The “death tax”

Among the political phrases I hate, “the death tax” is pretty much up there.  This, of course, is the Frank Luntz-invented term for the Estate tax which applies to a tiny, tiny fraction (less than .2%) of the population upon death.  Anyway, I like that Tomasky wrote a nice post recently on why this tax is good and important:

Of all the Obama proposals unveiled in the State of the Union address, the one that’s probably drawn the most right-wing fire is the one that would close an inheritance capital-gains tax loophole. This is because Republicans talk about inheritance taxes not just in practical terms but moral ones. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah tea partier in the House, thundered away the other day: “That’s a non-starter. The audacity, that he thinks the government has a right to people’s money? He wants to transfer wealth. It’s one of the most immoral things you can do, is try to steal somebody’s inheritance, to steal it away from their family.”

Chaffetz has it exactly backwards. Undertaxing inherited wealth is what’s immoral. I have pretty good back-up on this point, which I’ll get to. But first, hear the argument. And for openers, let me stipulate that everything I’m about to say applies only to fortunes—certainly not to all inherited money.

That would be absurd. If your parents were thrifty enough to have left you $500,000 or even $1 million, which ain’t “rich” these days, no one—no one—wants to take a red cent of that from you. That’ll help you buy a home, pay for your kids’ college, and eventually if all goes well pay for their kids’ college. So normal pass-downs of money aren’t on the table here.

Great wealth is a different matter. There is no moral basis whatsoever for shielding large estates from taxation. Let’s say your great-grandfather invented the hairpin or the carburetor. Well, life is such that the luck of the draw entitles you to see some of the benefits of that. Sure. But there must be moral limits on those benefits. After all, who are you? You’re just a combination of sperm and egg that happens to have gestated in the uterus of a woman who (let’s say) married a man who was himself a sperm and egg that happened to have gestated in the uterus of the daughter of the man who did the inventing.

The way life works, yes, that does entitle you to some of the benefits of grandpa’s genius. But to go from there to argue, as Chaffetz (and basically every American conservative I’ve ever heard address the subject) does, that government—that is to say, society—has no claim whatsoever to any portion of that fortune is what’s profoundly, obscenely immoral. [emphasis mine]

The conservative position here is not only immoral. It’s un-American, and explicitly so. Our Founding Fathers, as a group, loved inheritance taxes. Loved them. And it stands to reason—they were founding a nation that would throw off the old weights and chains of Europe. Those weight and chains very much included laws of primogeniture and inheritance that resulted in all those layabout royals and their massive estates. America, they vowed, would not be like that. Social position would be earned, not inherited.

So the conservative position is immoral and un-American. It’s also un-conservative. I say this because well, on matters economic, who is the conservatives’ great hero? Maybe Hayek. But he’s like the Lebron. The Jordan is still Adam Smith. And Adam Smith believed in taxing huge wealth. He wrote this: “A power to dispose of estates for ever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fullness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural. There is no point more difficult to account for than the right we conceive men to have to dispose of their goods after death.”

No right to bind it up from posterity. No right. Get it?

Great stuff.  Perfect example of why I love Tomasky.

Not correlation means not causation (crime rate edition)

I enjoyed Kevin Drum’s take on this look at incarceration data from Vox:

Correlation is not causation. This has recently become something of an all-purpose comeback from people who want to sound smart without really understanding anything about a particular research result. Still, whether it’s overused or not, it’s a true statement. When two things move up and down together, it’s a hint that one of them might be causing the other, but it’s just a hint. Sometimes correlation implies causation and sometimes it doesn’t.

The inverse statement, however, is different: If there’s no correlation, then there’s no causation.With the rarest of exceptions, this is almost always true. Dara Lind provides an example of this as it relates to crime and mass incarceration.

The chart on the right shows the trend in various states at reducing incarceration. If reducing incarceration produced more crime, you’d expect at least some level of correlation. The dots would line up to look something like the red arrow, with lots of dots in the upper left quadrant.

Obviously we see nothing like that. In fact, we don’t appear to see any significant correlation at all. As Lind says, the scatterplot is just a scatter.

So, as a matter of good public policy we are quite clearly imprisoning too many people.  And incarcerating fewer would make us no less safer.  And save a ton of money.  Not to mention unnecessary human suffering.  So, we do we keep imprisoning so many people?  Because the American people want to.  Or so the correlation indicates cauasation argument presented by John Sides‘ suggests:

The graph is from recently published research by Cornell political scientistPeter Enns.  The measure of public support for being tough on crime comes from averaging together 33 different questions about crime policy that have been asked repeatedly during this period.

As the graph indicates, there is a strong correlation: the more the public wants to get tough on crime, the more the incarceration rate increases.  Enns shows that this correlation persists even after accounting for the crime rate and several other factors.  Enns also shows that public opinion appears to be driving the incarceration rate, and not vice versa.

Hmmm.  Next question, how do get the public to wise up (though, the public has clearly been moving in the right direction).

Photo of the day

From the Telegraph’s photos of the day.  You know I’m a sucker for shots like this:

SURFING under Milky Way has never looked so glorious as shown in these incredible starlight pictures. Other eye-popping images show awestruck visitors to the beach drinking in the incredible views of our Galactic centre – the Milky Way – as well as the swirling stars and the rising sun over snow-capped mountains. Australian marketing manager Jay Daley (33) took the incredible pictures while out experimenting with his camera in New Zealand’s Mount Cook and the surrounding Westland Tai Poutini National Park.

Photographer Jay Daley from Australia took this incredible picture of the Milky Way while out experimenting with his camera in New Zealand’s Mount Cook and the surrounding Westland Tai Poutini National ParkPicture: MediaDrum

Want to ruin innocent lives with impunity?

How many jobs in the world are there where you have life and death power over innocent people and you can act with virtual impunity?  Well, there’s totalitarian dictator.  And, prosecutor in the US criminal justice system.  Okay, not quite complete impunity.  In very rare cases, prosecutors actually get punished for willfully and recklessly ruining the lives of innocent people.  But far more often than not, prosecutors are left with little more than a slightly sore wrist.

I’ve been grading papers from my Criminal Justice Policy class this weekend and their assignment was to write about any “miscarriage of justice” and suggest a policy proposal as a remedy.  My favorite so far was the over-reliance on unreliable drug-sniffing dogs, but most students have been writing about persons wrongfully convicted and then exonerated.  In a whole host of horrible cases, innocent men spent decades in jail, and very often based on proprietorial misconduct.  In one particularly egregious case, a prosecutor actually got serious jail time, but for the most part, there’s no real consequences for the prosecutor.  Is it any wonder then, that misconduct is rampant.

Very nice NYT editorial on the matter today and how the Supreme Court (and you know which justices in particular) have made it particularly difficult to actually hold wrong-doing prosecutors responsible:

When prosecutors cheat and lie repeatedly to win convictions, should their office be held accountable?

When a man spends years, or decades, in prison as a result of such prosecutorial misconduct, should he be compensated?

These are not trick questions.

And yet in a bizarre 2011 ruling, five justices of the Supreme Court managed to answer no to both, essentially closing off one of the only ways to hold prosecutors and their offices liable for wrongdoing…

Under a landmark Supreme Court decision, Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must disclose any material evidence that could exonerate a defendant. But because individual prosecutors are immune from being sued, the only way to hold the government accountable is if a court finds a systemic failure to train prosecutors properly on the Brady rule.

This would seem to be an easy bar to clear in New Orleans, where, as Mr. Truvia and Mr. Bright argue, Mr. Connick effectively had a policy of not turning over exculpatory evidence. He consistently neglected to provide any such training to his staff, even though the office’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence led to the exoneration of at least 12 people since 1990. A former assistant prosecutor, they say, described the office’s unwritten policy as “when in doubt, don’t give it up.”

Yet, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit threw out the lawsuit, saying the men had not proved that Mr. Connick’s office had any policy to withhold evidence or that he had failed to train his prosecutors. Nor, it said, had they proved there were any Brady violations before their convictions…

While New Orleans is among the worst, it’s not alone in violating defendants’ right to exculpatory evidence. Federal and state prosecutors nationwide often fail to honor the Brady rule and are virtually never punished for it. Because Brady violations are by their nature often hidden, one partial fix would be to require prosecutors to turn over their criminal case files to the defense. Ohio and North Carolina have adopted versions of this approach.

Well, hooray for North Carolina.  But even that’s only a partial fix.  Somehow, we seem to have a criminal justice system where no one is above the law.  Except prosecutors.  And that simply needs to change.

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