Democrats and taxes on rich people

Short version: after decades of being cowed we are finally having prominent Democrats unafraid to say America’s wealthiest need to pay more in taxes.  Given our ongoing deficits, there’s a very good argument that middle-class Americans need to pay more in taxes, too, certainly if we want to fund better health care and a more robust safety net, but, for now, not even many Democrats are willing to go there.  That said, I’ll take it as a good start the Democrats are finally pushing back forcefully on the tax debate and I think, therefore, gradually changing the political dynamics on taxes.

No, I don’t think we’ll get AOC’s 70% top marginal rate (nor do I believe that is necessarily the optimal top rate, though there’s definitely a good case for raising top marginal rates), nor do I think we’ll get Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax (as much sense as it makes).  Oh, and yeah, we should almost surely raise the capital gains tax rate.   But, here’s the thing, Democrats are talking about raising tax revenue in largely sensible ways, regardless of what Howard Schulz and other rich billionaires (and their massively disproportionate political influence think).

I really liked this take on AOC from Shadi Hamid in the Atlantic, “Ocasio-Cortez Understands Politics Better Than Her Critics: A 70 percent marginal tax rate might not be realistic—but that doesn’t matter.”

Most Americans—myself included—probably don’t have a well-thought-out position on whether a 70 percent marginal tax rate is a good idea. But it probably doesn’t matter whether it is, or whether it would “work.” To argue that “workability” is secondary might sound odd to many Democrats, particularly party leaders and experts who have long prided themselves on being a party of pragmatic problem-solvers. This, though, could be the most important contribution so far of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the new crop of progressive politicians—the realization that the technical merits of a particular policy aren’t the most relevant consideration. For these new Democrats, the purpose of politics (and elections) is quite different…

As I recently argued in American Affairs, even the better educated don’t primarily vote based on policy. In fact, higher levels of education can increase polarization. [emphases mine] (In other contexts, such as the Middle East, the advent of universal education and higher college attendance fueled ideological divides.) As the political scientist Lilliana Mason notes, “Political knowledge tends to increase the effects of identity as more knowledgeable people have more informational ammunition to counter argue any stories they don’t like.”

People’s politics tend to determine their policy preferences, and not the other way around. In one example from the 1960s, as Christopher Achens and Larry Bartels write in Democracy for Realists, even southerners who supported racial integration left the Democratic Party. Once they became Republican, they then adjusted their views on race and affirmative action to fit more comfortably with their new partisan identity. Put another way, if a person with no prior partisan attachments decides to become a Republican, he is likely to become pro-life. If that same person, with the same genetics and life experience, decides to become a Democrat, he is likely to become pro-choice.

Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives appear to understand instinctually what this growing body of research on voter preferences suggests. And its implications are potentially far-reaching. Once you accept that voters are rationally irrational, you can’t help but change how you understand political competition..

This focus on shifting the contours of the national debate is sometimes referred to as expanding the “Overton window.” It is altogether possible that Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t think that a 70 percent marginal tax rate is realistic in our lifetime—she might not even think it’s the best option from a narrow, technocratic perspective of economic performance—but it doesn’t need to be. As the Open Markets Institute’s Matt Stoller notes, “One thing that [Ocasio-Cortez] has shown is that political leadership matters. Just proposing a 70 percent marginal tax rate has restructured a debate over taxes. Obama’s presidency was defined by self-imposed limits.”..

Today, in a way that hasn’t been true for decades, more Americans are at least aware of something that might otherwise have been ignored as either overly wonky or, well, crazy. The 70 percent figure proposed by Ocasio-Cortez was a subject of debate—and derision—at Davos. But by joking about it, billionaires and aspiring billionaires, in effect, helped legitimate it. After all, if the richest people in the world are worried about it, it might just be a good idea…

I don’t feel strongly about a 70 percent marginal tax rate, but I don’t need to. I might even conclude that it simply “feels” too high. But that just means that if and when a Democratic candidate for president proposes a 50 percent tax rate on income that’s more than $10 million, I’ll be impressed with how “moderate,” reasonable, and sensible it sounds.

As you know, I’m a bit of a policy wonk and think it is really important that we get the details right.  And I think we would want to be very thoughtful about exactly how we would go about raising top marginal rates or implementing a wealth tax, etc.  But, without people like AOC pushing on this, regardless of the details, we’ll never even get a chance to worry about the details.  So, yeah, sure, 70% may well be too high.  But, overall, I love what AOC is doing.

Concentrated interests > science

This Adam Davidson piece on “Money, Power, and Deer Urine” (really!) is so good.  I’ve been meaning to do a post on it for a long time, but since I plan on discussing it some in my Public Policy class today, I’m putting off the post no longer.  As I explain to my class, intense, concentrated interests almost always win over more diffuse interests (e.g., beef producers have a lot of profit motive at stake in avoiding better inspections whereas not too many people find hard for a small percentage reduction in likelihood of food-borne illness spread across all meat eaters).  And, the power of those concentrated interests certainly has the power to outweigh what the science tells us (e.g., a more robust meat inspection system would reduce human suffering and occasional death).

Anyway, it’s pretty fascinating how this all plays out with the issue of prion diseases (i.e., similar to Mad Cow), hunting, and deer urine:

Walk into Walmart or Cabela’s and go to the back, near the rifles, and you’ll find a wall display of deer urine. It comes in small squirt bottles that hunters spray on the ground to hide their scent…

Lapp, along with the deer-farming industry as a whole, is facing a crisis in the form of chronic wasting disease, a plague that attacks white-tailed deer, elk, moose, reindeer, and other members of the cervid family. C.W.D., like mad-cow disease, is caused by a misshapen protein that forces healthy proteins to fold in on themselves, becoming defective. There is no cure—a sick animal wastes away and eventually dies—and the infectious proteins, called prions, can linger in dirt or on plants for years. (There have been no known cases of humans catching C.W.D., but a recent study in Canada found that some macaque monkeys who ate infected meat became ill.) The prions are found in huge quantities in an infected deer’s brain, lymph nodes, saliva, and meat; in smaller amounts in its blood and feces; and in nearly undetectable amounts in its urine…

But Krysten Schuler, a Cornell ecologist on the task force, told me that the most controversial part of the plan has been its complete ban on deer urine.

In a report released by the task force, the case against deer urine appears to be grounded in science. When I contacted some of the authors of the scientific papers cited, however, I learned that a deer would have to imbibe gallons of urine from a dying animal to fall ill; a few ounces sprayed around a hunting site doesn’t pose a risk…

The state will still allow hunters to bring butchered meat back from infected areas, even though hunters often field-dress the animals, exposing the meat—and their clothes, trucks, and other gear—to brain matter, blood, saliva, and feces. One gram of brain matter contains the same number of prions as thirty thousand gallons of urine. Why is the lowest-risk bodily fluid banned, while meat, which may pose an equal or higher risk, is permitted?

The reason is simple. The risk-mitigation plan, like all regulation, isn’t based purely on science; it also takes into account politics and economics. [emphasis mine] The report acknowledges that the New York deer-hunting industry, which is dominated by firearm hunters, brings in more than one and a half billion dollars a year, and is supported by retailers and a passionate population of hunters. The deer-urine industry, on the other hand, is most vocally supported by bow hunters, who are comparatively few, and is predominantly represented by people like Lapp, small farmers with few resources.

The plan’s disparate treatment of urine and meat is an example of what economists call regulatory capture: the process by which regulators, who are supposed to pursue solely the public interest, instead become solicitous of the very industries they regulate.

So, there’s some science going on here, but like so much of what we get as the end-result policy, it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense just looking at good policy, but does look sense when one looks at who are the powerful interests and their economic influence.  Unfortunate, but the definite reality of public policy.

Chart of the day

Making election day a national holiday would not be a turnout panacea, but it would undoubtedly raise turnout by making it easier for lots of people to vote.  Naturally, Mitch McConnell is opposed.

Here’s an interesting chart from Pew on the matter.  I’m actually kind of intrigued by the massive generation gap among Republicans.  In many ways (e.g., climate, LGBT rights), young Republicans are not nearly so bad as their elders.

Older Republicans much less favorable than younger Republicans toward same-day registration


Media centrism

Damn do I love this column from Margaret Sullivan on the media’s ridiculous, knee-jerk, “centrism.”  So good:

One of supposed golden rules of journalism goes like this: “If everybody’s mad at your coverage, you must be doing a good job.”

That’s ridiculous, of course, though it seems comforting. If everybody’s mad, it may just mean you’re getting everything wrong.

But it’s the kind of muddled thinking that feels right to media people who practice what I’ll call the middle-lane approach to journalism — the smarmy centrism that often benefits nobody, but promises that you won’t offend anyone.

Who is the media’s middle-lane approach actually good for?

Not the public, certainly, since readers and viewers would benefit from strong viewpoints across the full spectrum of political thought, not just minor variations of the same old stuff.

But it is great for politicians and pundits who bill themselves as centrists…

Even the cable news panels that purport to express opposing views are part of the damaging both-sides syndrome. A view from the left, a view from the right, and repeat. But take the average, and you’re right back in the comfortable, unilluminating middle.

Impartiality is still a value worth defending in mainstream news coverage. But you don’t get there by walking down the center line with a blindfold on.

Why do journalists and news organizations insist on doing this? I think the answer is pretty clear.

It’s because they want to appear fair without taking any chances.

They want not to offend. Maybe being a little “provocative” is okay on occasion, but let’s not go too far.

It’s a shame, because a lot of Americans actually seem to appreciate having their minds stretched by unfamiliar ideas, as freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist from New York, has shown in her discussions of hiking marginal tax rates on the super-rich to benefit ordinary Americans.

That her views draw tough criticism — prompting opposing arguments like that of Brian Riedl of the conservative Manhattan Institute in his Daily Beast piece,“The ‘Tax the Rich’ Delusion of the American Left” — is fine, too.

But this is rare. Mostly, we have the irresistible pull to the center: centripetal journalism.

It’s safe. It will never cause a consumer boycott. It feels fair without really being fair.

And it’s boringly predictable.

In the end, the media’s center-lane fixation puts us all to sleep. And that’s no way to drive a democracy.

National emergency = profiles in cowardice

Great piece from Dahlia Lithwick:

Now who even knows what’s really on the table, given that the president has variously insisted that he will “almost definitely” declare a national emergency to get his wall done, and then that he would not, and then, as he put it on Friday, “We’ll work with the Democrats and negotiate, and if we can’t do that, then we’ll do a—obviously we’ll do the emergency because that’s what it is. It’s a national emergency.” So. Things.

Given the amount of thinking lawyers have put into the question of presidential power to declare a national emergency at the border, it would be frankly somewhat amazing if Barr hasn’t given it any actual thought. If you are inclined to bone up, you should surely start here, (and then here, and also this, and this, and here, and many thousands of words suggesting that we are not presently in an emergency and also that the president cannot use eminent domainto toss people out of their ranches and churches and homes by simply saying there is one). Given the reality that many Americans are as opposed to a declaration of national emergencyas they were to the shutdown, it might behoove Republicans in the Senate to find out whether the new attorney general plans to greenlight whatever power grab the president plans to arrogate to himself.

Apparently, though, nope, they’re cool. If Republican senators really wanted to stop this national emergency declaration from happening, all they would have to do is promise to veto any attorney general nominee, such as Barr, who refuses to reject the possibility. That’s it. Instead, the current plan appears to be that Senate Republicans will let the emergency declaration go forward, try to blame House Democrats, and then allow the question to be tied up for months and years in the courts, with setbacks blamed on “liberal judges.” Is it brave? No! Is it a bold declaration against unchecked executive overreach that will set an awful precedent whatever the outcome? No! Is it consistent with conservative and libertarian views of property rights and limited government? Also, no! And should the president declare his emergency, does anyone think the Senate will at any time check him, as the law, on its face, demands? No to that too!

Senate Republicans have no good option here between allowing another shutdown to happen and allowing the president to declare a national emergency without consequence. Moving calmly and deliberately toward the latter choice only because it’s the one that hasn’t yet been tested isn’t just shortsighted and cowardly. It’s Congress choosing again to do nothing to stop the president, and then claiming falsely that there is nothing they can do to stop him.

Trump: worst poker player ever

I don’t even play poker, but this Nate Silver post on how Trump is basically a terrible poker player is so good:

In general, the strategic goal of poker is to put your opponent to tough decisions. If you see one of those hands on TV where one player is thinking for several minutes about whether to call or fold on the river, that usually means the other player has played his or her hand well, putting the opponent in a no-win position by leaving just the right amount of doubt about whether it’s a bluff or a real hand.

As a corollary, good players play in such a way as to avoid putting themselves to tough decisions. Bad players, conversely, tend to paint themselves into corners. They’ll curse their luck when they suddenly realize that a hand they’d assumed was a winner might be no good. But more often than not, it reflects a mistake they made earlier in the hand, such as playing a weak hand that they should have folded to begin with…

It’s been obvious the whole time that it was liable to end in political (if not also literal) disaster. Trump was an unpopular president using an unpopular technique to push for an unpopular policy, and he was doing it just after Republicans had lost 40 seats to Democrats in the midterm elections while Trump tried to scaremonger voters on immigration. I can certainly think of lapses in presidential judgment that were more consequential in hindsight than the shutdown, but not all that many that were so obvious in advance. [emphases mine]

And this isn’t the first time that Trump and Republicans have gotten themselves in trouble by picking a fight over an unpopular policy. GOP efforts to undo Obamacare were similar to the shutdown, since Republicans risked either passing a massively unpopular repeal bill or breaking a promise they’d made to voters in 2016. The dynamics over the Republican tax bill were also similar in several respects. Republicans ultimately passed their bill in that case, but they paid a price for it in the midterms in congressional districts with high state, local and property taxes, which can no longer be deducted beyond $10,000 under the new law. Confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after he was accused of committing sexual assault when he was in high school, when Republicans could have withdrawn his name and chosen a less controversial nominee, is another case in which Republicans had to choose from among several difficult options.

Part of this is just a way of saying that public opinion does have consequences: Sometimes it prevents you from passing unpopular policies, and sometimes you pass them but suffer electorally. And sometimes, it’s both: Republicans didn’t get their full Obamacare repeal, but health care was a huge issue in the midterm campaign nonetheless.

If Trump doesn’t believe the polls showing himself and his policies, such as the border wall, to be unpopular, then maybe that’s part of the problem. (There are a lot of ways to be bad at poker, but probably the most common one is to play too many hands because you overestimate your own abilities.) This being FiveThirtyEight, I feel obligated to point out that the notion that polls systematically underestimate Trump is on shaky ground. But if Trump thinks polls are fake news and if he hires advisers who encourage that perception, that could explain why he constantly puts himself in such politically untenable positions…

Trump, similarly, has gotten a long way on the basis of hustle and luck — he was lucky in several important respects to be elected president. There are some cases in which he has displayed solid (if unconventional) tactical instincts, from his negotiations with foreign leaders to his handling of the media to his belittling of his primary opponents. That’s not to say he always gets these decisions right or even does so anywhere near approaching a majority of the time. But he gets enough “wins” — he became president of the United States! — to sustain his ego and not prompt a lot of self-reflection.

But Trump has no sense for which battles to pick and seemingly little awareness of his own unpopularity and the consequences it has for the presidency. Moreover, although Trump sometimes seems to realize when he has gotten himself into a no-win position, he doesn’t recognize how often his own decisions are responsible for putting him there. The presidency is a long game, and a much harder one than being a real-estate developer or a reality television host. The scary possibility for Trump — and I do mean merely a possibility — isn’t that the chaos of the shutdown, coming on the heels of the midterms and as the Russia investigation still looms over him, is a new low for him. It’s that it’s the new normal.

Schultz 2020!

Good God Howard Schultz is an idiot.  First of all, I do think political science/journalist/liberal twitter is way over-freaking out.  I just don’t see this guy siphoning off enough Democratic votes to get Trump re-elected.  I know it is an exciting and fun story for a billionaire to be running for president (Perot certainly did make things more interesting in 1992), but people need to relax on the apocalyptic takes.

The part that really kills me, though, is the way that so many people are successful in one area and are convinced that they are a genius in everything.  Life does not work that way.  Donald Trump is a terrific marketer of the Trump brand.  He is a horrible president.  Daniel Snyder was great at making a telecom start-up; he’s an abysmal NFL owner.  For one, many of the skills involved in the original success don’t translate as well as well as the individuals are convinced that they do.  And, for another, if you have an amazing, outsized success, you almost assuredly benefited from a huge amount of luck, in addition to whatever skill, genius, and hard-work you might have brought.  Chances are, you are not going to have that same great luck in the new endeavor.

Chait with a really, really thorough and good take.  My favorite parts:

Billionaire coffee-shop mogul Howard Schultz is seriously thinking of running for president as an independent. Schultz appears to be one of those rich people who has confused his success in one field with a general expertise in every other field that interests him. His apparently sincere belief that he can be elected president is the product of a sincere civic-minded commitment to the public good and an almost comic failure to grasp how he might accomplish this. That confusion is probably being spread by his hired staffers, whose financial incentive, conscious or otherwise, is to encourage him to embark on a costly political fiasco…

The independent label is a myth. Schultz believes that the large cohort of Americans who identify as “independents” indicates a market for a centrist candidate positioned between the two parties. “What we know, factually, is that over 40 percent of the electorate is either a registered Independent or currently affiliates themselves as an Independent,” he says, “Because the American people are exhausted. Their trust has been broken. And they are looking for a better choice.”

That is not factual.

The center is not what Schultz thinks it is. “Republicans and Democrats alike — who no longer see themselves as part of the far extreme of the far right and the far left — are looking for a home,” he tells the New York Times. What would this center look like? In Schultz’s mind, it would combine his social liberalism with a desire to cut social insurance programs. “We can get the 4 percent growth,” he said last year, “we can go after entitlements, and we can do the right thing — if we have the right people in place.”

In reality, there is no constituency for cutting these programs in either party. A 2017 Pew survey found 15 percent of Republicans, and 5 percent of Democrats support cuts to Medicare, while 10 percent of Republicans and 3 percent of Democrats support cuts to Social Security.

survey of the 2016 electorate by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group
plotted voters by social and economic views. What it found is that many voters have socially conservative and fiscally liberal views — those are the voters who were attracted to Trump’s combination of nativism and promises to maintain social programs and provide universal health care. Vanishingly few voters have socially liberal and fiscally conservative beliefs…

And plenty more good stuff that shows Schultz is amazingly ignorant about how politics actually works.  And far to ignorant on such things to get anywhere near the presidency.

And Crooked’s Jon Lovett with an open letter to Schultz:

Let’s dive in. A year before the first votes are cast in Iowa, you are assuming that the outcome of that process will be unacceptable. You must believe that a) there are tens of millions of people in America who are clamoring for your politics but b) you couldn’t persuade them to vote for you in a Democratic primary. It’s a real pickle.

So what are your politics? In your 60 Minutes interview, Scott Pelley peppered you with policy questions, and on one after another you described a mainstream Democratic position. On immigration, on climate change, on tax policy, you stake out completely ordinary liberal critiques of Trump. Nothing special, nothing new. So what is this great divergence that suggests that you, a lifelong Democrat, have no choice but to run as an independent? That you need to take your ball and go home?

It’s that even though everyone deserves health care, Democratic proposals are too expensive—Medicare for All is a partisan fantasy, our version of Trump’s wall. It fits with what you’ve said previously—that neither party cares enough about fiscal responsibility. Earlier this year you told CNBC that “the greatest threat domestically to the country is this $21 trillion debt hanging over… future generations.” This is the substance of your centrism, the appeal you believe will draw the independents you view as your natural constituency—the socially liberal, fiscally conservative political homeless American voter.

But I have bad news: while there are many voters like this who nod their heads in Aspen and Davos, and who form the base of the Democratic donor class and the consultants who share their politics—cosmopolitan, tolerant, capitalist, constitutionally moderate and rarely touched by poverty and grinding inequality—those nodding heads do not represent a coalition. In fact, it’s the opposite. What we have learned in recent years—and why you see a move toward more left policies in Democratic circles —is that the politically homeless voter is opposite to what you describe: fiscally liberal and socially moderate

You want to help your country? Help us defeat the propaganda machine that enables Trump and the worst elements of the Republican Party. Help us push back against corporate interests arrayed against action on climate change. Fund local journalism. Fund scholarships. Fund voter registration and protection. And, if you believe in the case you’d make as an independent candidate, join the Democratic primary and make that case before the voters you’d need to win. Put some skin in the game. Put some time on the trail. Because unlike money, time and skin are as limited for you as they are for the rest of us.

I believe you love this country. I believe you believe in a noble conception of your motivations. So my hope is that the criticisms reach you, that you talk to smart people you do not pay, that you do not show the same kind of hubris and selfishness and ego that led Trump to believe he alone could fix it. [emphasis mine] In other words, I hope you show some patriotism and get your head out of your ass. That’s it from me, Howard. If you want to talk more, just send a note to the baristas at Sunset and Gower.

Anyway, if Schultz is remotely as smart as he thinks he is (and in 60 Minutes he talked about knowing when he’s not the smartest guy in the room and listening to others)… he’ll actually listen to the resounding criticism.  And, if not, he’s not remotely qualified to be president.  Whatever happens, I’m going to go on record with a (rare, for me) prediction: Howard Schultz will not prevent a Democrat from defeating Donald Trump.

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