Baseball Crank
"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
January 31, 2013
HISTORY: Reflections on the American Revolution, Part II of III: The Generals


How did America win its independence? In Part I of this essay, I looked at the population trends, foreign alliances, and equipment and weather conditions under which the American Revolution was fought. Let's add some thoughts on the leaders of the principal combatants: the American and British generals. The American command was far from perfect - but the war could have turned out very differently if the American side had not had the advantages of leadership it did, first and foremost the singular character of George Washington.

Washington, Washington: Any history of the Revolutionary War has to consider the unique leadership of George Washington. 43 years old when he assumed command, Washington came to the war with combat leadership experience from the French and Indian War, training as a surveyor that prepared him well to deal with maps and terrain, a decade of active fox hunting that had made him an excellent horseman, and experience in the Virginia House of Burgesses that had educated him in practical politics. Physically, Washington was a man of great strength, vigor and endurance and almost supernatural good luck. Washington's robust constitution survived smallpox, diphtheria, multiple bouts of malaria, pleurisy, dysentery (in 1755, the 23-year-old Washington had to ride to Braddock's defeat on a padded saddle due to painful hemorrhoids), quinsy (an abcess of the tonsils that laid him out in 1779) and possibly typhoid. In the rout of the Braddock expedition, Washington had two horses shot from under him and four bullet holes in his coat, yet neither then nor at any time during his military career was Washington wounded despite often being in the thick of battle and presenting an enormously conspicuous target (one of the tallest men in the Continental Army, in the most brilliant blue uniform, mounted on horseback).

But he had his weaknesses: he'd never had command of anything as large, diverse and complex at the Continental Army (whose very name bespoke its ambitions), and while Washington was smart, adaptable, detail-oriented and sometimes inspired, he was not a naturally brilliant military mind: his errors throughout the New York campaign would illustrate that he was no Napoleon, just as - in more fateful ways - Napoleon was no Washington.

I've noted before the success of Washington's frequent tactic of hit-and-run attacks followed by retreats and more retreats. Washington's overall long-term strategy ended up being one of simply enduring in the field, never putting his whole army at risk until he had the enemy trapped. But it's crucial to always bear in mind that this strategy ran contrary to everything in Washington's temperament. By nature, he was an aggressive, audacious military man who loved the offensive. Frequently throughout the war, Washington developed complex and daring offensive plans. Sometimes, as at Trenton in December 1776 and the following year's effort at a coup de main at Germantown in October 1777, he put those plans in action. The attack at Germantown was designed to catch Cornwallis' 9,000-man army by surprise with a numerically superior force and destroy it while it was divided from the rest of Howe's army quartered at Philadelphia. The plan, calling for four columns to fall on the British more or less simultaneously, was too complex and ambitious (the largest Continental Army column arrived late and the two militia columns had little effect) and ended in defeat. But like the 1968 Tet Offensive, it was a morale and propaganda winner for the Americans just to mount such an assault. It raised the Continental Army's morale, stunned the British command (which had thought Washington beaten and in retreat after the prior month's defeat at Brandywine that had cleared the way for the occupation of Philadelphia) and, together with the victory at Saratoga, it helped persuade the French that the American war effort was serious and had staying power. Washington's audacity on this occasion paid dividends even in defeat.

But at least as often, Washington allowed his war council (composed of his subordinates and, after the arrival of the French, Gen. Rochambeau, who made clear that he would defer to Washington's ultimate decisions) to talk him out of his own overly ambitious plans even after he had drawn them up at length: a hazardous amphibious assault on Boston during the 1775-76 siege (complete with, in one version of the plan, a vanguard of soldiers on ice skates attacking across the frozen harbor); a march on the British war purse at New Brunswick with an army exhausted after Trenton and Princeton in January 1777; an attack on New York in 1780 or 1781 when Rochambeau wanted to chase Cornwallis to Yorktown instead. His willingness to listen to the counsel of cooler heads is what separated the practical Washington from more tactically brilliant but ultimately undone-by-hubris generals from Napoleon to Robert E. Lee.

Relatedly, Washington learned from his mistakes. The desire for decisive battle and protection of politically important turf had led him to risk annihilation of the largest army he would have during the war at the Battle of Brooklyn; thereafter, he would not stage a do-or-die stand to protect any particular spot of land. Washington had signed off on the disastrous 1775 invasion of Quebec; he would resist all further entreaties to stage a second offensive.

If Washington's decisionmaking was sometimes imperfect, his temperament and leadership were flawless. Washington was neither deluded nor emotionless; time and again, his correspondence showed him verging on despondency at the condition of his army and the perils it faced, and we know he was capable of towering rages. But in the presence of his men (who were apt to get too high after heady victories and too low in defeat) and occasionally his adversaries, he never projected anything but steady confidence and endurance. Washington was not, perhaps, a nice man; even his close associates tended to regard him as the same distant marble statue we see him as today (Hamilton once bet a colleague at the Constitutional Convention a dinner if he'd go slap Washington on the back and act familiar with him; Washington pried his hand off and froze him with such a stare he told Hamilton afterwards he wouldn't try it again for anything). But Washington put tremendous, conscious effort into acting the part of a great man at all times in order to become one. Washington had his vices, chief among them his ownership of slaves, but his virtues were almost a textbook of the qualities needed of the leader of a long, dangerous struggle through major adversity: perseverance, discipline of himself and others, attention to detail, fairness, integrity, resourcefulness, physical courage, endurance of hardship, and an unblinking practicality. There's a great story about Washington breaking up a snowball fight that escalated into an enormous brawl between soldiers from Massachusetts and newly-arrived Virginia riflemen in Harvard Yard during the siege of Boston, possibly with racial overtones due to the presence of black soldiers in the Massachusetts regiment; a young observer recounted:

Reinforced by their friends, in less than five minutes more than a thousand combatants were on the field, struggling for the mastery.

At this juncture General Washington made his appearance, whether by accident or design I never knew. I only saw him and his colored servant...both mounted. With the spring of a deer, he leaped from his saddle, threw the reins of his bridle into the hands of his servant, and rushed into the thickest of the melee, with an iron grip seized two tall, brawny, athletic, savage-looking [Virginia] riflemen by the throat, keeping them at arm's length, alternately shaking and talking to them.

In this position the eye of the belligerents caught sight of the general. Its effect on them was instantaneous flight at the top of their speed in all directions from the scene of the conflict. Less than fifteen minutes time had elapsed from the commencement of the row before the general and his two criminals were the only occupants of the field of action.

You didn't mess with George Washington. But men would follow him anywhere.

Greene and Knox: The Continental Army's leaders were a mixed bag, and more than a few of those who served with distinction are largely forgotten today. If there are two names besides George Washington that every American schoolchild should learn from the Revolutionary War, it's Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox. Of all the Continental Army's generals, only Washington, Greene and Knox served the entire duration of the war. While men like Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold contributed more than their share of ego, drama, and backbiting, both Greene and Knox were unswervingly, uncomplicatedly loyal both to Washington and the cause he fought for. In the long run, that served them better than any thirst for glory. Greene was offered the post of Secretary of War under the Articles of Confederation; when he declined, Knox took the job and continued to hold it under Washington's presidency.

As soldiers, Greene and Knox were emblematic of one of the major characteristics of early America: they were self-educated, learning most of what they knew of military matters from books. Formal education was spotty in the colonies; even Washington, as a wealthy Virginia planter, never went to college and was mainly what we would call today "home schooled." Yet early Americans didn't let a lack of schooling bar them from the quest for knowledge. Ben Franklin had nearly no formal education at all, but by the closing decades of his public life was arguably the world's most respected intellectual. Knox was educated at Boston Latin, but unschooled in war; his military experience was five years in an artillery company of the Massachusetts militia. Greene had neither schooling nor military experience, but read whatever he could get his hands on. At the outset of the war, they were young small businessmen: Knox a 25 year old bookseller from Boston, Greene a 32-year-old Quaker from Rhode Island who ran the family forge. Both prepared for combat by reading books on military strategy and tactics; had there been a "War for Dummies" in 1775, they would have read it without embarrassment. (Washington, too, ordered a number of military volumes when heading off to Philadelphia in 1775; as Victor Davis Hanson has noted, one of the distinctive features of Western civilization is a long written tradition of military science, allowing the widespread dissemination of the latest ideas about warmaking). Yet, self-educated though they were, they knew what they were missing: Knox spent years agitating for the establishment of an American military academy to teach the art of war, which would eventually be founded at West Point under the Jefferson Administration.

Knox pulled off perhaps the most remarkable and dramatic feat of the war in the winter of 1775-76, when a team led by he and his brother made the long, snow-covered trek from Boston to Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York, loaded up all its heavy artillery, returned with every single artillery piece intact, and then in one night in March set up the guns on Dorchester Heights, the peninsula overlooking Boston from the south. The British were staggered, and forced to evacuate. The full tale, as told by David McCullough in 1776, is as amazing as anything in American history, and I can't hope to do it justice here. Knox would go on to prove himself time and again as the chief artillery expert in the Continental army from Boston to Trenton (where his guns commanded the center of the town) all the way through Yorktown (where the shelling of Cornwallis' encampment brought him to his knees), and would be present for all of Washington's major engagements. Knox' amateurism led him astray on occasion; a few of the guns under his command exploded on their handlers in Boston and again later in New York, and he is generally credited with the misguided decision to send waves of troops against a barricaded position at Germantown on the basis of an inflexible application of the maxim (which he'd probably picked up from a book) about not leaving a fortified position to your rear. But his overall record was one of practicality, resourcefulness and unwavering dedication to the cause.

As for Greene, he too can be found at all Washington's major battles of the first half of the war, as Washington's operational right-hand man; the Quartermaster General of the Army after Valley Forge; the commander (with Lafayette) of the first joint operation with the French, a failed effort to break the occupation of Newport, Rhode Island; and finally Washington's choice to assume command of the southern theater of the war after the serial failures of Robert Howe at Savannnah, Benjamin Lincoln at Charleston and Horatio Gates at Camden. The fiasco at Camden ended the military career of Gates, the victor of Saratoga, and left the Continental Army in the South in shambles, but it would prove Greene's finest hour. Greene had little time to rebuild the shattered army; he rarely commanded more than a few thousand men, and often had to rely on the aid of the local militia. And yet, with a major assist from those militia, he staged a brilliant series of retreats and maneuvers to keep Cornwallis from taking control over the region or from capturing and crushing his army. It was Greene who said of this campaign, "We fight, get beaten, rise, and fight again." After the costly March 1781 Battle of Guilford Court House, Cornwallis came to the decision that he needed to stop chasing Greene around the Carolinas and head north to Virginia, setting in motion the fateful chain of events that led to Yorktown.

Unfortunately, and characteristically of life in the 18th century, many of the leading figures of the Continental Army and Revolutionary militia did not live that long after the war's end, including Greene, who died of sunstroke at age 43. Charles Lee died in 1782, Lord Stirling in 1783, Greene in 1786, Ethan Allen in 1789, Israel Putnam in 1790, John Paul Jones in 1792, John Sullivan and Francis Marion in 1795, Anthony Wayne in 1796, and Washington himself in 1799. While numerous places in the United States today bear their names (here in New York, Greene as well as Putnam, Sullivan and militia leader Nicholas Herkimer are the namesakes of counties), their popular memories today are less vivid than Revolutionary War figures like Alexander Hamilton who had more prominent political roles. But nobody aside from Washington himself contributed more to victory than Greene and Knox.

The European Adventurers: The American cause was, of course, aided as well by a handful of Continental European volunteers - Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Casimir Pulaski, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Baron de Kalb (this is aside from some of the American leaders like John Paul Jones and Charles Lee who were native to the British Isles). Two of those, Pulaski and de Kalb, were killed in battle in the early unsuccessful battles of southern campaign, Pulaski at Savannah and de Kalb at Camden. Both Lafayette and Kosciuszko would return to try - with mixed success - to lead their own homelands to a republican future; Jones would serve in Catherine the Great's navy after the war, terrorizing the Turkish navy and becoming an honorary Cossack in the process. Only von Steuben would enjoy a quiet life in his adopted country.

Lafayette's exploits, especially during the Yorktown campaign, were significant and memorable, and in a general sense he contributed to the cementing of the alliance with France. And Pulaski played a key role in organizing the American cavalry. But von Steuben was likely the most important to the Continental Army's victory.

In contrast to the self-educated citizen soldiers running the American army, von Steuben came from the opposite end of the 18th century military spectrum: born a sort of aristocrat and a Prussian army brat, he had served as a staff officer on the professional Prussian general staff, the first of its kind in the world, and been instructed by Frederick the Great himself. Unlike some of the other Europeans - but like Jones, who fled to America because he was wanted for the murder of a sailor he had flogged to death - von Steuben was no starry-eyed idealist. He was an unemployed professional soldier, deeply in debt, who came to the American cause only after running out of prospective employers in Germany, and was trailed by an unverified rumor that he was fleeing prosecution for being "accused of having taken familiarities with young boys." He was passed off to Congress, perhaps knowingly and possibly with the complicity of Ben Franklin (who recognized his value), as one of Frederick the Great's generals rather than a captain on the general staff, and even his aristocratic title had been inflated and possibly invented. He spoke little or no English and often asked his translator to curse at the soldiers on his behalf.

But whatever his background, von Steuben's discipline and professional rigor was crucial. He established badly-needed standards for sanitary conditions in the army, introduced training in use of the bayonet, and taught the men the sort of manuevers that were essential to 18th century warfare. He is, on the whole, credited with the improved drill and discipline that emerged from Valley Forge and was displayed in the 1778 Battle of Monmouth. Monmouth, in combination with the French entry into the war, induced the British to mostly abandon the strategy of trying to hunt down Washington's army and focus instead on offensive operations in the South. Von Steuben's field manual was still the U.S. Army standard until the War of 1812. If Greene and Knox are emblems of traditional American virtues, the Continental Army's debt to von Steueben and the other Europeans is emblematic of America's adaptability and openness to the contributions of new arrivals.

The British Command: While there were many important figures on both sides of the war - I've only scratched the surface here on the American side - essentially all the important decisions on the British side were made by six generals: Gage, Howe, Clinton, Cornwallis, Burgoyne, and (in Quebec in 1775-76) Guy Carleton (Carleton also briefly commanded the British evacuation of New York in 1783 at the war's end). Where they went wrong provides an instructive contrast with Washington's command.

All six were professional military men, veterans of the Seven Years'/French and Indian War: Clinton, Cornwallis and Burgoyne had fought only in Europe, while Howe and Carleton had fought in the Quebec campaign that culminated in Wolfe's capture of the fortified city, and Gage had been a part of the Braddock expedition and thus seen Washington up close in action. And by and large, with the arguable exception of Gage, they fought with tactical skill and professionalism against the Americans. Yet they have gone down in history as architects of a great failure, weak in comparison to predecessors like Wolfe and dwarfed by the likes of Wellington who succeeded them. Aside from Carleton, only Cornwallis really survived the war with his domestic reputation and career intact, going on to years of highly influential service as a colonial administrator in Ireland and India that shaped the Empire in important ways. Howe was the only other one of the six besides Cornwallis to command troops in combat again, for a time during the early Napoleonic Wars.

The British failure was partly a matter of the personalities involved, but also one of basic strategic incoherence. They never really had a fully thought-out strategy. Only Clinton and Cornwallis really seemed to understand the paramount importance of putting Washington's army out of business early in the war, and their aggressive plans of flanking attacks and hot pursuits were frequently overriden by Gage and Howe, who were less apt than Washington to heed the good advice of their subordinates. Washington learned from his mistakes; Howe, in particular, did not, on multiple occasions settling down to stationary positions when he should have been finishing off Washington.

The British could have adopted a scorched-earth approach like Sherman in the Civil War; General James Grant urged the burning of major cities in the North, and in the southern campaign Banastre Tarleton's forces (including Loyalist partisans) did what they could to spread terror in the countryside, including some notorious examples of bayoneting wounded or surrendering Americans. Cornwallis near the end of the war in Virginia would set thousands of slaves free as a foreshadowing of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, albeit solely for tactical purposes. But, as regular forces facing guerrilla insurgencies often do, they took a halfway path that was the worst of both worlds: heavy-handedness and occasional atrocities were crucial to raising the militia against Burgoyne in New York and Cornwallis and Tarleton in the Carolinas, yet they failed to pursue a sufficiently merciless approach to annihilate the Continental Army or destroy its economic base of support.

Like the Americans, the British were riven by petty jealousies and contending egos; unlike the Americans, they never had a Washington to keep those divisions from impeding operations, and unlike the Americans, their civilian government was too far away to provide supervision. Burgoyne's appointment to lead the Saratoga expedition alienated both Carleton, who resigned in protest, and Clinton. In the case of Clinton, while he was usually right about tactics (notably his preference for outflanking the militia from the rear at Bunker Hill and for encircling Washington in New York), his flaw (which probably contributed to his advice being ignored) was his inability to work well with others. Though not entirely through faults of his own, it was Clinton's failure to arrive with timely reinforcements that led to the surrenders of Burgoyne at Saratoga and Cornwallis at Yorktown.

The human element of good generalship can be fortuitous, but it is also a product of the civilian and military cultures that produce armies. In the long run, the Americans had a clearer strategy, greater unity of purpose and command and more adaptable leadership, and that made the difference.

In Part III: the role of the militia.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 4:00 PM | History | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
January 29, 2013
HISTORY: Reflections on the American Revolution (Part I of III)

I've recently been reading a fair amount on the American Revolution, especially David McCullough's 1776 (which should be required reading for every American).* The more you read of the Revolutionary War, the more there is to learn, especially about the vital question of how the colonists pulled off their victory over the vastly wealthier and more powerful Great Britain. The standard narrative of the American Revolution taught in schools and retained in our popular imagination today overlooks a lot of lessons worth remembering about where our country came from.

The Population Bomb: In assessing the combatants and indeed the causes of the war, it's useful - as always - to start with demographics. There was no colonial-wide census, but this 1975 historical study by the US Census Bureau, drawing on the censuses of individual colonies and other sources, breaks out the growth of the colonial population from 1630 to 1780, and the picture it paints is one of explosive population growth in the period from 1740 to 1780:


The black population was principally slaves and thus - while economically and historically important - less relevant to the political and military strength of the colonies. But as you can see above, the main driver of population growth was the free white population rather than the slave trade.

Authoritative sources for the British population during this period are harder to come by (the first British census was more than a decade after the first U.S. Census in 1790); most sources seem to estimate the population of England proper between 6 and 6.5 million in 1776 compared to 2.5 million for the colonies. Going off this website's rough estimated figures for the combined population of England and Wales (Scotland had in the neighborhood of another 1.5 million people by 1776), the colonies went from 5% of the British population in 1700 to 20% in 1750, 26% in 1760, 33% in 1770, and 40% in 1780:


It was perhaps inevitable that this shift in the balance of population between the colonies and the mother country would produce friction, and of course such a fast-growing population means lots of young men ready to bear arms. Men like Franklin and Washington were already, by 1755, envisioning the colonies stretching across the continent for the further glory of the then-nascent British Empire; 20 years later, both were buying Western land hand over fist and picturing that continental vision as a thing unto itself.

The distribution of population among the individual colonies was somewhat different from today. Virginia (encompassing present-day West Virginia) was by far the largest colony and, along with the Carolinas, the fastest-growing, while Massachusetts, Maryland and Connecticut were much larger - and New York much smaller - relative to the rest of the colonies than today:


This is one reason why Maryland gained a reputation as the "Old Line State": it had the manpower to supply a lot of the Continental Army's best troops. Connecticut was, in fact, seen as a crucial economic engine of the war, the most industrialized of the colonies at the time and mostly undisturbed by combat. That said, when you look solely at the white population, the southern states loom less large, and the crucial role of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts comes into focus:


The smaller colonies present a similar picture:

Note that Rhode Island, alone, lost population during the war, due to the 1778-1780 British occupation of Newport. That occupation had lasting effects. According to a 1774 census, Newport's population before the war was more than twice that of Providence (more than 9,000 to less than 4,000) and it was a booming seaport; the city's population dropped by more than half to 4,000, and it never really recovered its status as a port, losing business permanently to New York and Boston. Another lasting side effect: Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams as a haven of religious tolerance and welcoming even to Jews and Quakers, forbade Catholics from living in the colony, but after the British abandoned Newport in 1780 and the French garrison took up residence, the grateful Rhode Islanders permitted the French troops to celebrate the first Mass in Rhode Island; today, it is the most heavily Catholic state in the union.

Britain's population would surge in the 1790s, and by about 1800 there were a million people in London alone, the first city in world history confirmed to exceed that threshold. But that remained in the future; at the time, France's population of 25 million and Spain's of some 10 million would easily exceed that of George III's domain. Moreover, like its colonies, England had a longstanding aversion to standing armies; while the Napoleonic Wars would ultimately compel the British Army (including foreign and colonial troops) to swell to a quarter of a million men by 1813, a 1925 analysis found that "[a]t the outbreak of the Revolution, the total land forces of Great Britain exclusive of militia numbered on paper 48,647 men, of which 39,294 were infantry; 6,869 cavalry; and 2,484 artillery," with 8,580 men in America. And those forces were always stretched; according to this analysis of Colonial & War Office figures, the British never had much more than 15,202 redcoats in the American theater (including the Floridas, where they fought Spain), and never exceeded 30,000 troops in total, counting "Hessians" (companies of professional soldiers hired from the Hesse-Hanau, Hesse-Kassel, Brunswick and other German principalities) and American Loyalists (a/k/a "Tories"):

The Close Call: More modern American wars like the Civil War and World War II eventually developed a momentum that made victory effectively inevitable, as America's crushing material advantages came to bear on the enemy. By contrast, the Revolutionary War was, from beginning to end, a near-run thing (to borrow Wellington's famous description of Waterloo). At every stage and in every campaign of the war, you can find both British and American victories, as well as a good many battles that were fought to a draw or were Pyrrhic victories for one side. The length of the 7-year war in North America was a burden for the increasingly war-weary British, for a variety of reasons, but a long war was also a great risk for the Americans: the longer the war ran on, the harder it was in terms of both finances and morale to keep the all-volunteer Continental Army in the field. Whole units dissolved en masse at the end of their enlistments throughout the war, and there were mutinies in the spring of 1780 and again in January 1781. As late as 1780, Benedict Arnold's treason and debacles at Charleston and Camden, South Carolina put the American cause in jeopardy of being rolled up by the British, causing America's European allies to strike a separate peace. At one point or another in the war, the then-principal cities of most of the colonies - Massachusetts (Boston), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), New York (New York), Virginia (Richmond and Charlottesville), Rhode Island (Newport), South Carolina (Charleston), Georgia (Savannah), Delaware (Wilmington) and New Jersey (Trenton, Princeton, Perth Amboy, New Brunswick) were captured and occupied by the British. Only Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina and New Hampshire remained unconquered, as well as the independent Vermont Republic (Maine, then governed by Massachusetts, was also under British control for much of the war; the failed Penobscot Expedition was aimed at its recapture, and ended with a disastrous naval defeat). In the spring of 1781, Thomas Jefferson - then the Governor of Virginia - escaped capture by Cornwallis' men by a matter of minutes, fleeing on horseback as the government of the largest colony was dispersed. It was only the complex series of events leading to Yorktown in the fall of 1781 - Cornwallis retreating to Virginia after being unable to put away Nathanael Greene's Continentals and the North Carolina militia, Washington escaping New Jersey before the British noticed where he was going, Admiral de Grasse bottling up Cornwallis' escape route in the Chesapeake by sea, Henry Clinton failing to come to Cornwallis' aid in time - that created the conditions for a decisive victory and finally forced the British to throw in the towel.

Moreover, a great many individual battles and campaigns throughout the war turned on fortuitous events ranging from fateful decisions to apparently providential weather. It is no wonder that many of the Founding generation (like many observers since) attributed their victory to the hand of God.

Weather and Suffering: Both the Continental Army and its British and Hessian adversaries endured conditions that no armies before or since would put up with, including a staggering menu of extreme weather ranging from blizzards to colossal thunderstorms to blazing summer heat. Ancient and medieval armies would not campaign in freezing cold and snow; modern armies (like the combatants at Leningrad and the Marines in the retreat from Chosin Resovoir) would at least face them with something closer to proper clothing and shelter. But both sides in the war suffered chronic shortages: the British from lack of food for their men and forage for their animals, the Americans from lack of clothing (especially shoes), shelter and ammunition. The British lost more sailors to scurvy in the war than soldiers to combat, and during the long siege of Boston they had recurring problems with their sentries freezing to death at night. Smallpox, malaria and other diseases were endemic and especially hard on European troops with no prior exposure (one of Washington's great strokes of good judgment was having his army inoculated against smallpox, a disease he himself had survived and which left him pock-marked and probably sterile**). The British were rarely able to make use of their cavalry due to a lack of forage, and their infantry had other equipment problems:

[T]he flints used by the British soldier during the war were notoriously poor. Colonel Lindsay of the 46th lamented that the valor of his men was so often "rendered vain by the badness of the pebble stone." He exclaimed indignantly against the authorities for failing to supply every musket with the black flint which every country gentleman in England carried in his fowling piece. In this respect the rebels were acknowledged to be far better off than the king's troops. A good American flint could be used to fire sixty rounds without resharpening, which was just ten times the amount of service that could be expected from those used by the British forces. Among the rank and file of the redcoats, the saying ran that a "Yankee flint was as good as a glass of grog."

The war was conducted during the Little Ice Age, a period of low global temperatures (it's a myth that "climate change" is a new phenomenon or must be caused by human activity), and the winters of the period (especially 1779-80) were especially brutal. American soldiers and militia forded waist-deep icy rivers to reach the Battle of Millstone, marched miles without boots in snowstorms on Christmas Night after crossing the icy Delaware to reach the Battle of Trenton, and even tried (insanely) to lay siege to the fortified Quebec City in a driving snow on New Year's Eve. These were only a few of the examples of Americans marching great distances in weather conditions that would defeat the hardiest souls. The British performed their own acts of endurance and valor; drive over the George Washington Bridge some time and look at the cliffs of the Palisades, and picture Cornwallis' men scaling them at night to attack Fort Lee. Other battles were fought in heavy wool uniforms in the broiling heat, from Bunker Hill to much of the southern campaign, or in rains that left gunpowder useless, or - on the eve of the Battle of Brooklyn - colossal lightning strikes that killed groups of American soldiers in Manhattan. In the 1776 siege of Sullivan's Island, the British were shocked to discover that their cannonballs wouldn't splinter the soft palmetto wood from which the American fort was constructed, leaving the British ships to take a pounding from American artillery.

Except for Quebec, the weather - however hostile - nearly always managed to favor the American cause, rescuing the Americans when the hand of fate was needed most. McCullough recounts the especially significant shifts in the wind and fog that allowed Washington's army to escape in the night, undetected, across the East River after the catastrophic Battle of Brooklyn, while the blizzard at the Americans' backs was key to their surprise at Trenton.

The Allies: Most educated Americans still recall that France came to the aid of the fledgling nation after the victory at Saratoga, and played a significant role in tipping the scales in the war. In World War I, Pershing's refrain of "Lafayette, we are here" was still a popular invocation of that collective memory. Besides French money and supplies and French land and naval combat at Yorktown, the French also stretched the British defenses with extensive campaigns in the Caribbean and with a threatened invasion of England. But as important as the French alliance was, the emphasis on France understates the role that other of America's allies and Britian's enemies played in the Revolution.

First and foremost, at least as history is taught here in the Northeastern U.S., the Spanish role in the Revolutionary War is scandalously underplayed. There are reasons for this: Spain was a less impressive international power in the late 18th Century than France and would become drastically less so by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and unlike the French, the Spanish rarely fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans or within the Thirteen Colonies. But Spain performed three vital roles in the war. First, under Bernardo de Galvez (namesake of Galveston, Texas, among other places), the Spanish Governor of the Louisiana Territory, the Spanish shipped significant war materiel up the Mississippi River through the American agent Oliver Pollock, supplementing the French aid that kept the American cause afloat. Second, after Spain's 1779 declaration of war against Britain, Galvez opened a significant second front against the British-held Floridas (which then included, in the territory of West Florida, much of what is now the Gulf Coast of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi). Galvez was arguably the most successful commander of the war in North America, his multi-national, multi-racial force sweeping through the British defenses, preempting any British move on New Orleans and culminating the capture of Pensacola (then the capital of East Florida) in the spring of 1781. This campaign resulted in the Floridas being transferred from Britain to Spain in the resulting peace treaty; the absence of a British foothold on the southern border of the U.S. would have lasting consequences, and the Floridas would end up being sold by Spain to the United States in 1819. And third, the Spanish played a pivotal role in the Yorktown campaign, not only raising more funds in Cuba for the campaign but also providing naval cover in the Caribbean that allowed Admiral de Grasse to sail north and close off the Chesapeake just in the nick of time. (Spain also conducted a long, costly siege of Gibraltar that ended unsuccessfully and a successful assault on Minorca, both of which spread British manpower thin between 1778 and 1783).

The other main fighting allies of the American colonists were two of the Iriquois Six Nations in upstate New York, the Oneida and Tuscarora (the other four fought with the British), as well as a few other tribes on the western frontier. But other sovereigns caused the British additional problems. The Kingdom of Mysore, a French ally in Southern India, went to war with Britain (the Second Anglo-Mysore War) in 1780, inflicting thousands of casualties with innovative rocket artillery at the September 1780 Battle of Pollilur. The Dutch, who frustrated John Adams' efforts to arrange financial assistance and an alliance until after Yorktown, nonetheless ended up dragged into the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War beginning in December 1780. (Some things never change: Adams was accused of unilateral "militia diplomacy" for ignoring diplomatic protocols and negotiating with the Dutch without consulting the French, but crowed after inking the deal in 1782 that "I have long since learned that a man may give offense and yet succeed."). The Russians, then moving towards an alliance with Great Britain against the French, nonetheless pointedly refused to get involved; Catherine the Great refused a 1775 request in writing from George III that she send 20,000 Cossacks to America (necessitating the hiring of Hessians instead) and eventually joined the League of Armed Neutrality with the Dutch and others to resist British naval embargoes (the step that brought the British and Dutch to blows). Catherine II thought the British were fools for provoking the conflict and predicted from the outset that the Americans would win. All in all, the international situation by the end of 1780 left the British increasingly isolated and drove the strategic imperative to seek out a decisive battle in Virginia - an imperative that led Cornwallis directly into a trap of his own devising but which the American, French and Spanish forces sprung with great skill and coordination.

In Part II: Washington and the other American and British generals. In Part III: the role of the militia.

Read More »

Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:40 PM | History • | War 2007-16 | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)
January 14, 2013
POLITICS: Harry Reid's Priorities: Immigration, Not Assault Weapons

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gives some revealing insight into how he sees the Senate's priorities this spring - priorities, in line with his support back home in Nevada, that are long on addressing immigration and not so high on banning "assault weapons":

Calling for a "cautious" approach to gun control, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid downplayed the chances of the Senate renewing an assault-weapons ban in a weekend TV interview, suggesting he will instead move forward on measures with a better chance to pass muster in the Republican-controlled House.

"Let's be realistic," Reid said. "In the Senate, we're going to do what we think can get through the House and I'm not going to go through a bunch of these gyrations just to say we've done something. If we're really legislators, the purpose of it is to pass legislation."

Asked by an interviewer on PBS' Nevada Week in Review if the much-discussed assault-weapons ban would meet such a test, Reid suggested it wouldn't.

"Is it something that can pass the Senate? Maybe. Is it something that can pass the House? I doubt it," Reid said...

But Reid is much more enthusiastic about getting bipartisan support for immigration bills:

"Immigration's our No. 1 item," Reid said. He later added, "It's going to be the first thing on our agenda."

Reid said a bipartisan group of senators, led by Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin and Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have been crafting a package.

"We may be able to come up with a bipartisan bill quicker than you think," he said, adding that the senators "have agreed tentatively on a path to citizenship, which is the big stumbling block."

"Yes, we're going to get something significant," Reid said, with a smile.

Your mileage may vary on which of these topics is more likely to produce mischief. But clearly, Reid in reading the tea leaves of the last election thinks Republicans are more apt to bend on immigration than guns. He may be right.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:33 PM | Politics 2013 | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
POLITICS: More Cigarette Taxes Equals More Cigarette Smuggling

A recent study from the Tax Foundation and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy looking at cigarette taxes and cigarette smuggling reminds us, yet again, of how big government always ends up legislating the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Tax That Smoker Behind The Tree

You have to tax something to fund government, and if you're taxing sales, cigarettes are as good a target as any: while legal, they're universally known to be unhealthy and sometimes regarded as immoral. On the other hand, they're also a predominantly American-made product that's disproportionately consumed by lower-income Americans, meaning that a cigarette tax is more regressive than most taxes. In theory, the tax is supposed to serve the public health purpose of discouraging smoking; it's refreshing to hear this argument from liberals who usually deny that taxes discourage behavior, but in practice, it takes a lot more taxing to discourage smoking than most other activities because people are physically addicted to the product. This is to say nothing of the concern that state governments themselves get more or less addicted to tobacco revenues.

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 cigarettes, guns, alcohol, drugs, gambling, abortion, prostitution, pornography, or illegal immigration. And what's true of outright bans can be true as well of activities that are heavily taxed or regulated: the more costs government imposes, the more you get black markets. And that's exactly where we stand today with cigarette taxes.

Smuggling and Black Market Cigarettes

Any review of tax-hiking Democratic governors in recent years - or indeed, even Republican governors looking to raise more tax revenue without calling it "tax hiking" - will reveal a lot of hikes to cigarette taxes. That's nowhere more true than here in New York City - with predictable results:

New York has the highest cigarette tax rate of any state, and nearly two-thirds of the state's cigarette market is illegal, announced the think tank Tax Foundation on Thursday.

The Tax Foundation said that 60.9% of cigarettes sold in New York State are smuggled in from other states.

This makes New York the biggest importer of black market cigarettes, along with the state's highest tax rate of $4.35 per pack. That's compared to Missouri, the state with the lowest rate, of 17 cents per pack.

In New York City the tax rate is even higher, adding another $1.50 per pack to the state rate. It's not uncommon for smokers to pay $12 for a pack.

...This bears out a report issued last month by the New York Association of Convenience Stores, estimating that "chronic cigarette-tax evasion" deprives the state of at least $1.7 billion in tax revenue and 6,700 jobs.

The issue is especially acute in New York due to a long-running state dispute over tax-free cigarettes manufactured and sold by the Oneida Indian Nation, one of the Native American tribes with significant sovereign land in the state (the Oneidas are one of the Iroquois Six Nations). The Michigan-based Mackinac Center has more on how the issue plays out in Michigan, which is not only a market for smuggled cigarettes but also an exporter of them to Canada.

As you can see from the study, the rates of smuggling correlate pretty strongly with tax rates, with smugglers having a strong incentive to export cigarettes from low-tax jurisdictions and sell them on the black market in high-tax jurisdictions. The study looks at tax rates and rates of smuggling in 2006 and 2011. Here's the rates of smuggling in 2006, plotted against the per-pack tax rate:


Here's the same graph for 2011:


And here's the change in rates of smuggling plotted against the change in per-pack taxes between 2006 and 2011:


One study is never the be-all or end-all of any policy debate, and as I said, some cigarette taxes are a sensible way of raising money at the expense of a socially undesirable activity. But at the end of the day, black markets are one of the ways in which high tax rates push us to the far right end of the Laffer Curve, and the Tax Foundation/Mackinac study suggests fairly strongly that a lot of jurisdictions have passed that point with these taxes.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 4:00 PM | Politics 2013 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
January 9, 2013
BASEBALL: The Hall of Fail

This afternoon, we will see how the baseball writers voted, and it looks like it will be a very close call for the Hall of Fame to elect anyone (at last check, based on the publicly disclosed votes, it looks like Craig Biggio may be the only candidate in striking distance, with Jack Morris and Tim Raines trailing).

I don't have a ton to add right now to what I wrote last year about many of these same candidates and the same issues - like steroids - that dominate the debate (follow the links in that post for more detailed arguments). But a few points.

1. The limitation of the ballot to ten names isn't normally a problem, but this year, there's such a backlog of qualified candidates that it presents a real dilemma. I don't have a ballot, of course, but I divide my list of who I'd vote for as follows:

SHOULD GO IN WITHOUT DEBATE: (8) Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Tim Raines, Fred McGriff, Rafael Palmeiro.

To put Biggio in the simplest terms: 4,505 times on base (18th all time), plus 414 steals, while playing 1989 games at second base, 428 as a catcher, and 255 as a center fielder. That is a career. From 1992-99, adjusted for the fact that he lost 41% of a season over 1994-95 to the strike, Biggio's average season was 160 games, 732 plate appearances, .299/.394/.460, 120 Runs, 73 RBI, 41 2B, 17 HR, 36 SB and only 11 CS, 101 times on base by walk or hit by pitch, and only 7 GIDP. And all of that while playing second base in the Astrodome and winning four Gold Gloves in eight years.

DEBATABLE BUT I'D VOTE THEM IN: (3) Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling.

I GO BACK AND FORTH: (2) Edgar Martinez, Bernie Williams. As noted last year, I do struggle with the fact that Edgar and McGwire have more similar cases than they seem at first glance.

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR: (3) Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, Kenny Lofton.

BAD BUT NOT RIDICULOUS CHOICES: (3) Jack Morris, Lee Smith, Dale Murphy. As I've noted before, Murphy was good enough, but not for long enough; Morris, too, might deserve induction if his 1980 and 1988-90 seasons were of the same quality (plus quantity) as his 1981-87 seasons.

WORTH A LOOK BUT NOT A VOTE: (4) Don Mattingly, David Wells, Julio Franco, Steve Finley. Mattingly, of course, would have been an easy Hall of Famer if his back had held up.

JUST ENJOY BEING ON THE BALLOT: The other 14 guys, any of whom should be flattered to get a vote and honored by having had distinguished enough careers to be on the ballot. I mean that: if I was, say, Todd Walker, I'd want to frame my name on the Hall of Fame ballot. Only a tiny handful of the kids who start out dreaming on the sandlots get that far.

2. The postseason is an ever larger factor in modern baseball, and certainly a big part of what puts Bernie Williams and Jack Morris in the conversation, and Curt Schilling over the top. That's as it should be.

There's actually an awful lot of hitters on the ballot this year who struggled in October (not even counting Barry Bonds, who struggled the rest of his Octobers but made it up with a 2002 rampage). And of course, postseason numbers can be unfair to a guy like Raines who got a disproportionate amount of his October at bats in his declining years. We should not overlook, however, the value of Fred McGriff's postseason contributions. Of the 16 somewhat serious position player candidates, five had somewhat limited postseason experience (less than 100 plate appearances); Trammell hit .333/.404/.588 in 58 plate appearances, Sosa .245/.403/.415 in 67 PA, and Palmeiro .244/.308/.451 in 91 PA. Mattingly and Murphy got one series apiece, Mattingly hitting .417/.440/.708, Murphy .273/.273/.273.

Here's how the rest stack up:

Barry Bonds482080.2450.4330.5030.936
Fred McGriff502180.3030.3850.5320.917
Edgar Martinez341480.2660.3650.5080.873
Larry Walker281210.2300.3500.5100.860
Bernie Williams1215250.2750.3710.4800.851
Mike Piazza321330.2420.3010.4580.759
Tim Raines341420.2700.3400.3490.689
Jeff Bagwell331290.2260.3640.3210.685
Mark McGwire421510.2170.3200.3490.669
Kenny Lofton954380.2470.3150.3520.667
Craig Biggio401850.2340.2950.3230.618

Looking at the postseason numbers also suggests that the case for McGwire over Edgar is even narrower; yes, McGwire played for a World Champion and three pennant winners whereas Edgar's often-insanely-talented teams never reached the Series, but like Edgar's teams, Big Red's lost some big serieses to obviously less talented opponents, and McGwire's overall postseason performance was terrible.

Anyway, looking at McGriff, in over 200 plate appearances in the postseason he has the best batting and slugging averages of this illustrious group, and the second-best OBP to Bonds (and Bonds drew 5 times as many intentional walks in October - leave those out and McGriff beats Bonds .374 to .369). Projected to a 162 game schedule, his postseason line produces 36 2B, 32 HR, 87 BB, 117 R, and 120 RBI. McGriff slugged .600 in a postseason series six times in ten series (including all three series en route to the 1995 World Championship), an OPS over 1,000 five times. If you're giving points for producing with seasons on the line, the Crime Dog should get more than any of these guys. (Bernie Williams slugged over .600 in 8 series, but he appeared in 25 of them; he also slugged below .320 ten times.).

3. On the steroid issue...well, you have to ask whose Hall of Fame is this? It's a question Bill James asked 30 years ago about the All-Star Game, and people tend to skip over it as if everybody has the same answer.

We know Major League Baseball is operated for the purpose of making money for the owners, but that (as James also pointed out in the early 80s) it exists to satisfy popular enthusiasm for baseball, and the maintenance and cultivation of that fan interest is something the owners, in their self-interest, have to attempt to respect.

If you've read James' indispensable book The Politics of Glory, you know that the question - whose Hall is it? - has long been a complicated and fraught one between MLB, the players, the BBWAA, the owners of the Hall, the Town of Cooperstown, and the fans who visit the museum.

Honoring the players is certainly an important and honorable purpose; for most of these guys, getting the call and being inducted into the fraternity of the Hall is the highlight of their entire lives, and that's not a small thing. And to the extent that we view the Hall primarily as a personal honor, it makes some sense to cast a jaundiced eye at least on those players we know for a fact to have cheated to win, whether by breaking the game's rules or breaking the law (some of the performance enhancing drugs at issue were legal under one of the two regimes but not the other at various times).

But at the end of the day, to me, the Hall is bigger than the players for the same reasons as why the games are played in full stadiums in front of TV cameras, for the same reasons as why scores of visitors make the pilgrimage to sleepy Cooperstown each summer. The Hall belongs to the fans, too. There is one red line, in my view: Shoeless Joe Jackson and his co-conspirators belong outside the Hall because they participated in a conspiracy to lose games. But everything else is about guys who were doing their best to win. The fans paid the owners to watch those wins, the writers wrote about them; they belong to history now, and to memory. We can't re-live the 1990s to change the memories we have. It's the job of the game to enforce the rules while the games are being played; having failed that (failed badly enough that clouds of unproven suspicion linger over many players without the evidence to resolve them), we are cutting off our noses to spite our faces by keeping a generation of the game's best players out of the Hall, in a way that ultimately degrades the whole point of the place: to be a commemoration of the best in the game's history. The game survived segregation and wars and gambling and cocaine and spitballs and assaults on umpires; we can keep those memories alive too and try to remedy them going forward, but we still enshrined the players who won baseball games through all of them. Because it's not just their Hall, it's ours.

It's not the Hall of Fame if it doesn't have guys like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mike Piazza (and, for that matter, Pete Rose). Their flags still fly over their stadiums, their records are still in the books, and their plaques should be in the Hall.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:38 PM | Baseball 2012-16 | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)
January 2, 2013
POLITICS: Silver Linings in the Fiscal Cliff Deal


I will not try to convince any conservative that the final fiscal cliff deal that passed the Senate with only a few dissenting votes and needed Democratic votes to pass the House with a divided GOP caucus is a good deal, nor that it is the best deal available under the circumstances. It is, however, important to remember that this was a deal negotiated under just about the worst possible conditions: the president freshly re-elected, the largest tax hike in American history set to trigger automatically in the absence of a deal, the GOP leadership divided among itself and estranged from its grassroots/activist base, which itself was divided on how best to proceed. Republicans have illustrated dramatically why poker is not a team sport.

For all of that, there is some good news here for Republicans and conservatives if we know how to use it.

What's In The Deal?

If you spent the holidays like a normal person and are just catching up, you can find useful explainers on the contents of the deal here, here, here, and here. The short summary:


The tax deals mostly bring a permanent settlement (subject, of course, to new legislative action) to a variety of previously temporary tax policies:

-The 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts to income, capital gains and dividend taxes will be made permanent for income up to $400,000 ($450,000 for married joint filers), but will be allowed to expire for income above those levels. Taxes will go up on many small business owners as a result.

-A similar half-a-loaf extension is being done for the estate tax, with the rate rising on estates above $5 million.

-The Alternative Minimum Tax will be indexed permanently to inflation, reducing the number of taxpayers hit with it and ending the annual debate over fixing it.

-The temporary payroll tax cut will be allowed to expire.

-5-year extensions are given to the Child Tax Credit and EITC as well as the college tax credit known as the American Opportunity Tax Credit, all of which can involve tax "credits" that are actually payments to people who pay no income taxes.

-Some exemptions and deductions will be phased out for incomes above $250,000 ($300,000 for joint filers).

-A variety of mischief was included or extended in the corporate tax code.

The good news is that the Bush Tax Cuts are now permanent for some 98% of all taxpayers; the bad news is the 1-2 punch of the expiration of the payroll tax cut and of the top-rate cuts. Even the left-wing Tax Policy Center admits that the net result of all this is higher taxes in 2013 for 77.1% of taxpayers, due in large part to the expiration of the payroll tax cut:

More than 80 percent of households with incomes between $50,000 and $200,000 would pay higher taxes. Among the households facing higher taxes, the average increase would be $1,635, the policy center said....The top 1 percent of taxpayers, or those with incomes over $506,210, would pay an average of $73,633 more in taxes....The top 0.1 percent of taxpayers, those with incomes over about $2.7 million, would pay an average of $443,910 more, reducing their after-tax incomes by 8.4 percent. They would pay 26 percent of the additional taxes imposed by the legislation.

Among households with incomes between $500,000 and $1 million, taxes would go up by an average of $14,812.

That's increased new federal taxes; it doesn't take into account the numerous new Obamacare-related federal tax hikes already hitting in 2013 (including big hikes on the same people getting socked in this deal) let alone Democratic efforts to 'soak the rich' with state tax hikes in some states. And the tax changes are most of the deal. Matthew Boyle:

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the last-minute fiscal cliff deal reached by congressional leaders and President Barack Obama cuts only $15 billion in spending while increasing tax revenues by $620 billion - a 41:1 ratio of tax increases to spending cuts.

That's $62 billion a year, when you decode the CBO/JCT math, as unreliable as that is. RB has a chart illustrating exactly how little a dent that makes in the deficit.


On the spending side, little was definitively resolved, although conservatives are rightly concerned that yet another crisis came and went with no real action on spending and entitlements. New spending was authorized for unemployment insurance to be extended yet again, raising the question of whether Democrats think there is any limit to such insurance or any reason to believe the economy under Obama will ever produce a significant number of new jobs. Most of the rest of the automatic cuts in the sequester were put off for two months; the Medicare "doc fix" put off cuts for one year. Nothing was done to Social Security. No agreement was reached to extend the debt ceiling, which looms as the next crisis as early as February and Obama still pledging to refuse to negotiate.

Around The Web

Let's round up some reactions from around the web and then I'll offer my own thoughts.

From the Right

Ben Domenech (subscription):

Well, this looks like an insult to fig leaves everywhere....For all the talk of solving deficit problems, grand entitlement bargains, and steps toward dealing with out of control spending, Republicans and Democrats came together in the past 48 hours to endorse a solution which was about as small as it could possibly be. On the spending side, it trades the endorsement of higher taxes for every working American by Republicans for essentially nothing, with the promise of more nothing in the future.

Ben Howe: "I'm hoping that these last few years of constantly debating temporary tax rates will forever close the door on the use of such a negotiating tactic."

Ramesh Ponnuru:

Democrats have made one major miscalculation. The pro-deal Democrats think that they have set a precedent for getting Republicans to agree to future tax increases -- that Grover Norquist's pledge is dead. This is a fantasy. This tax increase happened only because a bigger one was scheduled to take place. Republicans are not going to vote affirmatively to raise taxes, especially after taxes just rose. The deal makes future tax increases less likely, not more.

Ross Douthat:

[L]iberals have a real reason to be discouraged by the White House's willingness - and, more importantly, many Senate Democrats' apparent eagerness - to compromise on tax increases for the near-rich...if I were them I'd be more worried about the longer term, and what it signals about their party's willingness and ability to raise tax rates for anyone who isn't super-rich....Is a Democratic Party that shies away from raising taxes on the $250,000-a-year earner (or the $399,999-a-year earner, for that matter) in 2013 - when those increases are happeningly automatically! - really going to find it easier to raise taxes on families making $110,000 in 2017 or 2021? Color me skeptical: The lesson of these negotiations seems to be that Democrats are still skittish about anything that ever-so-remotely resembles a middle class tax increase, let alone the much larger tax increases (which would eventually have to hit people making well below $100,000 as well) that their philosophy of government ultimately demands.

Jim Geraghty:

Maybe the expiration of the payroll tax cut really will amount to a significant economic hit in 2013 [quoting uniquitous liberal economist Mark Zandi]...Perhaps this - along with the rest of the fiscal cliff-hanger - will be a useful lesson about "temporary" tax changes. Congress usually enacts them to provide a spark to the economy, and intends to end them once the economy is in better shape. But the economy is rarely in such great health that taxes can be raised without some sort of deleterious impact; as we may experience, taxes jump back up before there's a robust recovery and the hikes cause the economy to sputter again. (In this light, the permanency of the Bush tax cuts for those making less than $450,000 per year may be one of the most significant economic reforms in the recent era.)

Either way, as no less an Obama-friendly entity than The New Yorker has declared, President Obama has now raised taxes on all working Americans.

Yuval Levin:

For liberals, this was not a moment of danger to be minimized but by far their best opportunity in a generation for increasing tax rates (which is the only fiscal reform they seem to want) and for robbing Republicans of future leverage for spending and entitlement reforms. And it is likely the best one they will encounter for another generation...some liberals believed [extending most of the rate cuts] could be overcome through much expanded caps on deductions...which would both raise more revenue and make Republican-style tax reform (a broader base with lower rates) much more difficult later. And they believed that the Republicans' opposition to tax increases would also give Democrats an opportunity to score some other points, like forcing Republicans to sign on to Obamacare-style counterproductive provider cuts in Medicare, so that Republicans couldn't criticize those anymore.

The White House at first tried to do all of that. They wanted about $1.6 trillion in revenue...They wanted [Medicare] provider cuts blunt Republican criticism of Obamacare and to make real (if incremental) structural reform far more difficult. And they wanted control of the debt ceiling, so Republicans would never have that leverage again...

But that hasn't happened here. This deal is projected to yield $620 billion in revenue over a decade - increasing projected federal revenue by about 1.7 percent over that time. And that's about it...They did not get to pick and throw away the low-hanging fruit that could be used in future rate-reducing tax reform (in fact, they retained some "extenders" of tax credits and deductions that could better enable such reform, and the new and more honest CBO baseline that results from this deal eases the way for it), they did not get to claim that they have reformed Medicare without touching its structure, and they now have to move immediately into a debt ceiling fight. Right after a tax-only deal, and just as people start to notice higher payroll taxes, they're not in a great position to demand more rate increases in that fight, or others to come.

From the Left

Greg Sargent:

By any measure, the fiscal deal that finally passed the House yesterday should have been something House Republicans could have enthusiastically supported. After all, as Jonathan Weisman put it, the bill 'locks in virtually all of the Bush-era tax cuts, exempts almost all estates from taxation, and enshrines the former president's credo that dividends and capital gains should be taxed equally and gently."

...The story is being widely reported today as proof the GOP finally broke from decades of anti-tax orthodoxy. And that's true, at least in the sense that Senate Republicans overwhelmingly supported the final deal. But the more important point is that a majority of House Republicans didn't break from it - despite the action of their Senate counterparts - signaling that literally any kind of compromise with them may simply be impossible.

Henry Blodget:

To listen to all the moaning out of the House of Representatives yesterday, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Republicans are losing the fiscal battle in Washington.

Actually, they're winning.

...Ever since the Bush Tax Cuts were first enacted in 2001--temporarily, as a stimulus measure--one goal of the Republican party has been to "make the Bush Tax Cuts permanent."

For most of the last decade, this goal has seemed like an extremist view: Making the Bush Tax Cuts permanent would drastically reduce the federal government's revenue. It would also increase inequality and balloon the national debt and deficit--so how could we possibly justify doing that?

And yet now, suddenly, almost all of the Bush Tax Cuts are permanent....when it comes to the broader fiscal battle, the Republicans are winning: The federal government's tax revenues are at the lowest level as a percent of GDP in the past several decades.

The Republicans, in other words, are well on their way to starving the beast.

Kevin Drum: " my real preference was for a deal that would have allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire completely...there's not much question we're going to need more revenue" to pay for health care entitlements.

The Path Forward

Conservatives these days tend to be gloomy about the road ahead, partly due to lack of faith in the GOP's leadership and establishment and partly due to lack of faith in the electorate. But this is no time to throw in the towel. There is good news here, too, as a number of those quoted above on both sides have noted, and we should not hesitate to celebrate it.

First, the nonsense idea of "temporary" tax policy has hopefully had a fatal stake driven through it: both parties had lauded their ability to deliver temporary tax relief in the past, and must now swallow voter anger that those tax cuts were allowed to expire. One of the golden rules of Washington is that bad policies rarely end until both parties have suffered a downside from them. The only reason for tax policy to be "temporary" in the first place is to game the broken system of budget scoring.

Second, the Democrats have truly conceded far more ground on taxes than the Republicans. The ATR no-tax-hikes pledge was bent and mutilated badly, but not completely broken, given that Republicans accepted the expiry of temporary cuts and did so only after exhausting numerous efforts to save them. But Democrats who spent a decade blaming deficits, the housing crisis, and weeds in your lawn on the Bush Tax Cuts have now delivered the votes to make nearly all of them permanent - something that was unthinkable any time during Bush's presidency and even as recently as 2010.

Third, the table is set for Republicans in 2014 and especially 2016 to seize anew the initiative on taxes: on broad-based reforms that simplify the code, make it more pro-family, and cut taxes for everyone (possibly even slashing or abolishing the payroll tax) - variations on a platform that worked in 1980 and 2000 and can work again. After four years of bobbing and weaving, Obama now has signed off on raising taxes on nearly everyone, and that is sure to play into the GOP's natural strengths.

Fourth, the table is also stacked against the Democrats demanding new tax hikes in the next spending battle. Maybe Boehner and McConnell won't bring much back home in spending cuts - I never really believed that Obama would ever sign off on significant spending cuts or entitlement reform, and I still don't - but there really is no case at all to be made for returning so soon to the well of tax hikes.

Fifth, the tone is set for Obama's second term, and while it is hardly a great tone for Republicans, it also signals that Obama will need to either keep his ambitions small, stop demanding Republicans vote for deal-beakers, or start offering them something real in exchange if he wants to get anything accomplished. It's unlikely that he will be negotiating from as strong a position again.

Sixth, it will now be much harder for Obama to avoid ownership of the economy, having embraced most of the centerpiece of Bush's economic agenda while adding his own personal stamp. He's socked new taxes on investors, on small business owners, and on ordinary working people. Nobody forced him to do any of these things. Politically, that's a double-edged sword (Republicans have a lot of governors up for re-election in 2013 and 2014 who could be innocent bystanders if their states get blindsided by bad federal tax policy), but it is rarely good news for the party in power in the sixth year of a president's term.

The temporary-tax-cut trap had stuck Beltway Republicans in an uncomfortable morass that was, to a large extent, one of their own devising. They did not emerge unscathed, but at least they have put it behind them, and that creates a lot more flexibility going forward - an important consideration in a party that is largely united on policy but deeply divided on strategy. That's an opportunity, and no amount of gloom should cause us to lose sight of that.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 3:30 PM | Politics 2012 • | Politics 2013 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)