pointed commentary) on growing income inequality based on the 99% movement.  There’s several good ones in here, but I really liked this one:

Of course, life is great if you're in the top 1% of American wage earners. You're hauling in a bigger percentage of the country's total pre-tax income than you have at any time since the late 1920s. Your share of the national income, in fact, is almost 2X the long-term average!

Squat and cough for the Supreme Court

I’d been meaning to write about this, but never gotten around to it.  This column, however, is awesome and deserves an extended exceprt:

Imagine, gentle reader, that you decide to become a criminal mastermind. The first step to global domination will be smuggling contraband — that is, weapons or drugs — into the Burlington County, New Jersey, jail. Your scheme is worthy of Oswald C. Cobblepot: You will insert the offensive items into a bodily cavity or affix them on an inconspicuous part of your body. Then, you and your wife and child will climb into the family BMW. To divert suspicion from your plan, you will place your wife behind the wheel, then have her commit a routine traffic infraction. (Luckily, you are African American, thus making a police stop far more likely.) When you are stopped, you will immediately identify yourself, thus ensuring that the police officer will find an invalid warrant against your name. You will play Tom Sawyer, producing documents suggesting that the warrant has been satisfied. This is a clever ploy: you appear reluctant to be arrested, when in fact it is your fondest wish.
So far, the plan has functioned flawlessly. There is still, however, a potential flaw: because the warrant is invalid, the police can thwart your scheme by simply presenting you to a magistrate upon arrest, as they should do, rather than processing you into the jail. But luck is with you: the officers ignore the law and frog-march you into the hoosegow.

But then — holy lockdown! — the alert jail staff, in violation of New Jersey law, conduct a strip search of your person. Foiled!

Except, of course, that in the actual events at issue in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, argued Wednesday before the Supreme Court, the victim of the illegal detention and search, Albert Florence, was not a criminal mastermind at all, but an auto-dealership employee on his way to a family dinner. The strip search produced no contraband; a second strip search, when Florence was transferred to another county’s jail after a week of illegal detention, was even more intrusive, requiring Florence to squat and cough under the eyes of jail staff. It also produced no contraband.

What sane person would have thought it would? The two counties that Florence has sued for subjecting him to this squalid ordeal now argue that there is no need for any sane suspicion –that any person, even one arrested for a non-criminal offense such as failure to pay a fine — can be subjected to repeated strip searches on the off chance that he or she may be carrying contraband. Florence insists that the authorities need “reasonable suspicion” in this case.

What ends up being more embarrassing and humiliating than this is the response of the Justices during oral arguments.  Dignity, reasonable suspicion?  Who needs that?  He was arrested– surely he’s a bad guy.   Just read the rest.

The actual 53%

So, the conservative are fighting back against this 99% thing by once again obsessing over the fact that 47% of Americans currently do not pay federal income taxes.  That’s not “don’t pay taxes” it’s “don’t pay federal income taxes” for many people– only a modest portion of the overall tax bill.  First, Slate’s Annie Lowery does a good job running down the numbers on the 47%:

What is going on with that other 47 percent?…

The short answer is: deductions and poverty. About half of households within that 47 percent do not end up paying federal income tax because they qualify for enough breaks to cancel their tax obligations out. Of that group, 44 percent are claiming tax benefits for the elderly, like an exemption for Social Security payments. And 30.4 percent are claiming credits for “children and the working poor,” like the child-care tax credit. The remainder get breaks for investment income, spending on education, itemized deductions, and a mish-mash of other things. When combined, it’s all enough to cancel out their income tax requirements…

That covers about half of the households that don’t pay any federal income taxes. The other half of households are just too poor to pay them.

Hmmm.  Doesn’t exactly sound like a bunch of free-loaders.  Except for those poor people.  But, a lot of those people are temporarily poor because of the horrible economy.  They were probably paying taxes in 2008 and if the Republicans would stop insisting on trying to ruin the economy, they’d be paying taxes again in 2012.    What these arguments always fail to consider is that part of all this is just lifecycle effects.  If you are under 22 or over 65, you are probably a net drain on the economy.  If you are between those ages, you are probably a net benefit.  Everybody(who lives long enough) is therefore at some point going to be both.  It’s also worthy emphasizing that for most people, time on welfare truly is transient.  Sure there are hard-core life-long “leeches” if you prefer, but most people actually use the benefits and get off when things improve.  Which is actually the whole point, of course.

Finally, I really like was Chait’s take on this:

If you were to take this argument seriously, it would suggest that there’s some problem with having one particular stream of tax revenue be more progressive than other streams. After all, if you’re an American, you pay a bunch of taxes and you get a bunch of government services in return. You pay some taxes to your city for police and schools and city hall and local roads. You pay some taxes to the state for colleges and Medicaid and some other roads. You pay more taxes to the federal government for defense and Social Security and still other roads.

Does it really matter if nearly half the population is not paying some of those taxes but is paying other taxes? Has the division between these different revenue streams suddenly taken on some vital metaphysical significance? I doubt it. The “47 percent pay no income taxes” statistic, which has gained sudden ubiquity on the right, is an attempt to create a different kind of class consciousness — a reflection of the right’s Ayn Rand–inspired conviction that politics pits virtuous producers in a struggle against venal looters and moochers.

Short version: obsessing on the 53-47 federal income statistic grossly distorts the real state of affairs.  And as for the 99 vs 1?  Well, the evidence for the relative income gains of the top 1% relative to everybody else (though, the top 10% haven’t fared bad, either) is indisputable.

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