"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
December 28, 2012
POLITICS: CBO Projection Fail
Jim Pethokoukis offers a wonderful example of CBO 10-year projection failure: in 2002, the CBO projected that debt would be 7.4% of GDP by 2012. The actual figure: closer to 74%.
Did a lot of unexpected things happen between 2002 and 2012? Of course they did. They always do. This is precisely why you should never regard 10-year budget forecasts as "facts." It's why I apply what I call Crank's First Law: government budget and financial forecasts are always, always wrong.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 7:13 PM | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
December 26, 2012
POLITICS/LAW: Gun Control, Gun Rights, Gun Politics and Newtown: Part I of II
The school shooting atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut has, predictably, touched off another round of the perennial gun-control debate. Especially for parents of young children (my youngest is the same age as most of the victims), the horror of the shootings is almost beyond description, and tends to make rational discussion impossible. And also unseemly, as Jonah Goldberg has explained. More to the point, this is one of those issues where the public demands foolproof solutions that remain elusive: we keep saying "never again" after mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and all sorts of other manmade and supposedly preventable disasters, but there's never a perfect answer that guarantees that any such thing will never happen again (this is, for example, why anti-terrorism policies are best focused on terrorist organizations rather than lone nuts). We can only and always base public policy proposals on what will reasonably improve the situation without imposing costs we can't live with.
The reality of no perfect or costless solutions lends both a hysterical quality to the gun debate as well as a one-sided burden of proof. Gun control advocates suggest a goal (the complete non-existence of firearms) that is not politically, legally or practically possible, and argue that opponents of any gun control measure show how their alternative would be 100% effective by comparison to a gun control utopia that doesn't and never will exist. In a more rational, realistic debate, you would compare the actual proposed gun controls to a world without those proposals - and in that rational world, the first question for gun control advocates after Newtown is why gun control in Connecticut didn't work after the Brady Campaign hailed the state's tough gun laws as a model of public safety. Gun control - complete with an "assault weapons ban," waiting periods, background checks, "gun free school zone" laws and the rest - was already tried in Connecticut, and it failed to make a difference. If Newtown means anything in the gun debate, it's that gun control doesn't work.
The trenches are long-since dug on both sides; if you can find clips of Archie Bunker discussing an issue on YouTube, chances are that we have already had a "national conversation" about that issue. Of course, changing the culture can be at least as important as changing the law, so it is certainly helpful to look again at how we handle things like responsible gun ownership and mental illness (besides the shooter himself, his mother bears responsibility for having firearms under the same roof with such a mentally unbalanced young man). If there's one valuable service the NRA could provide in this debate - and Wayne LaPierre's ham-handed press conference failed to provide - it is stepping up the cultural battle to engage responsible gun owners outside of government.
But both advocates and opponents of gun control tend to fall too easily into knee-jerk slogans that go too far. It is no less true for being a truism, for example, that guns don't kill people, people kill people, and that we don't get nearly as many calls for controlling, say, knives or baseball bats when they are misused. But it is also true that guns are the most efficient, portable, and cost-effective killing tools we have: that's exactly why they remain the weapon of choice for soldiers, cops, criminals, and hunters all over the world (and why the right to own a gun matters). There's a strong case that good people with guns can be a more effective answer to armed criminals than gun control; gun control advocates are almost invariably willfully blind to the value of this. But that doesn't mean that proposals to arm everyone, everywhere are a good idea with no costs or a perfect, foolproof solution. It does no good for defenders of gun rights to overstate their arguments, any more than it helps proponents of gun control to ignore the costs and limitations of gun control or to react with incredulity to the idea that the Constitution means what it says. Frankly, if your approach to the Second Amendment is to laugh and ignore it, I'm not going to trust you to take the rest of the Bill of Rights seriously either.
I am probably a lot less pro-gun, and a lot less interested in guns, than most conservatives; I've never owned, fired or even held a gun, and personally I could be perfectly happy keeping it that way. I'd be personally content to live in a world with no guns at all. And I'm open to supporting reasonable gun regulations where there is reason to believe they will have more than just symbolic effects. But I also respect practical reality, the Constitution, and the rights of other people to freedoms that aren't personally important to me. A few thoughts and observations on guns, Newtown and the way forward:
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The NRA and the History of Gun Control
The NRA, as the nation's most vocal guardian of the right to own a gun, naturally comes in for a lot of abuse after any major shooting, and its leadership sometimes doesn't help the cause (there's a reason why small-government conservatives have battled at times with the NRA, and why the Gun Owners of America exists). But much of the effort to paint the NRA as some sort of moneyed special interest that buys its influence ignores the group's structure and history: it's a consumer group of gun owners, not the trade association of gun manufacturers. As Frank Fleming noted on Twitter, "[p]eople don't support gun rights because the NRA is so powerful; the NRA is so powerful because people support gun rights." It would have faded years ago without that grassroots support. Brian Palmer at Slate explains where the NRA came from and how it got into politics in the first place:
For the most part, the NRA's lobbying arm didn't gin up the emotional fervor of firearms advocates - it resulted from it. The NRA was founded shortly after the Civil War by Union veterans who felt the Confederacy only lasted as long as it did because of the Southerners' superior marksmanship. For nearly a century, the NRA catered to competitive shooters and merely dabbled in politics. As with so many other American cultural issues, things changed in the 1960s. Crime soared. Armed members of the Black Panthers began following police officers around American cities. Riots broke out in Newark and Detroit, and some government officials blamed easy access to guns. Assassins killed two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, under pressure from terrified constituents, Congress passed the first major gun control legislation since the 1930s. A backlash ensued, as American firearms enthusiasts feared the government planned to take their guns. They pushed the relatively apolitical NRA to lobby on their behalf. When the leadership balked in 1977, a group of activists staged a coup. The new leaders commissioned a poll, which found that lobbying was the members' biggest priority. They turned the group into a political force, with the Second Amendment as their bible.
This is much like the history of the abortion issue, in which heavy-handed liberals created an ideological opposition where none had existed before the 1960s. And as with abortion, the history of gun control in the U.S. begins with an explicitly racist agenda. UCLA law professor Adam Winkler observes:
America's most horrific racist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, began with gun control at the very top of its agenda. Before the Civil War, blacks in the South had never been allowed to possess guns. During the war, however, blacks obtained guns for the first time. Some served as soldiers in black units in the Union Army, which allowed its men, black and white, to take their guns home with them as partial payment of past due wages. Other Southern blacks bought guns in the underground marketplace, which was flooded with firearms produced for the war.
Kentucky firebrand Ida B. Wells urged that "the Winchester rifle deserved a place of honor in every Negro home." The first generation of legal battles by the NAACP were centered on defending Blacks who had used firearms in self-defense – e.g., hiring Clarence Darrow to defend Dr. Ossian Sweet who was mobbed for attempting move into a white neighborhood
As Winkler notes, even the NRA itself turned away from its history to help devise the first gun-licensing laws in the 1920s, designed to keep immigrants from obtaining guns. And as he explained in a 2011 article for The Atlantic, the modern gun control movement was as much a response to the Black Panthers as anything.
The NRA's position since the 1970s may seem unduly uncompromising - but it's also more respectful of equal civil rights. And while we have thankfully moved on from the age of organized hate crimes, Jim Crow, and secession, they are not such distant memories to make us smug about the assurance that nobody in America need ever worry again about the need for protection against fellow Americans.
Guns are also the great equalizer, in a way that can be of importance to women and the elderly, particularly in high-crime areas or when traveling alone at night. Most crime is committed by men, disproportionately young men who are often physically stronger than their victims. Guns, far more than any other weapon, place women on an equal footing with their assailants. Just as today, the Founding Fathers' generation understood this: I've recently been reading HW Brands' sterling biography of Benjamin Franklin, and one of the anecdotes in the book recounts how Franklin's wife prepared with the family gun to defend their home (while Ben was away in England) from a rampaging anti-Stamp Act mob.
Moreover, harken back to the original idea of the NRA: to teach marksmanship skills that could later be used in military service to the nation. In an age of all-volunteer militaries, this is a particularly important point: I don't know whether anyone has formally studied the issue, but just from anecdotal experience I'd be willing to bet that young men and women who grow up with a gun in the household are much more likely to volunteer for military service, especially in the Army or Marine Corps. Which brings us to the Second Amendment - why we have one, what it means, and why it matters.
What Is The Second Amendment?
As you probably know, the Second Amendment to the US Constitution - adopted in 1791, and ceding pride of place in the Bill of Rights only to the freedoms of speech, religion and assembly - states that "[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
A similar provision appears in the bills of rights of 43 states, including states that adopted them prior to 1791. Hunting - and in some parts of the country, protection from dangerous wildlife like wolves and bears - is a major reason why guns are popular, widespread and useful. But the Founding Fathers did not put the right to bear arms in the Bill of Rights because they were worried about restrictions on hunting. It is a political right: the right to bear arms in defense of one's self, home, and state against intruders of all kinds, up to and including the national government, foreign invaders, secessionists or domestic hate groups like the Klan. I can't really explain why better than this spellbinding Newt Gingrich address to the NRA in 2011, especially the ten minutes starting around 4:50:
The men who wrote the Bill of Rights did not include the Second Amendment as an oversight or a rhetorical flourish; as Newt explains, the history of the right to bear arms was real, vivid and a life-or-death matter to them and one they saw as "necessary to the security of a free State." Madison in Federalist No. 46 explicitly argued at length that an armed citizenry would protect even against our own federal government:
[Compared to the small federal military Madison envisioned] would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it. Let us not insult the free and gallant citizens of America with the suspicion, that they would be less able to defend the rights of which they would be in actual possession, than the debased subjects of arbitrary power would be to rescue theirs from the hands of their oppressors.
Madison would, it turns out, underestimate the federal government, which would go on over the next 80 years or so to impose its will on all manner of armed citizens - the Whiskey Rebellion, John Brown's abolitionists, the Confederate Army, the Mormons. (Nat Turner's slave rebellion was conducted without firearms, with predictable lack of success).
Madison's Constitution - even before its inclusion of an express right to bear arms - already contained other provisions relating to the citizen Militia, over which Congress was given specific but not plenary powers:
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
The President's Commander-in-Chief power is likewise explicitly extended to "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States." And immediately following the adoption of the Second Amendment, the Congress of the Founding generation used the authority granted in the Militia clause:
A 1792 federal law mandated every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters - where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls.
The Supreme Court has recently affirmed, in two landmark cases (DC v. Heller and McDonald v Chicago), a conclusion supported by extensive scholarship: that the Second Amendment protects an individual right, one that exists regardless of whether an individual has been called into militia service. (I have argued before that it may also protect a state's right to permit or promote gun ownership within its own borders). I won't rehash the ins and outs of the argument here except to note that a huge majority of the liberal commentary on the issue basically amounts to laughing and saying "that can't be true!" rather than actually investigating the facts and the history of the right (not for nothing has Second Amendment scholarship been dominated in recent decades by the pro-gun-rights scholars). The failure to take the Constitution seriously is one that continues to plague the gun control movement.
But what "Arms" are protected? Given the political purpose of the right and its intimate connection to national defense - and how Congress read the Militia clause in 1792 - it is illogical in the extreme to argue that "assault weapons" or "military-style weapons" or some such are not covered. The entire point of the Second Amendment is to ensure that citizens could be armed and ready to be converted, on short notice (think: "minutemen") into a military force. In 1791, that meant the standard equipment of an infantryman of the day, a musket or rifle and likely a bayonet. (Veterans of the savage fighting at Bunker Hill would scoff ruefully at the notion that muskets were not "assault weapons"). Of course, even the colonial militia only had a right to possess infantry weapons; even in the 18th century, the militiamen owned muskets and rifles individually, but the town or state collectively owned the cannons. No serious reading of the Second Amendment would protect your right to own artillery, tanks or fighter jets. It is a fair question where or whether there is any limit to what kind of infantry-style weapons (rifle, sidearm, etc.) would count as "Arms" under the Second Amendment, but the mere description of a weapon as a military-style rifle makes it more rather than less likely that it would be the sort of thing the right was written to protect (indeed, the gun control side argued - unsuccessfully - in Heller that handguns were not protected because they were not of sufficient military use).
By contrast, the Second Amendment specifically speaks of the militia being "well-regulated" and gives to Congress explicit powers relating to that regulation. That makes the right to bear arms less like the more absolute rights to free speech and free exercise of religion (about which "Congress shall make no law") and more like the right against searches and seizures, which the Fourth Amendment bans only when "unreasonable." Indeed, Congress used that authority in 1792 to require gun registration and ownership. The obvious conclusion is that, while neither Congress nor the states can properly bar the ownership or possession of any class of guns, one or both may impose reasonable regulations. Again, we can argue about the limits of what kind of regulation is wise or permitted - I personally tend to support background checks, limited waiting periods and even a gun registry - but there's no particular reason to believe that the Second Amendment is intended to present a meaningful obstacle to such regulations of the right.
(Gun owners often argue that a state or national gun registry would make confiscating guns easier. That's true, but we don't prevent the government from licensing the broadcasting spectrum or knowing where newspapers are published, because we have a tradition of respecting freedom of speech. If we took the Second Amendment more seriously, we might have less paranoia around regulating gun ownership).
Even aside from the Constitution, in considering how changes in the law would play out, a little perspective should be in order from all sides. First of all, it is simply not the case that a ban on all guns is politically possible in the United States; even a Washington Post snap poll after the shootings found 71% of Americans opposed, and 56% strongly opposed, to a total gun ban.
Moreover, we know from long experience that when you ban something there's a public demand for, it gets less common, more expensive and more under the control of the criminal class - but it doesn't go away entirely. That's true whether you are talking about guns, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gambling, abortion, prostitution, pornography, or illegal immigration. That's not a reason to give up on banning any bad things, but it means that you have to look down the road at what you do next, and in this case that's a world where the illegal gun population would not decline nearly as much as the legal gun population. There may be something like 300 million guns already out there in the U.S., which can not feasibly be confiscated. If you like the War on Drugs, you'd love a War on Guns. Moreover, long experience with restrictive gun control, as in Chicago, suggests that criminals are much more likely to endure the risks and expenses of buying illegal guns, tilting the playing field further against law-abiding citizens.
This is why a mass shooting is the perfect storm for gun control advocates: the debate on guns and crime or even guns and terrorism is a losing one for them, because people easily grasp that gun bans don't make a dent in guns owned by the bad guys and that the better path is to crack down on the criminals, not the guns. Criminals will always make the extra effort to get illegal guns; terrorists are just as happy to use bombs; suicides and crimes of passion will just as easily reach for whatever stands at hand. Ben Domenech has a must-read roundup of what we know and have learned about both gun control and mass shootings, and it's not a record that inspires confidence in the superiority of the gun control approach.
What is more likely to be proposed is some form of "assault weapons ban." But we know from experience of the Clinton-era ban that the final legislation is likely to be shot through with nonsensical distinctions drawn from the difficulties of defining what it is that the statute aims to ban. It is sadly the case that a huge amount of the gun control debate is driven by liberals and journalists with little or no personal experience with guns, and therefore no concept of how to draw the distinctions at issue. Tim Carney, as part of a larger explainer on the various distinctions ("use of the phrase semi-automatic when talking about guns is like using the phrase 'gasoline cars.'") recalls the 1994 bill:
First, all guns can be used to assault someone - even a muzzle-loading black-powder rifle.
Efforts to block the access of a very small subset of people - mass shooters - from to a narrow band of originally-legally-purchased firearms (the Newtown shooter was blocked by Connecticut's tough gun laws from buying a rifle just days before the attack, so he stole one instead) is a worthy goal, to be sure; some of the proposals under discussion might reduce the number of victims in some future incident. But in practical terms, the odds are much greater that in our effort to lock this particular barn door, we are talking about a large national political debate, the restriction of freedom on a large number of people, and the additional burden on law enforcement nationwide for a slight reduction in firepower that could potentially save maybe a handful of lives per decade.
It's hard to keep perspective after an event like Newtown - it's almost impossible, in fact, for parents to regard such an atrocity with any perspective at all - but the likely result of all this debate is a whole lot of political posturing for not very much result. In some ways this recalls the Terri Schiavo debate in 2005, when national politics ground to a halt over the life of one woman - a noble goal, perhaps the noblest of goals - but one that squandered the opportunity for a newly re-elected president to do bigger things affecting a much larger swath of the country's future, but which our political system was unable to resist because of the moral certainty of those who fought for Schiavo. (Our priorities can seem quite strange in this way: Planned Parenthood kills twenty children every half hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and we do nothing about that.)
The next round of gun control debates is likely to be long on symbolism and short on practical solutions. Congress should not pass any laws - in this or other contexts - without some good reason to believe they will actually accomplish something. The burden remains on the advocates of new gun laws to show not only that their proposals are constitutional and not undue burdens on the rights and freedoms of law-abiding citizens, but that they actually have some practical chance of working.
(In Part II, I will look at the different ways - prevention, preemption, deterrence, disarmament, self-defense - that we look at violence)
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Posted by Baseball Crank at 3:15 PM | Law 2009-14 | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)
December 20, 2012
POLITICS: Republicans: Don't Get Outbid On Taxes
Unlike some of my RedState colleagues, for reasons I explained on Tuesday, I agree with the basic theory behind John Boehner's Plan B solution to the tax side of the fiscal cliff standoff: rather than trading Republican blessings on tax hikes for illusory "spending cuts," let Democrats get the tax hikes they want with no pretense that Republicans support them, pass a bill making permanent those tax cuts both sides can agree on, and take the dispute back to the voters in 2014 and 2016. Then we can have the straight-up spending debate, and hold the line on further demands for even more tax hikes beyond the ones that Obama can get simply by not making a deal.
But Boehner has made what I regard as one significant mistake in this fight: he's letting the Democrats get to his right on middle class tax cuts. Democrats are complaining that Plan B doesn't extend some of the tax cuts for middle and lower income taxpayers, such as the "temporary" payroll tax cut, the Alternative Minimum Tax fix and the "American Opportunity Tax Credit" for certain college expenses (you can see the White House's talking points, driven off yet another study by the left-wing Tax Policy Center, here and here). Some of this is disingenuous, as Democrats characterize the end of temporary government spending on non-taxpayers (including some aspects of the child tax credit and Earned Income Tax Credit) as "tax hikes." But there are also some legitimate increases in taxes actually paid, mainly the expiration of the payroll tax cut, that will go into effect in the new year if Plan B is the only thing that passes. In other words, Democrats really are pressing for some tax cuts that Republicans are not.
This should never, ever happen to any competent Republican. It's precisely how Obama outflanked Romney on the tax issue during the summer, and you would think the election results should have taught GOP leadership not to repeat that mistake. If anything, Republicans should up the ante: make the payroll tax cut permanent, and dare Democrats to block it. Any time Republicans get a Democrat to concede the value of tax cuts, that's a conservative victory and should be taken to the bank while the getting is good. (As to the particulars of tax credits, Republicans uncomfortable with the structure can always devise an alternative of equal size). Make the Democrats be the ones to argue that Obama's own payroll tax cut is unsustainable or unworkable. As things stand right now, workers - including members of the "47%" who pay no federal income taxes - are enjoying the benefits of being able to spend the money they earn instead of having it taken by the federal government. They are seeing in action the most important conservative fiscal policy argument of all. Republicans should never be the ones standing against that.
I believe it was Conn Carroll who remarked after the election that Ronald Reagan would have looked at 47% of the country paying no federal income tax and called it "a good start." That philosophy animated Republicans under Reagan's and George W. Bush's presidencies and under Newt Gingrich's Speakership: cut taxes for as many people as possible at every possible opportunity. While GOP tax cuts in those eras often benefitted the wealthy who paid the most taxes in the first place, they frequently offered proportionally equal or greater benefit to taxpayers at every income level. That's why the party's tax-cutting brand helped it appeal to middle class and non-wealthy suburban voters. The Romney campaign never understood the importance of never letting Democrats pose as being to the Republicans' right on taxes, and as a result let Romney and the party get painted as too narrow in its economic appeal. If he wants the GOP to stop being the Stupid Party, Boehner should learn the lesson of Romney's defeat, and amend Plan B to include, extend or expand every tax cut the Democrats claim to be willing to support. And Republican tax policy going forward should make that a line as stringently defended as the ATR no-tax-hikes pledge.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 3:00 PM | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
December 18, 2012
POLITICS: A Different Shade of Tea
As of January, Hawaii will have at least one Asian-American Senator, Mazie Hirono, and had two (Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka) - all Democrats - before Akaka's retirement at the end of this term and Inouye's death yesterday. Governor Neil Abercrombie, a white Democrat, will appoint a replacement to serve until a 2014 special election. And of course, President Obama is a Hawaiian-born African-American. But in the 147 Senate seats and Governorships covering the other 49 states, there are:
Five Hispanics (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bob Menendez, Susanna Martinez, and Brian Sandoval): four Republicans, one Democrat.
Two African-Americans (Tim Scott and Deval Patrick): one Republican, one Democrat.
Two South Asians (Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley): both Republicans.
Moreover, Jindal, Haley, Scott, Rubio, and Cruz - Republicans all - all represent states of the old Confederacy (Scott defeated Strom Thurmond's son to win a primary in the district that includes Fort Sumter).
If personnel is policy, the GOP can thank Tea Party insurgents for helping give it a leg up in broadening its appeal.
POLITICS: Republicans Must Retreat, Not Surrender, on the Fiscal Cliff
It's time for John Boehner and the House and Senate Republicans now engaged in the fiscal cliff negotiations to learn a lesson from George Washington: when faced with fighting a losing battle, the wisest course is to retreat rather than surrender.
George Washington didn't get to be the Father of His Country by leading his often outnumbered and outgunned troops on suicide missions. Washington fought few pitched battles in the Revolutionary War, usually unsuccessfully (as at Long Island, Brandywine and Germantown). His signal successes involved surprise attacks (at Trenton) or trapping or cornering his foes without a full-scale open-field engagement (at Boston and Yorktown). Facing numerically superior forces, Washington often preferred to retreat to save his army from disaster, even after successful smaller engagements like the fight at Harlem Heights. Often in 1776 and 1777, as his army unsuccessfully sought to defend New York and Philadelphia from the steadily building British army, Washington would have his troops disengage and slip away in the dark, even at the cost of eventually having both cities captured by the enemy. For much of the war, Washington would resist Congressional entreaties to launch more ambitious offensives (such as an impractical invasion of Quebec), and at times would hastily abandon positions (like at Stony Point) that his men captured but could not defend.
Washington's evasiveness - and his army's endurance of hard marches in the snow at Trenton in the winter of 1776 and winter quarters in the bitter cold at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777 - enabled him to keep his forces together until they were strong enough to fight the British to a standstill at Monmouth and until the reinforcement of allied troops from France arrived. Washington's subordinate Nathaniel Greene conducted a similar campaign in the South, harassing Cornwallis while losing most of his battles (as Greene wrote, "[w]e fight, get beat, rise and fight again") but remaining on the run, avoiding a decisive engagement until Washington and the French could trap Cornwallis at Yorktown in September 1781.
Washington's approach didn't just help his army avoid annihilation or capture until it could grow stronger and obtain outside help. It also staved off an ever-threatened collapse in morale, as Washington's men avoided more of the kind of disastrous routs that would lead to more desertions and fewer recruits. In time, it bonded Washington to his men, who grew to trust his judgment. Of perhaps particular interest to Boehner and McConnell, it also helped Washington avoid being replaced from his command by an antsy Congress. And in the end, it brought him victory.
The one thing Washington never did in the Revolution was surrender. Only once, at the outset of his military career, did he do that, and it ended in disaster for all involved. In 1754, Washington - then a Colonel in the Virginia militia under the command of the British royal governor - was sent to scout the frontier in what is now Western Pennsylvania, with orders that authorized him to fight anyone obstructing British settlements in the area. Finding the French in possession of a partially constructed British fort, Washington and his Iroquois allies launched an attack (begun under circumstances that are murky to this day) that ended up with the French commander, Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, being killed and scalped by the overzealous Iroquois leader, Tanaghrisson, possibly while attempting to negotiate a cease-fire. ("Overzealous" may be putting it mildly - Tanaghrisson split Jumonville's head open and washed his hands in his brains. Boehner's and McConnell's issues controlling their caucus seem mild by comparison.)
The French in the area, under the command of Jumonville's brother Louis Coulon de Villiers, launched a counterattack along with their own Native American allies, cornering Washington (now abandoned by the Iroquois) at Fort Necessity. Villiers threatened to storm the fort and let the Native Americans scalp Washington and his entire garrison, but since the two countries were not at war, he offered Washington safe passage with his men back to Virginia if he surrendered. The deal also included a prisoner exchange at the conclusion of Washington's withdrawal from the area. Badly outnumbered, with rain soaking his ammunition and his men breaking into the fort's liquor supplies, Washington capitulated - and signed terms written in French by a vindictive Villiers that would haunt him:
All Washington had to do was sign the terms of capitulation.
Washington, duped, blamed his translator, Jacob Van Braam, and never spoke to him again. Neither side ended up honoring the remaining terms of an agreement negotiated in bad faith under duress. The succeeding controversy touched off the global war known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War, with dire results for all sides. For Washington, it meant being sent back to confront the French along with a British expeditionary force led by General Braddock. Braddock sought decisive battle and got it, with his expedition ending in a rout that killed its commander and required Washington to shepherd the remaining forces home safely. For the French, the war itself resulted in the loss of all their North American possessions. For the British, Braddock's defeat convinced the colonials that they could handle battle as well as the British regulars, a discovery that would help trigger the American Revolution 21 years after the surrender at Fort Necessity (a revolution that itself would help contribute to the fiscal crisis that collapsed the French monarchy).
Today's Field of Battle
The Legislative Terrain
The "fiscal cliff" negotiations, which by design were set for right after the presidential election, have been built around the legislative Doomsday Device constructed by the two parties in 2011 and having its roots all the way back to George W. Bush passing tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that would expire in 2010 unless extended. The "cliff" refers to a bunch of things that will happen automatically without legislative action - signed by the President - to prevent them:
This cliff is composed of several parts.
By choosing to fight right after the election, Republicans took the risk that Obama would win and negotiate from what is likely to be the high point of his second term popularity. Each side holds hostages: Obama holds the extension of the tax cuts, especially the cuts for the top tax rates, which Republicans want; Republicans hold the extension of the debt limit. On the tax side, Democrats (in a sharp reversal from their position during the Bush years) profess to want to make the Bush tax cuts permanent below a certain income threshold, and have previously passed a bill in the Senate to do so. Obama's hostages among the top rates include the capital gains rate, which is of particular importance to the economy:
The Senate-passed bill to extend Bush tax cuts for income under $250,000 ($200,000 for a single filer) applies to both the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, and thus also allows tax rates on capital gains and dividends over $250,000 to return to 20 percent. It would also reinstate separate tax provisions cutting the amount by which high earners can benefit from the personal exemption and itemized deductions.
On the spending side, the sequester cuts include dangerous cuts to defense spending, which Republicans want to avoid and which Obama professed to not want during the election campaign, and a variety of social-program spending the Democrats want to preserve. Items that could potentially be included in a deal range from entitlement cuts to eliminating deductions in the tax code. Different economists project various sorts of doom from "going over the cliff" or for pretty much any other possible solution; your mileage may vary as to how seriously to take these.
The Political Terrain
Republicans and Obama both have immediate political stumbling blocks and goals aside from their long-term policy interests. For Republicans, the top of that list is the Americans for Tax Reform no-tax-hikes pledge, which most have taken. Grover Norquist, the head of ATR, doesn't wield all that much power by himself, but House and Senate Republicans who have taken the pledge can be in a very bad place with their own constituents (think: "read my lips, no new taxes") if they break it without a really compelling reason to do so. No GOP-controlled House since the institution of the income tax has ever raised rates. But they also have one possible escape hatch: it's not a real violation of the pledge for tax hikes to happen automatically without a vote, especially if Republicans have gone repeatedly on record trying to extend them.
Obama's goal is twofold and related. First, he wants to break Republicans, and divide the party to it's less able to resist him in his second term. And second, he wants to get the core of his economic agenda - the top-rate tax hikes and "Buffett Rule" tax hikes on investments - passed with GOP support so that he can spread the blame for the consequences. Obama may be slow to learn this lesson, but he understands that the game theory calculus from the 2009 stimulus - that the only safe place for Republicans is to wash their hands of his agenda - requires him to find a way to keep Republicans out of that place. Bipartisan cover is particularly important to Senate Democrats up for re-election in 2014 in Louisiana, Arkansas, West Virginia, South Dakota, and Montana (all states Obama lost twice), as well as states like North Carolina, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Like Villiers at Fort Necessity, Obama wants Republican signatures on a deal that can be used against them.
But that's if there's an agreement. If there is none, the political reality is that the media is prepared to blame the GOP for any failure to reach an agreement, pretty much no matter the course of negotiations, and in the immediate honeymoon period following Obama's re-election, this will probably work. Democrats have internalized this argument, saying the GOP is checkmated. This has emboldened Obama. Treasury Secretary Geithner declared that the Administration would go over the cliff unless a deal included hikes on taxpayers above $250,000. Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted, as Obama had said repeatedly during the campaign, that Social Security would not be on the table. Dick Durbin says the White House told him the Medicare eligibility age is not on the table. And on the debt limit:
President Obama is saying flatly that he will not negotiate under any circumstances over raising the national debt limit....the President says he won't negotiate under any circumstances. And his top advisors say he's adamant on the point - not just because of the current impasse but to take hostage taking over the national debt off the table for good.
This is all consistent with Obama's traditional approach of offering nothing of value to Republicans to get bipartisan deals done. As usual, Obama is attempting - even without control of the House of Representatives - to proceed on what I've described before as the annihilation strategy of winning legislative victories.
Learning To Retreat
Nervous Hill Republicans have taken all this as a sign that they must accept a deal, any deal, and that Obama has them over a barrel, even if it means trading tax hikes for the illusion of spending cuts. But that is the wrong approach. The GOP can always retreat - but it must be to more defensible ground.
As I have written before at length, you win battles in politics by picking fights you are willing to lose. As streiff's analogy to Keyser Soze makes clear, that includes showing a willingness to stand back and let Obama shoot his hostages. But it doesn't mean the GOP is holding a strong position, either. Some hardliners think "no surrender" means we have the leverage to win all kinds of concessions, and Phil Klein explains why this is madness, and specifically why just walking away completely could leave Republicans in a much worse position come January:
[Consider] the effect on [the GOP's] low-tax brand from letting everyone's taxes go up on Jan. 1. At that point, Obama can go on television and demand a $3.7 trillion tax cut for 98 percent of Americans. What happens to the brand if Republicans oppose a tax cut for the middle class because it doesn't also lower rates on those with the highest incomes?
I highly recommend reading both Klein's and streiff's essays in their entirety, as they frame the two possible approaches to walking away from a deal, along with Drew M's "Let it Burn" argument. Klein says the GOP should just pass an extension of the Bush tax cuts for everyone below $250,000, dare Obama and Harry Reid to oppose them, and leave town; streiff argues that Republicans should just let the whole cliff go into effect, tax hikes and all, because the cliff includes cuts the GOP couldn't get at the bargaining table; Drew argues that voters simply need to see the consequences of electing Obama. I think Klein has the better argument, the one that places Republicans in the position George Washington would have appreciated: having retreated to more defensible terrain where they can use their leverage over the remaining hostage (the debt limit) to ransom the defense cuts and perhaps get some additional modest concessions, while making clear that it was the Democrats alone who chose to raise taxes. It now appears that Boehner is pushing a "Plan B" that could do something like that - making the Bush tax cuts permanent for everyone below $1 million.
Of course, a retreat does not mean the end of the fight. And while Republicans do not have great leverage, they still have an advantage that gets undercovered by the media: the Democratic camp itself is divided on what it can and can't swallow. For example, Obama may be willing to accept letting the payroll tax cut expire, a move that is deeply unpopular with base groups like MoveOn.Org. Senate Democrats are also divided over "Chained CPI," a method of restraining the growth of Social Security benefits. But the George Washington approach - engage, retreat, maneuver, and make the Democrats show their cards - is a better way to tease out those divisions than either a suicidal last stand or an abject surrender.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:00 PM | History | Politics 2012 | Politics 2013 | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
December 17, 2012
BASEBALL: The RA Dickey Deal
Honestly, I have trouble dealing rationally with the Mets trading RA Dickey on the heels of his (well-deserved) Cy Young season. Like letting Jose Reyes go, this is simply something you don't do if you intend to field a competitive team long term in a major market like New York. Sure, Dickey's 38, but he's a knuckleballer; he's as good a bet as David Wright to be a productive contributor to the team in 2015 or 2016. He is also, for very valid reasons, enormously popular and fun to watch, and his salary demands were very reasonable. The Mets' shabby treatment of Dickey reinforces the view that this is a second-rate organization.
If you accept the premise that the Mets had no choice to trade Dickey, then sure, they seem to be getting a decent return - catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud, pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard, and dealing Josh Thole for John Buck (which seems a slight downgrade but Buck has his uses and Thole had a terrible year; his value to the Jays is knowing how to catch Dickey). But far from certain to be equal value. Syndergaard is a 20 year old pitching prospect who's never pitched above A ball; with 53 walks and 196 Ks in his pro career in Rookie and A ball compared to 54 walks and 230 K for Dickey last year in the NL, Syndergaard is at the bottom of a very tall mountain, the top of which is the kind of pitcher Dickey is now. He's not rated a better prospect than Mike Pelfrey was, and Pelfrey just signed with the Twins after an enormously disappointing career in blue and orange. As for d'Arnaud, he has no speed and no plate discipline (41 walks per 600 minor league plate appearances), and had a .418 career minor league slugging average entering 2011. He's hit a lot better since then, but Citi Field is not Las Vegas in the PCL. Also, d'Arnaud played only 67 games this season due to torn knee ligaments; the Mets seem unworried, which is reassuring if you have a lot of faith in the Mets crack medical staff.
Maybe both prospects work out, but the Mets are courting the KC Royals cycle here, where it doesn't even matter how good the prospects are because nobody believes anymore that the team is going to spend the money to field a contender when they're ready. And unlike the Royals, they can't blame this on playing in a small market.
Dickey's season, along with Johan Santana's no-hitter, made the 2012 Mets watchable through everything that went wrong. This deal represents a rejection of fielding a watchable team in 2013, and suggests a long-term approach that gives less rather than more cause for optimism.
December 13, 2012
POLITICS: Why You Can't Trade Taxes For Spending
Should Republicans trade tax hikes for spending cuts? Much of the debate over the current fiscal cliff standoff centers around discussions of "ratios": Republicans will agree to X dollars of tax hikes, Democrats will agree to Y dollars of spending cuts, and so forth.
Much of this discussion is based on numbers that are misleading or worse, because Washington doesn't calculate taxes and spending the same way. A tax hike will raise real, immediate costs on real taxpayers, whether or not it actually raises any more revenue. The targets of a tax hike are citizens, who do not have a choice whether to obey. By contrast, a "spending cut" may simply involve altering future projections of the rate of increase of spending, and thus agreements to cut spending rarely actually result in less spending. And the targets of such spending cuts are future Congresses, who can disregard them at will; they're not binding.
The only real equivalents to tax hikes are (1) complete elimination of federal spending programs or (2) changes in the eligibility criteria or benefits formulas for entitlement programs. There are fair arguments about the best GOP strategy in managing the tax debate, but if a negotiated agreement is to be reached that will require Republican votes to pass, Republicans should not even consider agreeing to trade tax hikes in exchange for anything less.
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Taxes: The Case Of The Tax on Widgets
To consider how this works, let's consider a hypothetical budget deal. On the tax side, we have a $1 tax on widgets that brought in $100 million in 2011 and $100 million in 2012. The Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) presently projects that the sale of widgets will grow steadily by 5 million widgets a year, year-to-year, adding $5 million in new revenue each year on top of what's already collected, and that over tax years 2013-2022, the tax will bring in $1.275 billion. The White House wants to double the widget tax to $2. JCT dutifully applies a "static" revenue growth assumption: that is, it assumes that doubling the widget tax will have no impact whatsoever on sales of widgets (Phil Gramm once had the JCT score a proposal to tax income at 100%; JCT had no choice but to compute the resulting tax revenue on the assumption that people would work just as hard for no after-tax pay. JCT claims to have modified this somewhat in the intervening years, but its projections are still more or less done the same way). As a result, JCT projects an additional $1.275 billion in revenue over ten years.
As an aside, tax and spending numbers are always presented in these "total over ten years" figures, with no adjustment for the time value of money; thus, you can play all kinds of budgetary games by back-loading some parts of a budget package and front-loading others. This was famously done by Obamacare, which started its taxes before the spending so that 10 years of taxes could be counted against 6 years of spending as if this would be a continuing feature of the annual cost of a permanent program.
Anyway, the tax gets passed, and it has real effects on real taxpayers: every widget must either cost an additional dollar or be produced at less profit. Some buyers cut back their purchases of widgets; some widget manufacturers go under; some industries that buy widgets in bulk build new offshore factories to buy widgets from overseas manufacturers that aren't subject to the tax. And even aside from that, JCT - because it lacks a crystal ball - fails to foresee a recession starting in 2020. Instead of an additional $1.275 billion in revenue over ten years, the widget tax hike ends up bringing in just $77 million in new revenue (a pitiable $7.7 million a year), while a whole bunch of American widget workers lose their jobs, adding to the government's spending on unemployment insurance and other automatic expenditures. Ten years down the line, the tax is still 50% higher than it was in 2012, but brings in only 30% more revenue than 2011 or 2012, and the same amount as in 2013.
Here's what that looks like in chart and graph form:
Spending: The Case of The Department of Departments Budget
What did Congress get in return for the widget tax? An offsetting $1.275 billion reduction in projected spending by the Department of Departments. The Department spent $60 million in 2011, and had its budget nearly doubled to $100 million in 2012. You might think a billion-plus-dollar cut in spending means spending less than $100 million in 2013, but you would be wrong. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) sets a 'baseline' that calculates what current spending levels are and then adds to those levels projected future spending growth based on a set of assumptions. Any "cuts" will simply be reductions in the future growth projections. If the CBO ran a diet, you could declare that you've succeeded at weight loss by projecting a decrease in your expected weight gain over the next decade.
In our example, the current CBO baseline has the Department's budget increasing another 30% in 2013 from 2012, 50% over 2013-14, and 900% by 2022 - all of that baselined against 2012, ignoring the huge jump in its budget from 2011, which is banked as a permanent part of the baseline it spends every year. Under the budget deal for the widget tax, these insane numbers are pared back to...something still insane: a 20% increase in 2013, a 65% increase by 2015, a 500% increase by 2022. In theory, this is an offset of $1.275 billion; in practice, we went from a widget tax taking in $100 million vs the Department budget of $60 million in 2011 to the widget tax taking in $130 million in 2022 while the Department spends $500 million. And unlike the tax hike, 89.5% majority of the projected savings are more than 5 years in the future, and thus is much more subject to future uncertainties. Jonathan Chait describes what happens when Congress claims to cap future discretionary spending:
What usually happens is that Congress plans for tight caps to this category, and then when it comes time to implement it, and Congress discovers it actually means things like firing FBI agents and slashing the weather service, it balks.
In 2012, for example, the Senate voted to avoid the spending caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act, and Democrats howled at the idea that Republicans would actually hold them to the caps in proposing a "jobs bill" with a bunch of new spending. Past budget deals, like the "firewall" in the budget deal in which the first President Bush agreed to break his read-my-lips-no-new-taxes pledge, proved unenforceable.
And that's what happens in our example. The Department's budget includes some unemployment-related programs; the widget tax throws some more people out of work in 2013, and Congress goes back and adds a $10 million increase in the budget - which now gets added to the Department's baseline. When the 2020 recession hits, that goes up another $50 million. Now, not only has Congress traded a tax that brings in just $7.7 million a year for allowing the Department to quintuple in size, it ends up saving just $1.5 million a year over the next five years, and a total of $1.025 billion instead of $1.275 billion. You can see how the net result of this sort of thing leads to out-of-control spending getting passed off as budget "cuts":
In summary, in our hypothetical budget deal, an on-paper even trade ends up with the deficit between the widget tax and the Department of Department's budget going from a $40 million surplus in 2011 to even in 2012 to a $370 million deficit in 2022, while being scored by the JCT and CBO as a $2.55 billion reduction in the deficit. That's a systemic failure in how we keep score of these things. It's why we are launching Underscore.us, a website dedicated to taking a closer look at how the JCT and CBO scoring systems bias policymaking in Washington towards ever-increasing spending and against tax relief. We hope you'll join us in trying to make sense of this often-arcane but increasingly crucial topic - because you can't win the game if you don't even understand the scoreboard.
No Magic Beans
Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform no-tax-hikes pledge is not a religious oath; it's a promise to voters, and politicians can survive breaking promises to voters if they can show that they traded them for something of greater or equal value. But simply reciting smoke-and-mirrors dollar figures for nonbinding, back-loaded "cuts" in hypothetical future growth rates of government spending, in exchange for immediately effective increases in taxpayers' tax bills, is not what voters sent Republicans to Washington to do. If Republicans are to consider breaking the ATR pledge, they must get much more concrete policy benefits in return, changes in law that will permanently alter the spending picture - for example, changes in eligibility or benefits in entitlement programs, wholesale eliminations of categories of government spending such as entire agencies, or at a minimum, actual dollar reductions in 2013 domestic spending compared to 2012 domestic spending. (I say "domestic" because Obama is already counting as "spending cuts" the predictable wind-down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which unlike domestic spending programs were not designed to be permanent). Any ratio of "spending cuts" to tax hikes that simply slows projected future growth rates is a fraud on taxpayers and not worth the paper it's printed on.
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